It was a shift that didn’t factor in the final outcome — in a game the Chicago Blackhawks won — but coach Luke Richardson fixated on a “mistake” he made in the lineup.
In the final 27 seconds of regulation against the Calgary Flames on Jan. 8, with the score tied 3-3 and the Hawks in their defensive zone, Richardson sent out Jonathan Toews with Max Domi and Philipp Kurashev and kept Tyler Johnson, one of Toews’ linemates, on the bench.
“He had a really good block earlier in this game,” Richardson said. “At the end of the game, Tazer was out there to take that faceoff on the left side — but he was about 50% (on faceoffs) going into the third period and Max was probably closer to 75% — so I thought it was best to put two left(-handed) centers out there for that. And then Kurashev was there, so Tyler didn’t go.
“And then after the game, I’m like: ‘I made a mistake. Tyler should’ve been there.’ … I probably should’ve pulled Kurashev off. So I told Tyler: ‘I made a mistake there. You deserved to be out there. You should’ve been out there. So expect to be out there next time.’
“Things like that, sometimes I miss, but I’ll always circle back and try to get to.”
The first-year NHL head coach repeatedly has touted “communication” and “accountability” as two of the tent poles of the culture he’s building, and in this instance he turned them on himself.
At the time, Johnson said he didn’t give much thought to not being on the ice for that final shift in regulation.
“I think it was yesterday or two days ago, and (Richardson) mentioned that he felt bad that he didn’t put me in there,” Johnson said this week. “I was kind of shocked. I didn’t really know what he was talking about, to be honest with you.”
Johnson said his former Tampa Bay Lightning coach, Jon Cooper, with whom he won two Stanley Cups, also “was a really good communicator.”
“So there’s a lot of times where he would have said the same thing,” Johnson said. “But I do know from hearing from other people around the league, that’s not a normal thing.
“That’s why this year all the players have raved about how good Luke is just because he is a good guy. You know he’s in your corner. … So when he can communicate — whether it’s a mistake or if he wants to feel something different or whatever it is — he’s able to do that.”
For Richardson, having that two-way street kind of candor helps build one-on-one relationships.
“Old-school coaches probably don’t do that,” he said. “They rely on their assistants to do that, and even sometimes they don’t want you to have too much conversation with them. It’s just old-school and it keeps people guessing. I think keeping people guessing at this level is not the right thing.”
Of course, communication can mean different things to different coaches. Patrick Kane has played for five of them: Denis Savard, Joel Quenneville, Jeremy Colliton, Derek King and now Richardson.
“Everyone’s different,” Kane said. “Q was a guy that you didn’t really hear too much from, but you kind of knew what was expected. He’d meet with the players like every 20 games and kind of tell you what he wanted from you, what he expected, things like that.
“I didn’t mind that either. He let the players do their thing, and he was the coach. … But I think the way that Luke is doing it with this group, he’s really doing a great job.”
Kane recalled an interaction with Richardson about a situation in which the Hawks transitioned from a penalty kill to four-on-four and then to a power play.
“He put Domi and myself on the ice,” Kane said, “and we kind of talked about it after and (I) thought maybe it was better to put someone else out there for four-on-four and then come back and play the rest of (the) power-play (unit) because there might have been like a minute left or something.”
In other words, when penalties overlap like that, maybe the Hawks would have been better served holding off on deploying Kane and Domi until their penalty expired and the power play kicked it. That way they could capitalize on having their best shooters on the ice with a man advantage.
“It’s not like he just brushed it away,” Kane said of Richardson’s reaction to his suggestion. “He came up to me the next day and talked about it and we had our different viewpoints. … He’s obviously got a great demeanor about him and he’s had a great career as a player. He played a long time, so he gets respect right away from that.
“Obviously when he’s coming up to players and — not admitting mistakes but just discussing different situations — it goes a long way. Especially with a young team. It kind of shows that he’s in it with us. He’s not just making the calls on the bench.”
Said Richardson: “For me, communication is probably No. 1 and I’m still learning how to be better at it. Hopefully the players appreciate it; I think they do. And they respond well to it usually.”
The former Montreal Canadiens assistant told himself that once he became a head coach, one-on-one dialogue with players wouldn’t be perfunctory. He would make it part of his routine.
But over the last six months he has learned that “sometimes I fall short on that every week because it just gets away. But I’ll come back (to it).”
Richardson has been exposed to a lot of coaching styles.
The former defenseman played for six NHL teams over 21 seasons and was an assistant coach for eight seasons with the Ottawa Senators, New York Islanders and Canadiens.
“I always look back to different guys,” Richardson said.
He singled out Ron Low, an assistant and then head coach when Richardson played for the Edmonton Oilers from 1991-97, and Craig Ramsay, an assistant and later head coach with the Philadelphia Flyers from 1998-2001.
“Ron Low was such an inspiration, motivational guy,” Richardson said. “He wasn’t an X’s and O’s guy, but he was smart enough to keep X’s and O’s guys around.
“He’d be very honest, though, that he felt he didn’t have the right lineup on the ice. He just coached with honesty.”
Richardson saw Ramsay as “more of a tactician.”
“He was a really good teacher,” Richardson said, “and same thing: He’d be creating relationships with guys and having good personal contact and he was more of an assistant coach than he was head coach over the years, but a very good tactician and explaining things on the ice, on the bench.
“If I had to pick two guys, I’d put them together to be the perfect coach. You have a lot of fire and inspiration and charge back there and energy that kind of filtered toward the bench in Ron Low, and you had Craig Ramsay, who could explain things, really get the tactical part of the game across. I guess you want to call (it) a ‘Ron Ramsey.’”
That combination makes sense when you examine how Richardson handles accountability for what happens during games.
For example, when a defenseman obviously blows an assignment that leads to a goal, it’s common for Richardson to rewind the tape in his mind to the forward who was out of position that let that skater get to the net in the first place.
“Sometimes you can fool yourself and think you were playing OK: The team didn’t have a great night, but I was OK,” Richardson said. “But everybody could be better if the team didn’t have a good night. That’s coaches as well.”
And that mindset seemingly filters down to the players.
“They have good discussions and they’re not afraid to talk,” Richardson said. “It’s not calling each other out, but they talk about things sometimes.
“It’s close to yelling, but they seem to be fine the next day or after the game and socializing. So that’s a close-knit family and that’s healthy.”