The firing of Columbus coach Todd Richards won’t directly impact the Wild’s preparation for Thursday’s game against the Blue Jackets. The Wild, several players said, has its own issues to address as it plays its second game of the season at Xcel Energy Center.
Still, the players anticipate the Blue Jackets will be energized in their first game under new coach John Tortorella. Richards — a Crystal native who coached the Wild for two seasons before he was fired in 2011 — was let go Wednesday, a victim of his team’s 0-7 start. The hard-charging Tortorella takes over just as the Blue Jackets embark on a four-game road trip, trying to stanch the bleeding from the worst start in franchise history.
Wild coach Mike Yeo wants to see his team improve its pace and pressure Thursday as it resumes play after Sunday’s 4-1 defeat in Anaheim, its first regulation loss of the season. Despite the Blue Jackets’ woeful record, he doesn’t expect it to be easy.
“It’s a pretty quick turnaround, so I don’t expect [Columbus] to go out there and try to change everything in a day,’’ Yeo said. “What I would say is, it’s quite obvious what their motivation level is going to be, and what we can expect from them as far as going out there and laying it on the line.
“We know we’re in for a good challenge, but the focus is the same for us. It’s on ourselves.’’
With three days off between games, the Wild spent two rigorous practice sessions working to sharpen its pace, its puck support and its execution. All of its healthy players were on the ice Wednesday, including winger Nino Niederreiter, who left Tuesday’s practice early because of muscle tightness. Center Tyler Graovac, who is recovering from a lower-body injury, skated on his own Wednesday but is not expected to play until next week at the earliest.
Columbus is the only NHL team without a victory this season. That spelled the end for Richards, who compiled a record of 127-112-21 during a tenure that began in January 2012. The winningest coach in franchise history, he led the Blue Jackets to a playoff berth in 2014, when the team won 43 games during its best season since its founding in 2000.
The Blue Jackets started poorly last season, too, but picked up steam and finished on a 15-1-1 roll. That heightened expectations this season. Instead, Columbus has tied the NHL expansion-era record for most regulation losses at the start of a season, with its 0-7 mark second only to the New York Rangers’ 0-11 start in 1943-44.
Backup goaltender Curtis McElhinney has started the past two games in place of slumping Sergei Bobrovsky, who has a goals-against average of 5.07 and save percentage of .835, and the Blue Jackets have given up a league-high 34 goals in seven games. Several players spoke in support of Richards in recent days as the pressure mounted, but he was fired late Tuesday night.
Tortorella has not been behind an NHL bench since 2014, when he was fired in Vancouver after one misbegotten season. The winningest U.S.-born coach in NHL history said he didn’t come to Columbus to “reinvent the wheel,’’ and he believes the Blue Jackets have enough talent and commitment to pull themselves out of their predicament.
“[The players] care,’’ Tortorella said in a news conference. “They don’t like being in this situation. I think some of them are maybe a little embarrassed.
“It’s hard to reach in your pocket and say, ‘Here’s some confidence.’ It has to come through some good things happening. As quickly as it went this way, it can come back the other way.’’
Tortorella, who was given a three-year contract, is a completely different personality than Richards. Known for being volatile and abrasive, he vowed Wednesday to listen to his players and said he wants to guide them back to the quick, gritty and straight-ahead style he saw from them last season.
Wild forward Zach Parise, who played for Tortorella during stints with the U.S. national team, said the coach has the ability to make all of his players play hard. Yeo expects to see the Blue Jackets reflect that.
“[His teams] are very hardworking,’’ Yeo said. “They block a lot of shots, and they’re very committed to the details of the game. It’s a group that’s going to be accountable.’’