Since their inaugural season nearly a decade ago, the Minnesota Wild have been known for playing a conservative style of hockey.
With the arrival of the second coach in the franchise’s nine-year history, that brand of hockey is about to change.
Todd Richards looks to unveil an up-tempo style of play when he makes his coaching debut for the Wild on Saturday night in the season opener against the Columbus Blue Jackets, who look to build on the first playoff berth in franchise history.
Despite only one season as an NHL assistant coach with San Jose, Richards was named as Jacques Lemaire’s successor in Minnesota in June.
Richards, who grew up in the Minneapolis suburb of Crystal and played at the University of Minnesota, has become the latest hire with limited NHL coaching experience.
That strategy worked well for Pittsburgh last season, as the inexperienced Dan Bylsma was hired mid-season and led the Penguins to the Stanley Cup.
The Wild are hoping for similar results after finishing 40-33-9 last season to miss the playoffs after back-to-back postseason berths.
With Richards at the helm, Minnesota will play a style similar to the champion Penguins, emphasizing puck possession, a strong forecheck and a fast pace. It is expected to be a more aggressive system than the trapping, disciplined style used by Lemaire.
“We want to change the mentality,” Richards said. “There’s going to be games that we’re going to lose for sure. We aren’t going to go 82-0, but if we can make steps every game - even in the games that we lose - in the process of changing the mentality … the results will take care of itself.”
Koivu led the Wild in points (67) and assists (47) last season, and has blossomed into the team’s best all-around player. He had one goal and three assists in four games against the Blue Jackets last season with the Wild winning three.
Havlat signed a six-year deal worth $30 million in July after spending the last three seasons with Chicago. The 28-year-old right wing could have signed for more money elsewhere but was excited about Richards’ new offense.
Havlat’s signing was important for the Wild, which needed to fill the void lost when Marian Gaborik(notes) signed with the New York Rangers in the offseason after spending his first eight seasons in Minnesota.
“I’m not here to replace him,” said Havlat, who had 29 goals and a career-high 77 points in 2008-09. “Like I said, I’m here to help the team and do my best.”
The Wild have had a history of getting off to strong starts, winning six of their first seven games each of the past three seasons, and will open 2009-10 with an early test.
Columbus finished 41-31-10 last season to make the playoffs for the first time in the franchise’s eighth season. The Blue Jackets entered the postseason as the seventh seed and were quickly eliminated by Detroit in four games.
Although the season ended with some disappointment, Columbus appears to have the pieces in place to make another postseason run.
Calder Trophy-winner Steve Mason(notes) returns for his second season after finishing second in the NHL with a 2.29 goals-against average and leading the league with 10 shutouts. He went 1-1-1 with a 2.94 GAA versus the Wild and became the first rookie since Chicago’s Tony Esposito in 1970 to lead the league in shutouts.
“When you’ve got a guy back there who you know is going to stop a lot of pucks and give you a lot of confidence, it’s a lot easier to take some chances offensively,” Columbus left wing Rick Nash(notes) told NHL.com.
While the Blue Jackets should be strong between the pipes, Nash is expected to lead the offense after signing an eight-year contract extension in July.
Nash, who would have been an unrestricted free agent after next season, set a franchise record in 2008-09 with a career-high 79 points (40 goals, 39 assists).
Nash, a four-time NHL All-Star and the Blue Jackets’ all-time leader in goals (194) and points (355), had two goals and an assist in three games against Minnesota last season.