Jackets need to "play faster," Richards says
Todd Richards said he made the mistake (in a previous coaching job) of promising that his team would absolutely play a certain way or do certain things on the ice.
In his two seasons as full-time head coach of the Blue Jackets, he has taken on the task of molding a team that didn't really have an identity into one that has a hardened, no-questions-asked look to it. A hard-working, committed team that climbed as high as second in the Metropolitan Division this season and finished fourth, the Blue Jackets learned a lot during their six-game playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, one of the elite teams in the National Hockey League.
Richards sensed a common theme from each game: when the Penguins needed to find another gear, they did so with their speed. Their decisions were quicker, the puck was moved with more pace, and they won more battles - and that's something the Blue Jackets will focus on headed into another important summer.
"We've got to be faster as a team," Richards said today. "Individuals have to be faster, and I mean that players have to use the summer to train better, get faster. And as a coaching staff, we have to play faster - and by that I mean systematic play and how we play as a team.
"I think the competitiveness of our team was right there, our battle level, our will, our want...everything was there. In Game 5, Pittsburgh elevated their play and it caught us off guard a little bit, and they were playing faster than we were. I came out of that game thinking we have to play faster."
And that doesn't mean just skating faster, Richards said. The attitude and mentality of being a fast team is a combination of mental and physical elements, something he has seen at times during his tenure as Blue Jackets coach, but also something he wants to cement.
"Whether it's summer training or how we run practices, getting these guys to make plays faster with the puck," Richards said. "You can play faster with the puck on your stick, you can play faster with your mind, anticipating where you need to go and where the puck needs to go. Through four games, maybe five and six, we were right there with (Pittsburgh). But there were points in the games when they were playing faster than we were."
When the players and coaches met as a group on Tuesday morning, the importance of doing the right things over the summer was a focal point. In the past two seasons, the Blue Jackets have stumbled out of the gates and had to play catch-up throughout the year, and that's something they don't want to go through again.
As an organization, the Blue Jackets want to collectively raise their level and both Richards and his players reiterated that a first-round exit isn't good enough. In order to be one of the upper-echelon teams, the Blue Jackets know they have to consistently be at the top of their game and a big part of doing that is applying the lessons learned along the way.
"At the end, we finished 15th out of 30 teams," Richards said. "It is moving up, and that's what we want to do, but it's still just middle of the road and it's mediocre. We want to keep pushing and keep getting better. You can see it in the city, what (the playoff run) meant to the city and what it meant to the people here, what it meant to our fan base and ownership...everyone involved. From where we were at two and a half years ago - a 30th place team - there were a lot of things going around, a lot of negativity.
"Where we're at now is a credit to our management, ownership and to the players to get this thing headed in the right direction. But we aren't there; you can't sit back and say 'we're here, take a breath.' It was a great step, but we can't be satisfied and take a breath and say we're here, because there's a lot more ahead of us."