Monday, October 26, 2015

The Dark Blue Jacket's Definitive History of the CBJ, Part XI: A Requiem for Richards

Head Coach Todd Richards
It is fitting that Todd Richards's name be mentioned in the titles of this history; he is the winningest Coach in Blue Jackets history in terms of Blue Jackets games won, and represents an era in Blue Jackets hockey history.  My perception from my seat in the upper bowl is that Richards was responsible for stabilizing a situation where a hockey club was on the rocks, getting things turned around and taking the club to the highest heights it has ever seen.  With the inexorable spiral of a Greek tragedy the whole thing fell apart swallowed by a wave of injuries and expectations.

As of this writing, the Blue Jackets are the proud possessors of the most awful start since World War II, and are yet to win in the 2015-16 NHL season. Editor's note: They finally won!  Todd Richards has been relieved of his coaching duties, to be replaced by John Tortorella.  How did this come about?

CBJ M.A.S.H. Unit

 I last left this space in a state of exultation over the playoff performance of the 2013-14 CBJ, and how far we have come.  The offseason after the playoffs started strangely, with RJ Umberger asking to be traded.  Given the decline in his play, it seemed at the time that the CBJ might buy him out, but Jarmo Kekalainen pulled off an interesting trade when Philadelphia decided to move Scott Hartnell in spite of his no move clause.  So far this trade has tilted in the CBJ’s favor.  Sonny Milano was drafted, to further build the pipeline, along with Ryan Collins, Elvis Merzlikens, Blake Sibenaler, Julian Pelletier, Tyler Bird, and Olivier LeBlanc.  Blake Comeau and Derek MacKenzie were allowed to walk, and the shock waves of the loss of the latter still reverberate through the organization.  Brian Gibbons was signed as a free agent, and Jack Skille was picked up off waivers after signing with the Islanders.

Summer progresses, Cannonfest moves to Strongwater, and then some ugly news starts circulating about the condition of Nathan Horton’s back.  On top of that, Ryan Murray’s surgically repaired knee is not at all responding to therapy, soon the CBJ groin shredding factory would open for business.   The hits just kept coming in terms of injury news, and during the course of the season both Boone Jenner and Sergei Bobrovsky would suffer a broken hand by being struck by a puck in practice.  By the end of the 2014-15 season the Blue Jackets had lost a stunning total of 508 man games to injury, which is basically having 6 players out of a 23 man roster injured for every single game.

However the overriding issue as training camp approached was the fact that Ryan Johansen had not signed a contract for the 2014-2015 season.  This issue loomed over training camp like a cloud until October 6, when Johansen agreed to a 3 year contract.  The puck finally dropped on the 2014-15 season, and while the Jackets started out okay, the tide of injuries just kept riding.  By the end of October we had a first line, and a fourth line, and everything in between was a mess. 

October ended and the CBJ had a record of 4 wins – 6 losses – 0 overtime losses and a decimated squad with a backup goaltender preparing to face the November schedule.  It was in these dire times that one of Todd Richards’s best attributes shone through, the ability to maintain an even keel in spite of all the adversity.  At several times during the season this attribute was tested, as an inconsistent and beat up hockey club ripped off several impressive winning and losing streaks.  Richards’s ability to maintain an even keel, through winning and losing, allowed the players to gather themselves when the chips were down, and slowly turn things around.  These streaks reached a crescendo at the end of the season, when a finally healthy hockey club ripped off a torrid 16-2-1 stretch to end the season with a confidence formed of team self discovery cushioned by Richards’s calm demeanor.

As it so often happens, a strength can be a weakness as well, and faced with an inexplicable 0-7-0 start to the 2015-16 season, Richards was unable to generate the push on the players in response to the emergency because it was contrary to his nature.  In retrospect we will probably trivialize the nature of the emergency as a mere 8 games (~10%) in an 82 game season, but it appears that heroic efforts are in order for the rest of the way to sniff the playoffs.  In that regard, to the fans, it appears to be another season down the tubes 8 games into it (the new coach lost one of the games).  I’m not saying how this will end, but anyone who wanted to make the case that we were already out of the playoffs would have a pretty good argument.  So at this point in time, this particular 7 game losing streak (ultimately 8) assumed franchise rattling proportions.  Since Todd’s nature is to maintain an even keel in these times, it became apparent that another direction was needed, as rather than responding to the long leash, the team became more dysfunctional. 

It bears repeating that during that 7 game losing streak, Richards had two (2) practices to try to right the ship, while losing to a Toronto team that had 7 days off before they played the CBJ, and a Minnesota team that had a game every 4 days to start this season.  However, you can’t have a good Greek tragedy without some weird circumstance intervening to amp up the pressure, and the NHL schedule makers did their part. 

