Minnesota Wild: Home Grown Coach Takes the Reigns in Minnesota

Nick HunterContributor ISeptember 19, 2009

ST. PAUL, MN - SEPTEMBER 18: Head coach Todd Richards of the Minnesota Wild watches the game from the bench during the second period in a preseason game on September 18, 2009 at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Photo by Tom Dahlin/Getty Images)

Two words Minnesotans are tired of hearing, other than “Brett Farve”, are “rebuilding year.” But that’s most likely what Wild fans can expect for the 2009-10 season.

The Wild have been going through more changes this offseason since its first year in the NHL. The first big change lies within the front office. In April, the Wild decided not to renew the contract of president and general manager Doug Risebrough.

Risebrough was responsible for bringing players like Marian Gaborik, Brian Rolston, Pavol Demitra, and Niklas Backstrom to St. Paul, but he faced a lot of criticism for his lack of activity around the trade deadline.

Chuck Fletcher was named general manager in May to replace Risebrough. Fletcher, who, most recently, was assistant general manager for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Fletcher has reached the Stanley Cup finals in management with three different clubs (Florida, Anaheim, and Pittsburgh).

Fletcher spent nine seasons as assistant general manager with the Florida Panthers before taking a Director of Operations position with Anaheim.

Jacques Lemaire, the only coach the Wild have known, stepped down in April after nine seasons with the Wild leading them to a 293-255 record and taking the club to the conference finals in 2002 and winning his second Jack Adams Trophy as NHL’s best coach.

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Lemaire’s 293 wins with the Wild in eight seasons are more than any other of the nine expansion teams since 1991. In 2008, Lemaire led the Wild to its first ever Northwest Division title.

The end of the 2008-2009 season caused some controversy in St. Paul as it seemed Lemaire’s relationship was fading with his players, leading many to believe Lemaire would retire. Lemaire had been hinting at retiring the previous season.

Shortly after announcing his resignation from the Wild, an opening for head coach opened up in New Jersey, a place Lemaire had won a previous Stanley Cup.

As many predicted, Lemaire quickly interviewed and accepted the job as head coach of the Devils.

Set to fill the shoes of Lemaire is Minnesota native and former Minnesota Gopher Todd Richards. General manager Chuck Fletcher named Richards head coach in June.

General manager Chuck Fletcher was quick to point out Richards has reached the playoffs in all 13 of his professional seasons as a player and all seven of his seasons as a coach in the league.

Richards has spent the previous season as an assistant coach for the San Jose Sharks. Richards was in charge of the power play in San Jose, which was third best in the NHL.

During his college career at the University of Minnesota, Richards was named member of the WCHA second All-Star team for three consecutive seasons and served as team captain his senior year.

Probably the biggest news was the departure of All-Star winger Marian Gaborik in July as he signed as a free agent with the New York Rangers. Gaborik played all eight of his NHL seasons in Minnesota.

Gaborik owns basically every scoring record for the Wild including goals (219), assists (218), and points (437). The two-time All-Star had a career high 42 goals in 2007-08 and career high 41 assists, but only played in 17 games last season as he was hampered by a groin injury, an injury that has plagued him during most of his tenure with the Wild.

Gaborik had become the speculation of many trade rumors for the last couple of seasons in Minnesota due to his injury problems and run-ins with head coach Lemaire who criticized Gaborik’s defensive game numerous times.

As free agency approached and the Wild had not made an offer, Gaborik knew his days in Minnesota were limited.

Not all is bad in Minnesota however. General manager Chuck Fletcher made his first big move by signing former Blackhawks winger Martin Havlat to a six-year deal on July 1, the same day Gaborik signed with New York.

Havlat is an excellent two-way player that played in 81 games for the Blackhawks last year and tallied 77 points (29 goals, 48 assists).

The Wild also signed veteran Petr Sykora to a one-year deal Wednesday. Sykora, who finished fourth in scoring for the Pittsburgh Penguins last season, scored his 300th career goal in April. The 32-year old played in 76 games last season and 81 games in 2007-08 and led the Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cup appearances.

The Wild will return a nucleus of young players such as Mikko Koivu, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, and Brent Burns who will be relied upon heavily to step up their roles on the team as well as continued leadership from veterans Andrew Brunette and Owen Nolan.

Goaltending shouldn’t be an issue as Niklas Backstrom returns after starting 71 games last season posting a 2.33 GAA and .923 save percentage.

Many ifs remain heading into preseason for the Wild. If the Wild doesn’t show promise early, its 369 consecutive sellout streak (every home game in Wild history) could be in jeopardy as fans become more and more impatient.