By Michael Russo
And, here is the player reaction sidebar and Tom Lynn dismissal short (the Chuck Fletcher quote on Schultz was from a sitdown I had with him last Thursday).
During the Wild’s month-long GM search, owner Craig Leipold had in-person interviewees give them a list of three coaching candidates they’d likely rank 1-2-3 if they had the opportunity to hire one in Minnesota (at least, this is what I’m told by sources).
As you know by my coverage, I talked to a horde of GM candidates over those several weeks, and I asked them the same question. Of the six or seven that did answer that question for me, Todd Richards was on at least five of the lists, including a few that actually got in-person interviews. He was considered that much of an up-and-comer in his incredible fast track from player (2002) to coach.
So you know Leipold heard this name a lot during that month and thus is very comfortable with this hire, and trust me, this was all Chuck Fletcher. As Leipold said at his news conference to introduce Fletcher, he gave the new GM full authority to build his own Stanley Cup-caliber team from top to bottom. That meant final authority on coaches, players and his hockey ops and scouting departments — as proven by today’s firing of longtime assistant GM Tom Lynn.
So, why Richards? I’ve talked to many of his friends and colleagues the last month because I was 100 percent positive he’d top Fletcher’s coaching search list in particular. So I feel I’ve gotten at least a little glimpse into what type of person he is and his personality (and by the way, everybody says he’s just a great guy with a lot of character).
First and foremost,
Fletcher feels it imperative to have a close working relationship with the new coach (Fletcher’s going to be around the team every single game the first half of the season), and the two of them became very close and grew a mutual respect for each other after Fletcher hired him in Wilkes-Barre. In fact, Fletcher recommended that Richards stay in Wilkes-Barre instead of taking the San Jose job because he was so certain he’d soon be an NHL coach. Ironically, Michel Therrien was eventually fired by the Penguins, and Richards would have gotten the job in Pittsburgh instead of Dan Bylsma. Well, who would have thought, but Fletcher gets the Wild job and Richards get to return to his hometown.
Second, Richards is an offensive-minded coach. He believes in pursuing the puck and attacking with it. He believes in hard-nosed hockey, up-tempo hockey and an activating blue line. And whattyaknow, Fletcher believes in the same type of hockey. So there’s an immediate mesh.
Third, and this could be the most important,
Fletcher’s experience with Richards has proven to him that Richards is as strong a communicator as he’s known. He thinks that’s imperative in today’s game. I’ve written this before on here, but Fletcher believes that players today are so young, it’s critical to have a coach that’s 1) within grasp of their generation so they can understand and relate to these players and 2) are willing to take the extra 10 minutes and explain to them why he’s got to play a certain way or why he’s out of the lineup or why, why, why.
Some old-school coaches don’t have this philosophy. It’s my way or the highway.
And quite frankly, after seeing the relationship fracture between Jacques Lemaire, 63, and James Sheppard, 21, Fletcher could be dead-on here.
Sheppard’s the type of player, incidentally, who could take a giant step under a more offensive coach like Richards. Sheppard is a forechecker. He’s an attacking player. It didn’t suit his game to always have to stay above the hash marks like centers had to in Lemaire’s system. There were lots of times I’d say to Jacques, “Boy, Sheppard really was good last night. Created some chances on the forecheck,” etc. etc. And I could tell by his eyes he either thought I was on something or simply wanted to say, “Yeah, but that’s not how we want him to play.”
OK, got sidetracked. Anyways, I think you’ll hear a lot about Richards being a strong communicator at Tuesday’s news conference.
Onto Tom Lynn, and first, from a personal note, Lynn’s a good guy and I feel for he and his family. He’s got six kids, two homes and didn’t make well more than a million bucks a year like Doug Risebrough. And Lynn was pretty much the guy the beat writers dealt with on a daily basis around here, so obviously, you build a relationship when you speak to each other or trade a dozen emails a day. In fact, we were exchanging emails up until 1:30 p.m. today about getting together at the Draft in Montreal (so he wasn’t told until late today). Obviously there were times of intense friction and certain disagreements, but I can tell you several hilarious stories about Lynn that would humanize him for you.
So I feel for the guy, and he will land on his feet somewhere. Hey, and maybe Florida if Doug Risebrough lands the GM job.
But I did sense this coming, especially after Fletcher made it so clear to me a few times that he never told Lynn and Co. that they were safe and that he first needed to evaluate the department.
Trust is the most important thing a GM needs alongside him, and unfortunately for Lynn, he didn’t really know Fletcher other than as a distant colleague who might have talked minor-league trade once in awhile.
Almost always in this situation, the new GM eventually brings a confidant in to be his right-hand man, and I think that will happen in this situation eventually. And quite frankly, I’d suspect there will be other big changes after the Draft and throughout July.
Fletcher will hire somebody he is very familar with, and one guy I keep hearing is Ottawa Senators Director of Hockey Operations Brent Flahr. In fact, I have heard this from so many NHL execs in the last two weeks, I can’t even remember who first told me.
But Flahr and Fletcher worked together for around 12 years between Florida and Anaheim. Now, Flahr is under contract to Ottawa, so who knows what will happen here. But most every NHL scout and executive have outs in their contract between the Draft and July 31 where they can look at another job, if it means a promotion especially.
I’ve known Flahr since the mid-90s. He’s a very sharp guy who worked his way up the food chain in Florida as a young pup.
He’s scouted a ton, and I believe negotiated contracts, too. Former Princeton captain, incidentally. Other guys available could be Mike Abbamont, Dave Taylor, Larry Carierre, Trevor Timmins and Bill Zito. I’d say Chicago assistant GM Rick Dudley (that’d be funny since it was Dudley who let go Fletcher in Florida), but Dudley’s about to take another job elsewhere. I do think eventually Fletcher hires some sort of senior advisor or consultant, like maybe an Al Coates.
Speaking of negotiating contracts, the timing of this Lynn dismissal is interesting for two reasons. 1) July 1 is right around the corner, and Lynn negotiated every contract in franchise history. So either Fletcher will have an assistant GM in place by then, or he’ll negotiate the contracts himself. And he’s more than capable of that because he did that in Florida, Anaheim and Pittsburgh. 2) Why do you make the decision now on the day you hire a new coach unless there’s another motive? Quite possibly, and this is just conjecture, this could be a last-ditch effort to say to Marian Gaborik, ”OK, EVERYTHING is different now. This is a completely new organization. New coach, new style, new person with no tension with your agent negotiating your contract. Please reconsider free agency.”
I think it’ll still be tough this close to free agency, but perhaps that is a motivation.
There were a lot of other factors that led to Fletcher’s decision, but that’s a look at some of the broader ones.
Lynn said the toughest part is how much he and his family fell in love with Minnesota life. He’ll stay on for a few days to help transition all his work to the rest of the staff.
OK, that’s it. Talk to you after the news conference Tuesday afternoon, and I’ll be on KFAN around 9:20 a.m.