COLUMBUS, Ohio - When Todd Richards took over the woeful Columbus Blue Jackets in January after the firing of coach Scott Arniel, he was also interviewing for the job.
"Todd had a three-month interview," Blue Jackets general manager Scott Howson said. "He passed it with flying colours."
The Blue Jackets announced Monday that they were removing the word "interim" from Richards' job title and had offered him a two-year contract to continue what he started in an upbeat second half of the 2011-12 season.
Richards led Columbus for the final 41 games after being elevated from assistant coach, going 18-21-2.
He had hesitated when the interim job was first offered to him.
"It did seem at that stage an overwhelming task," he said.
But after the Blue Jackets turned things around a bit, he is now enthused and optimistic about the franchise's future. Columbus still finished with the NHL's worst record at 29-46-7.
"I don't think there was a lot of trust built up in our players from one to another," he said of the awful 11-25-5 record under Arniel. "We started to build up that trust. We started to play more as a group, started to play more as a team. That's why I'm excited. Despite losing guys to trade or injuries—we had kind of a makeshift group—we had some young guys and a lot of guys up from the American (Hockey) League and we were finding ways to compete and win games."
Richards went 77-71-16 in two seasons in Minnesota before being fired last year. He then joined Columbus as an assistant. The Blue Jackets played their best hockey at the end of the season, going 16-14-1 in their final 31 games, with wins in seven of their last 11. The club was just 9-6-2 with a lead after two periods under Arniel but was 14-0-0 when ahead going into the third period under Richards.
Howson and senior adviser of hockey operations Craig Patrick spoke directly or indirectly with about 10 people interested in the job after the season.
"We looked at available head-coaching candidates and those we thought might become available, and we kept coming back to Todd as the right person to lead our team," Howson said. "He took over our team under very difficult circumstances and then we kept losing players, either through injury or by trade—and our team kept getting better."
Patrick said Richards held up under intense scrutiny.
"Todd has developed into an excellent NHL coach," he said. "I watched him closely on the bench, in practice, on the ice, off the ice, on the road, in the locker room and with his staff and I was very, very impressed with the way he handled all aspects of that."
Richards served as an assistant coach with the San Jose Sharks in 2008-09, helping the club capture the Presidents' Trophy with an NHL-best 53-18-11 record.
He faces a daunting task with a team that could be facing a transitional period. Blue Jackets captain Rick Nash has requested a trade and the club will try to meet that demand.
Howson declined to discuss whether he was still shopping Nash.
"We are going to do everything we can to improve our team. That's our goal in the off-season," he said. "I'm not going to comment on specific players or speculation but we're going to move every possible stone to try to get better next year."
Forward R.J. Umberger said the retention of Richards adds a significant bit of continuity to a franchise that is badly in need of it.
"It's good that we are going into training camp with a sense of knowing what to expect and him knowing what to expect out of us. It's not a new coach, where we'd have to start fresh," he said. "We're ahead of the game from where we would have been if a new coach came in. The only thing positive out of last season is we kind of got that out of the way last year and now we're ready to roll with Todd as our building block."
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