As a coach, Todd Richards lives moment-to-moment.
And to be fair, that’s his job – a job that is part strategist, part teacher, part psychologist, part manager and part motivator. So forgive him if he wasn’t locked in on the outside noise about the Blue Jackets’ three-year lack of a captain, for he was aware of what it meant but also comfortable with how things were going.
The Blue Jackets have won at least 40 games in both of Richards’ full, 82-game seasons as head coach and they are a tiebreaker away from two playoff appearances in the last three years, so the going hasn’t exactly been catastrophic of late. Leadership is, by and large, a highly-regarded character trait (particularly so in hockey) and just like anyone else, Richards was looking forward to the “light bulb moment” when the next captain would become obvious.
Over the course of a season that included ups, downs, some really down downs and a thrilling finish, there were plenty of things to manage on a day-to-day basis – but one of the consistent, encouraging things Richards saw was Nick Foligno continuing to take steps forward both on the ice (which resulted in a career year) and off the ice, as well.
And as the season grew older, Foligno’s actions made a strong case that he was “the guy” in his coach’s eyes.
“There was not one moment for me,” Richards said. “There were probably a lot of little moments that you can look at. It’s not that I had a checklist, but I stored things away…how did they react in this moment, who stepped up here or who said what, who’s practicing, off the ice who’s doing the right things? It’s a lot of those little things that you start to add up, and you’re making notes.
“At the end, when you get to this point as an organization, you sit down and (say) ‘alright, we’re ready for the next step…who’s the guy?’ It was evident who that guy was going to be.”
Circumstances weren’t always ideal to evaluate captain material in 2014-15, either. The Blue Jackets entered the season brimming with confidence and looked poised to break through that ‘first round exit’ barrier into contender territory, but it went off the rails fast.
Injuries (the one thing that no one likes to use an excuse) began to pile up, and it was the team’s top players missing significant time. Brandon Dubinsky, Boone Jenner, Artem Anisimov, Sergei Bobrovsky, Matt Calvert, Cam Atkinson and right on down the line, Columbus took some serious hits and it gave way to a nine-game skid that put them way out of the playoff picture by U.S. Thanksgiving.
Richards, true to the nature of coaching, took it one day at a time (cliché alert!) and did whatever he could to prepare his team for the next game, and in the process, attempted to eliminate the distractions that came with so many notable absences.
In those hard times, Richards saw a player in Foligno who kept pushing himself and pushing the group to forge through it. Foligno wasn’t just putting up points – he was finding his voice within the room and that voice gradually became one of higher prominence.
“Nick, to me, took some big steps forward this season as a leader of our group,” Richards said. “There was a lot of adversity we faced, and usually, leaders become really visible in times like that. (Before) it wasn’t the right time – now is the right time. And a big part of that and a big reason for that is because Nick, I think, has matured as a player and matured as a leader.”
The Blue Jackets will have a leadership group this fall, composed of Foligno and up to four alternate captains whose identities will be known closer to training camp. It’s not a one-man show as far as leading the group goes, Foligno said, and that’s how he prefers it to be.
What’s important to both Foligno and Richards is that everyone is bought in, from coaches to the captain to the leadership group to the rest of the team, making sure that the Blue Jackets keep building on what they believe is a good thing on the come in Columbus.
“You can’t become a leader unless you have the respect of the room,” Foligno said. “It’s not my place to change anything, it’s just to help us move forward. There are going to be some moments where I have to stand up and say some things or make sure the room is the way it needs to be, but for the most part my relationship (with teammates) is going to stay the same because that’s what got me to this situation and that’s what gained me the trust of the players, and I want that to continue.”