'Bad fit' ruled out of fashion

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 11, 2011 - 11:19 PM

GM Chuck Fletcher said Todd Richards did not bring out the best in the players. Finding a worthy replacement is but one of the jobs that await him.

When Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher's eyes welled Monday, it was proof positive how excruciating a decision this was for him to make.

Fletcher and Todd Richards are friends. Some of their best professional memories are shared.

Monday's was the worst.

After only two seasons, Fletcher fired Richards, saying the first-time NHL head coach he hired in the first place turned out to not be the "right fit" for the team he's trying to build.

"I really do believe in sports that not every coach is the right fit for every team," Fletcher said a day after the Wild missed the playoffs for a third consecutive season and two hours after calling Richards into his office to deliver the news of his dismissal. "Teams have different personalities. There's different talent levels, and not every coach fits with every team, just like every player doesn't fit with every team.

"It comes down to a feel and what you feel you need to do going forward, and I felt that to get the most out of this group of players -- certainly the players that are coming back -- we needed a new voice and a new direction."

Fletcher wouldn't get into why he felt Richards, who was supposed to bring an up-tempo, entertaining style to the Wild after eight seasons of Jacques Lemaire, was not the right fit.

Under Richards, the Wild had 13th- and 12th-place finishes and went 77-71-16. He was marred by inconsistency for two seasons and for a second consecutive March, the Wild crumbled to pieces during crunch time.

Tickets have to be sold, and the fan base is frustrated. And there's no transparent, quick fixes in terms of the roster, thanks to expensive contracts, little salary-cap flexibility and a lack of high-end talent.

That created pressure to react, and Richards turned into the fall guy. Assistant coach Dave Barr and video coach PJ DeLuca also were fired. The rest of the coaching staff is in limbo.

"We're in a results-oriented business," Fletcher said.

Experienced coach likely

Fletcher spent the week seeking guidance from some of his closest mentors, everyone from Ottawa GM Bryan Murray to Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero to the Wild's already-frustrated owner, Craig Leipold.

"It's ultimately up to me to deliver a winning hockey team," said Fletcher, who has two years left on his contract.

Fletcher said it will be a couple of weeks before he "dives into" a coaching search.

Two years ago, he went young and inexperienced. Fletcher came from Pittsburgh, where he watched first-year coach Dan Bylsma win a 2009 Stanley Cup. He watched Mike Babcock take Anaheim to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2003 and ultimately win a Stanley Cup with Detroit in 2008.

Fletcher was in Florida when Panthers assistant coach Lindy Ruff was hired by Buffalo in 1997 as a first-time head coach. Ruff is still there, the longest-tenured coach in the NHL.

So Fletcher got swept up by the notion of making the next great non-retread hire.

By doing that, though, he passed over men with vast experience such as Dave Tippett, last season's Jack Adams Award (Coach of the Year) winner with Phoenix, and Peter Laviolette, who coached Philadelphia to the Stanley Cup Finals last season. Both men's teams are in the playoffs yet again.

"Things are always clearer much later than at the time you were making the decisions," Fletcher said. "This business will consume you if you live that way. I think you have to learn from things you do well and learn from the things you don't do well, and you have to learn from the good decisions and the bad ones."

Possibilities

Rookie Houston Aeros coach Mike Yeo has done a masterful job with the Wild's minor-league affiliate. But after going the rookie route the first time, Fletcher may naturally go with a veteran this time, somebody who might command more respect and bring more accountability.

Ken Hitchcock, 13th on the all-time NHL list with 533 wins and prepping to coach Canada in the World Championships, has tons of experience. Hitchcock also led Dallas to a Stanley Cup in 1999, with he and Wild assistant coach Rick Wilson, who has one year left on his contract, being quite the tag team with Dallas.

Former Los Angeles, St. Louis and Shattuck-St. Mary's coach Andy Murray is available, as is former Edmonton coach Craig MacTavish, former Montreal coach Guy Carbonneau and former Florida coach Pete DeBoer.

Fiery former Montreal and Pittsburgh coach Michel Therrien, a disciple of Lemaire, has been scouting for the Wild all season.

Asking for more

A number of contenders reached Monday by the Star Tribune voiced their interest but didn't want to speak publicly. Ottawa, Florida and New Jersey also have coaching vacancies.

"You're looking for accountability, you're looking for structure, and you're looking for somebody to motivate and push the group forward," Fletcher said. "But I don't think we're going to limit ourselves to experienced or inexperiened."

A coaching change, though, is but one part of the equation. Fletcher will be seeking more talent, including through the draft, through college free agents (such as North Dakota's Chay Genoway) and through acquiring forwards with a "shoot-first mentality," either via trade or free agency.

He also will be looking for internal improvement. He's looking for a big year next year from Pierre-Marc Bouchard. He feels veteran Matt Cullen, who didn't score in the last 24 games, can contribute more. He feels Cal Clutterbuck, who scored 19 goals, has an "even bigger ceiling."

And you can bet he plans to lay down the gauntlet for Guillaume Latendresse, who arrived at last fall's training camp out of shape and abruptly got hurt.

"There's a lot of dialogue that needs to take place with our players right now," Fletcher said. "It's up to me to put some demands on them and create some expectations for coming into next season. I feel that there was more in the tank from some of them. We need to find a way to get that out of them.

"We have to raise the bar here, we have to raise the level of expectations."

Staff Writer Kent Youngblood contributed to this report.

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