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Five Questions: Blue Jackets' coach Richards on big picture

by Dan Rosen / Columbus Blue Jackets


NHL.com's Q&A feature called "Five Questions With …" runs every Tuesday. We talk to key figures in the game and ask them questions to gain insight into their lives, careers and the latest news.

The latest edition features Columbus Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards:

Columbus Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards won't get carried away. Not after two games, even though the Blue Jackets mostly were dominant in winning both. Not with the Dallas Stars in town looking for their first win Tuesday at Nationwide Arena.

"Right now we're only two games into an 82-game schedule so there's still obviously a lot ahead of us and we've got to continue to get better," Richards said. "Buffalo was a better 60-minute game; the Rangers at times were better than us in that game Saturday. We have to get better."

Richards, though, isn't shying away from Columbus' early success as a talking point for his team and what it might be capable of this season.

He loves the way center Ryan Johansen has played after missing all of training camp because of his contract situation. He likes what he sees from the top line of Johansen, Cam Atkinson and Nick Foligno; they've combined for four goals and nine points.

Richards likes the way goalie Sergei Bobrovsky has played, and said veterans Scott Hartnell, Artem Anisimov, Mark Letestu, Jack Johnson and James Wisniewski have helped set the pace.

But he's been as impressed with Columbus' array of younger, less experienced players who are in the lineup mostly because of injuries to forwards Brandon Dubinsky, Nathan Horton and Boone Jenner, and defenseman Ryan Murray.

Marko Dano, 19, had two points, including his first NHL goal, in a 5-2 win against the New York Rangers on Saturday. Michael Chaput, 22, has an assist in each game and is averaging 12:24 of ice time per game. Alexander Wennberg, 20, has an assist and four shots on goal through two games. Dalton Prout, 24, played almost 16 minutes, and had one assist and a plus-3 rating against the Rangers.

Dano and Wennberg never played in the NHL before this season.

"If they aren't performing we aren't winning," Richards said. "We've had some veteran guys stand up and play well like Anisimov, [Fedor] Tyutin, Johnson, Wisniewski; the guys you have to lean on have been very good. [Bobrovsky] has been very good. But for me when you're looking at keys, if our young guys aren't performing I don't know if we have the success right now."

Speaking of some early success, Richards went into further detail on Johansen, the top line as a whole, the injuries and Hartnell's impact in the following Q&A with NHL.com.

Here are Five Questions with…Todd Richards:

Were you worried about piecing this team together as you went through training camp because of the injuries and the obvious contract stalemate with Ryan Johansen left you so thin for most of training camp?

"A little bit. The Johansen contract thing was ongoing and you weren't sure if that was ever going to end or not. Then it just seemed like we'd always get an injury. Johansen is back and Dubinsky goes down with an injury. It felt like we were dealing with something on an everyday basis. But I don't think I was overly nervous or concerned because having watched these young guys through the exhibition season and training camp I think they showed that there was a really good chance they could play. I'm not just talking about making our team. I'm talking about really playing and playing in bigger roles. It's a credit to them, but there were lots of things that were happening in this training camp."

We have to get to Johansen. You're coaching the team, the roster is getting cut down, you're dealing with injuries, but you know one of your best players, if not your best player, is sitting out there in a contract dispute. How did that affect you in camp? What did that do to your focus and thinking of this team?

"To be honest with you, that's something I wasn't concerned about. What I mean by that is I don't have any control over that as a coach, so my focus was on the guys that were here and our lineup, whether it was practice or an exhibition game. That had my 100-percent focus. You know what? There's really no other choice. It's no different than an injury right now. I know Brandon Dubinsky is going to be out of our lineup, so there is no sense in me saying what if or wondering if he can get healthy earlier. I've got to coach the guys that are here. I've got to make the best lineup and come up with the best game plan. Not that it comes down to the game plan coaches create because it comes down to the players on the ice, but as coaches, how can we best prepare our guys both physically and mentally so that they can go out and perform and give us a chance to win hockey games."

Johansen has looked impressive so far. It's only two games but what have you seen? What have you liked? And what are your concerns, if you have any, since he didn't have a camp?

"We just want to make sure that his body holds up right now. That's where we have to manage it. He missed some valuable practice time, some valuable reps in exhibition games to get the body ready. So one thing we have to be careful of is that the body doesn't start to break down and it leads to other injuries. We have to monitor that, stay on top of that, so we need communication with him, our athletic trainer and strength coach to make sure we're heading in the right direction.

"With [Johansen], I don't want to say he blew me out of the water, but it was more than I expected out of him in these first two games having missed some valuable time. But he has some rust a little bit handling the puck with the speed and the quickness and just getting accustomed again to our systematic play. We have to coach on the go."

He's had some help from his linemates, Cam Atkinson and Nick Foligno. The top line has produced and as a whole has been very good. What have you liked about the way they have meshed and do you get a sense that they can stay this way for a while?

"We'll continue with it as long as they're performing and working hard. There is no sense in changing that. For Cam and Nick, you get the opportunity to play with a really skilled centerman who will give you opportunities to finish, to score goals, to get points and to play important minutes. There is great motivation there to play with [Johansen], but we've still got to see some things in [Johansen] too as far as just becoming that solid, two-way center that I know he wants to be and we think he can be.

"There is familiarity with Nicky too. [Johansen] missed all of training camp and some of it was trying to find chemistry early. I'm sure at some point during this year the lines will be mixed up. It might be next game. It might be a month from now. It might be three months from now. What's good about our roster is we talk about the depth that we've got now in this organization and having good, young players like Matt Calvert, Cam, Marko Dano, [Kerby] Rychel, Josh Anderson, but we also have some veterans [Johansen] can play with. We've got Scott Hartnell, who has played with one of the best centerman in the League in [Claude] Giroux. There's lots of options, but early on it was familiarity. Nick Foligno played with [Johansen] a lot in the past two years. Since he missed training camp it was trying to get [Johansen] with someone he knew well, and that was Nick Foligno."

In what ways has Hartnell helped you fill in the power gaps with Dubinsky and Nathan Horton out of the lineup with injuries?

"When you take guys like Dubinsky, Horton and Boone Jenner out of the lineup, those are some big holes and I don't know if you're fully able to fill in those holes. But I'll tell you what; adding a guy like Hartnell, who has been in this League for a long time, has proven he can score in this League and have an impact in this League not only scoring goals but with the physical edge he plays with, fits right into our identity. When you take Dubinsky and Jenner out that's a lot of our identity, how the team plays, that relentless work and physical determination. But it starts off with what we talked about first, our young guys have been able to step in and some of those minutes they've been able to contribute. We're only two games in but those guys have stepped in and done a real good job for us."

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