Todd Richards leaves the CBJ as the winningest CBJ coach in franchise history.  He finishes with a CBJ record of 127-112-21 after serving has head coach from January 9, 2012 until October 20, 2015.  He has recorded the only two playoff wins by a Blue Jackets head coach, but was dogged by slow starts in every one of the years he coached.  Blue Jackets hockey is not easy to play, and it is difficult to instantly ramp up from training camp, where you don’t want to play that way for fear of injury, to regular season form.  Indeed, his teams seemed to need their back against the wall before they could really play the way they needed to experience success. 

Todd Richards was the coach this franchise needed when he was hired.  He stabilized play, and got the team to be more defensively accountable.  He laid the foundation for future teams, and it is hoped that success will flow from this foundation.  It will be interesting to see where he lands after this, as I don’t believe he is done coaching by any stretch of the imagination.

2014-15 Summary

As noted above, October and the regular season started slowly, and went downhill from there with the injury news.  After starting October 4-2-0, the injury machine got rolling, and the CBJ lost the next 9 games after Bobrovsky went down with a broken hand and McElhinney came back too quickly after a concussion.  By the end of October, their record had sunk to 4-6-0 with more losing on the agenda.  Veterans Day rolled around in November, with a November record to that point of 0-4-1.  With 2 wins to mark the middle of the month, the CBJ proceeded to lose the next 6 games, to finish November 2-9-2 for an overall record of 6-15-2.

December rolled around, and the pendulum slowly swung back the other way.  December started with a win, a shootout win, another win, 2 overtime wins, and 2 shootout wins before an overtime loss ended their winning streak, but kept the point streak alive.  The Jackets ended December with a 10-2-1 record and an overall record of .500 at 16-16-3 at the end of the year.

January was mostly back and forth, win a few, lose a few, but with a 4 game losing streak tucked into the middle of it, all against Eastern Conference teams, and ended up January with a 5-8 record, losing ground on a .500 pace.  This left them 21-24-3 at the end of January.  February saw them continuing the trend of win a game or two, lose a game or two, until they ended up the month in the midst of a 5 game losing skid.  February’s record was 5-7-1, with an overall record of 26-31-4, losing ground on a .500 pace.

March rolled around, and the team began to get healthy, and began to play at a torrid pace.  Finishing off the 5 game skid in early March, the team went 11-2-0 the rest of the way in March, for an overall record for March of 12-3-0, climbing above .500 by the end of the month with a 37-35-4 record for the season to date.

In April, the team continued to play strong hockey, and finished 5-0-1 for the month of April.  The team’s overall record for the 2014-15 season was 42-35-5, good for 89 points, a very respectable showing by this franchise’s standards, but short of the point total necessary to make the playoffs. 

Beginning March 6, the CBJ ended the season on a 16-2-1 run, which is good hockey anywhere.  Unfortunately, this was counterbalanced by the 2-13-2 run from October 24 to November 29, which effectively put the playoffs out of reach. 

2014-15 Accomplishments

Nick Foligno lead all scorers for the year, with an amazing 31 goals-42 Assists-73 Points, with Ryan Johansen following close behind with 26-45-71, but Scott Hartnell finishing second in goals with 28.  The team had four 20 goal scorers, Foligno, Hartnell, Johansen and Atkinson.

Nick Foligno joined the ranks of CBJ 30 goal scorers, joining Ryan Johansen, Rick Nash, and Geoff Sanderson.  He also joined the ranks of 70 point scorers, with Ryan Johansen, Rick Nash, and Ray Whitney. 

Cam Atkinson turned in back to back 20 goal seasons, and Jack Johnson had a 40 point season, good for 3rd all time among CBJ defensemen.   Scott Hartnell was a huge success in his first year in the Union Blue, going 28-32-60, and more importantly showing real chemistry with Alexander Wennberg and Marko Dano down the stretch. 

Sergei Bobrovsky, once healthy, became the first CBJ goal tender to record back to back 30 win seasons.  He went 30 wins – 17 losses – 3 SOL and recorded a 2.69 goals against average (GAA) and a save percentage of .918.

The most amazing non-accomplishment of the year was the total of 508 games lost to injury during the year, a franchise record. 

Major personnel moves were the trading of Nathan Horton and his uninsured contract to the Toronto Maple Leafs for David Clarkson, and the trading of fan favorite James Wisniewski to Anaheim for Rene Bourque and William ‘Wild Bill’ Karlsson, a player who plays a game very similar to Alexander Wennberg. 

With their middling position in a deep draft, the CBJ drafted Zach Werenski, a promising young defenseman, and continued to add defensive depth through the draft.  But the block buster trade of the offseason was the acquisition of Brandon Saad from the Chicago Blackhawks for Artem Anisimov and Marko Dano.  Saad, only 22 years old already has two Stanley Cup rings, though the price was high, as Dano had shown much promise.  There were other parts to the trade, but I have gone on long enough. Editors note:  Yes, there was an All-Star Game.  I will produce and addendum regarding that event.

As a final ending to this period, during the off season Nick Foligno was named Captain to the CBJ for the 2015-16 season end beyond.

So ends Todd Richard’s role in this history, and the John Tortorella era has begun.  It should be interesting to see where this leads.


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