Today Jim Matheson wrote an article updating us fans on the coaching situation with the Edmonton Oilers. According to Matheson, the interivew process has begun and each of the candidates that have been interviewed have already been profiled with one notable exception. Today, that will be rectified, although Matheson does mention that this man may soon be unavailable. If that ends up being the case, Oiler fans will still be seeing a lot of him in Minnesota where he's rumoured to be the next head coach of the Wild (he played his college hockey in Minnesota and has a relationship with new Minnesoata GM Chuck Fletcher from their days together in the Penguins organization).
Richards doesn't have the advantages that some of the other coaching candidates have. Unlike Quinn, Crawford, Renney, Arniel and Habscheid, Richards doesn't have any past connections to Steve Tambellini. Unlike Quinn, Crawford, Renney and Constantine, Richards doesn't have any NHL head coaching experience. In fact, Richards only has seven years total of coaching experience, only two of which came as a head coach. To top it off, he doesn't even make me think of an old WWE character like Perry Pearn. So why is it that he was able to get an interview?
Todd Richards does have some things working for him. His only two seasons as a head coach in Wilkes-Barre were quite successful. In his two years as head coach of the Penguins Richards posted a record of 98-49-14. That looks darn good on its face. However, the year before and after Richards the Penguins posted a record of 100-43-17, so he was obviously working with very talented teams. The coaches before (Michel Therrien and Joe Mullen) and after (Dan Bylsma and Todd Reirden) Richards have enjoyed success at the NHL level, so it's not as though he was being (slightly) outperformed by nobodies, but the fact remains that his record doesn't necessarily point in the direction of an outstanding coach.
In this case, however, the record is not the most interesting thing about his time in the AHL. When Richards was coaching in the AHL he was actually the coach of several current Oilers. This means that he would be quite familiar with the likes of Marc Pouliot, Tom Gilbert, Kyle Brodziak, J.F. Jacques and Jeff Deslauriers.
Apparently Brodziak started out as a healthy scratch in Wilkes-Barre but managed to play a significant role by the end of the year. These are some of Richards' comments on Brodziak:
"He does a lot of the right things and that’s what earns ice time. You’re showing the coach he can trust you. So much of the game is played without the puck, and when you’re in the right position, doing the right thing without the puck, believe me, coaches see that."
Richards also talked about Brodziak in this interview on the Pipeline Show:
"I used him in all situations... He plays the point on the power play... Any critical situation he's the guy I would go to."
These comments lead me to suspect that Kyle Brodziak would benefit greatly from Todd Richards coming in as coach. Earlier in the interview this is what Richards had to say about Tom Gilbert:
"I'm a big fan of Tom Gilbert... He's a good pro, he takes care of himself off the ice, he shows up to the rink early on-time, gets his workout in. He's prepared for practice; I don't have to stop practice because he's screwing up a drill... You guys will see him up in Edmonton... definitely next year."
There's a ton of truth to that "early on-time" phrase in general. Either way, it sure looks like Richards held a high opinion of Gilbert and that, given the way Gilbert has risen through the organization over the next two seasons, he was right about him.
In an earlier post I spoke about the freedom of AHL coaches to implement their own systems and there's another statement in this interview that suggests Richards was able to make his own decisions with regard to personnel and tactics ("[The Oilers and Penguins organizations have] given me the freedom to do what I feel and what I think is the right way to run the team.") At this point I think it's fair to say that AHL coaches generally have quite a lot of freedom to make these kinds of decisions on their own. This is particularly helpful in looking at Todd Richards since his two years as an AHL head coach is awfully close to the end of his story so far. Several years as an assistant coach in the AHL, two years as a head coach in the AHL and then one year as an NHL assitant coach with the San Jose Sharks. On the one hand, I find it hard to believe someone with so little experience is the best choice for the Oilers at this time. On the other hand, Dan Bylsma is in his first year as a head coach at any level and his team is heading for the Stanley Cup Finals. Sometimes, a good coach is just a good coach. Perhaps someone who isn't far removed from their days as a player, like Bylsma, has an easier time relating to players. Still, Richards retired as a player in 2001-02 after only 8 games in the NHL and none since 1991-92. At this time, I don't see any particularly compelling reason to think that Todd Richards is the best option for head coach of the Edmonton Oilers.