It is frustrating how we went from a billion line combos with Lemaire to a coach who never, ever, ever adjusts lines. Even from day to day. He's been giving the top line a chance to "work things out" for two months now, c'mon.
I’ve started to come around on former head coach Jacques Lemaire.
After coaching the Wild to the Mirace Playoff Run of 2003, Lemaire enjoyed little success. Two seasons of missing the playoffs entirely, followed by two seasons of quick first round exits, and one more season of missing the playoffs before leaving the team.
“He was old,” I thought. “Out of touch, clinging to defense, boring hockey, trap trap trap! Where’s the forecheck? Where’s the creativity? Where’s the OFFENSE?”
And so, general manager Chuck Fletcher granted our wishes. Out with the old, in with the new. Head coach Todd Richards, of the high flying San Jose Sharks and Pittsburgh Penguins (well, their minor league affiliate anyway). In to save us from boredom by instilling an aggressive, high-tempo, two-man forecheck brand of hockey.
But we still couldn’t score and were giving up way more goals than under Lemaire. Right up against the salary cap ceiling, the Minnesota Wild are 13th in the West, 24th in goals per game, and 15th in goals against per game. Translation: the team stinks, can’t score, and is merely “okay” defensively.
As of this morning, the sharks are starting to circle around the Wild. An “abnormal” number of scouts were in Minnesota to watch the game this past Wednesday, and although Fletcher denied trade rumors, he did admit there was more talk among GM’s and there was pressure to improve.
One of the killers of the current Wild team are the “lulls” that last anywhere from a few minutes to most of the game. It’s as if the team stops moving their feet, stops working, and there are usually a couple quick goals against.
Can a head coach control how hard his guys work? No. But he can control the amount of ice time players get. Lemaire was really good at two things: giving ice time to players who were playing well, and matching lines against the other team. Richards on the other hand seems to give players the same amount of ice time every night regardless of how they are playing, and he doesn't seem to match lines well at all.
So even though Koivu and Brunette look like they are wearing cement skates and Miettinen has cement hands, Richards continues to throw them out for 20 minutes a game, even against the top line, night after night. Lemaire on the other hand would have seen two shifts of that and nailed them to the bench. Which means more ice time for the guys who are skating well and working hard.
When it comes to offense, Lemaire let the players figure it out. He didn’t have schemes and forechecks and plays drawn up. Just make sure the center stays high and let the players do their thing. It worked great when the team had skill, but without the talent, they struggled to score. Richards draws up an aggressive forecheck to try and pin the puck carrier behind the net, put the guys to work along the boards, and try to score off a centering feed or rebound (or lately, by banking in off the goalie’s rear end). But the Wild lack the speed necessary to play that style.
Defensively, Lemaire had his players learn the simple trap scheme...one man pressures the puck carrier, the rest position themselves to cut off passing lanes and prevent the opposition from getting any speed or numbers advantage into the zone. And it worked extremely well. Richards, on the other hand, seems to have no particular defensive scheme...make sure two guys are back and hope to hell the other team doesn’t score. And the result, as we saw against Phoenix: teams came flying into the zone with speed AND numbers.
In that way, Lemaire was able to get the most out of a group of scrubs...you can teach any idiot how to play the trap, and for the most part you will be strong defensively. Offense will depend on your talent up front. Meanwhile, Richards seems to be awful with a subpar lineup, because he doesn't scheme well defensively, and the scrubs can't score up front because they don't have the speed to win the puck battles on the forecheck.
So in my opinion, one of two things needs to happen:
1. Dump all the slower players and bring in fast players with offensive skill. This is obviously hard because fast players with offensive skill are highly valued, both from a trade and cap perspective. But that would allow the team to run the aggressive forecheck, win puck battles (which they are losing), and have the puck skills to score goals. Right now we have fast players who can't score and players who can score who aren't fast, which is why we rely on the PP so much and suck 5-on-5.
2. Get a new coach who runs a defensive system. This will allow us to use our slower skilled players and not have to make a huge roster change. We should give up a lot fewer goals and have fewer breakdowns (and collapses because they keep it simple), and the offense will probably be at least as good, because the current system is not working for them. Less defensive zone time means more potential offensive zone time, which means more potential scoring.
Fletcher has been trying to do the former for about 18 months now, which is not enough time to reconstruct a team that’s already strapped for cap space. If he continues down that path, it’s going to take time, trades, and smart signings to build up the team, and it won’t happen any sooner than next year, likely the year after.
But with Koivu as the long-term captain and piece to build around, it might be time to admit defeat and return to the trap. He is an incredibly strong player with great hands, great strength, and high intelligence. But he does not have the foot speed to skate up and down the ice for 20 minutes a night, as we’re seeing now. A coach that could slow down the game for both teams would allow him to use his strengths rather than expose his weaknesses.
One option would be Michel Therrien, who took the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Stanley Cup final in 2008 before being replaced mid-season the following year. He is currently a scout for the Wild, although former coach Mario Tremblay speculated he was brought in to potentially replace Richards. He has a reputation for being a hard-nosed, defensive-minded coach who can get a group of young players to work hard, but may not be a great strategist for a talented team.
Another option is Ken Hitchcock, who won the Stanley Cup with Dallas in 1999 and took the Columbus Blue Jackets to the playoffs for the first time in franchise history before being replaced mid-season the following year. He is another defensive coach who worked for years with Wild assistant coach Rick Wilson in Dallas.
It’s certainly not an enviable position for Fletcher to find himself...his hand-picked coach and re-structured team is not a threat to make the postseason. To replace the coach, he would have to admit defeat and welcome second-guessing. To bring in an impact forward, he would have to move a top defenseman like Brent Burns. To remain patient and see how Richards and the team responds, he would risk an already fragile fanbase’s alienation.
Of those three options, the best might be a return to a defensive system with a new head coach. You don’t give up significant assets and have the potential to turn around the season while it’s early. If that’s the case, Wild fans might have to prepare themselves for the “boring” label. But if that comes with winning, it would definitely be worth it.