By Kate Krenzer || AHL On The Beat Archive
On May 23, 2012, the Binghamton Senators named Luke Richardson their new head coach. After a season that saw the B-Sens go from reigning Calder Cup champions to dead last in the league, the city and its passionate hockey fans were looking for a breath of fresh air.
While members of the organization, local media, and fans were disappointed to see former head coach Kurt Kleinendorst go, perhaps Richardson was just the shot in the arm they needed.
Richardson was far from wet behind the ears when he stepped into his new role with the B-Sens. The 43-year-old had spent the last three seasons as an assistant coach with his hometown Ottawa Senators, a role which jumpstarted his coaching career. He officially joined the Sens coaching staff during the final three months of the season following his retirement as an active player during the 2008-09 campaign.
The 20-year NHL veteran played in 1,417 career games with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Edmonton Oilers, Philadelphia Flyers, Columbus Blue Jackets, Tampa Bay Lightning and the Senators, scoring 35 goals, 166 assists and recorded 2,055 penalty minutes. He also added eight assists and 130 penalty minutes in 69 career NHL playoff games.
“We’ve had good coaches here before, but I don’t know if I have been this excited before about a guy in the past,” said Tim Murray, Binghamton Senators general manager and Ottawa Senators assistant general manager on the hiring of Richardson.
"With his experience as a National Hockey League player and as an assistant coach in Ottawa, and the relationship he’s had with the Ottawa Senators for the last three or four years, I think he’s a great choice."
Despite Richardson’s credentials and the excitement surrounding his hiring from the top of the Senators organization all the way down to the fans, no one quite knew what to expect from the first year head coach.
With Richardson behind the bench, the B-Sens are off to their strongest start in club history, going 13-4-1-1 through the first quarter of the season and outscoring opponents 63 to 45 over that span. The team also tied a club record set in 2005 with a nine game win streak that ran from Nov. 11 to Dec. 5.
When reflecting upon the team’s good start, Richardson is quick to note that he started out with a good foundation.
“We have a great team. The veterans we have are really good people, hard workers and great lead-by-example guys. Not to mention they’re good hockey players, so we’re blessed to have them to lead the way with the young team,” he said.
“Our young guys have come in with a great attitude and it’s been a good balance. I think it’s credited to those leaders helping the young guys feel a part of it and helping them feel comfortable so that they can go out and play their game and contribute.”
Contribute they have. While the top 10 scorers in the American Hockey League currently boast 25 or more points, Binghamton’s top scorer – rookie Jakob Silfverberg – heads into the weekend with a total of only 16 points (seven goals, nine assists).
To an outsider, it may look like the B-Sens are lacking offense, but Richardson’s troops are all contributing to the scoresheet. 18 of the 23 skaters on the B-Sens roster have scored goals. Seven of those 18 have each contributed five or more goals. To break it down even further, three of those seven players with five or more goals are defensemen.
“I think it’s been surprising, but a good surprise, that we’ve had a good balance in scoring and in play from everybody,” said Richardson. “It’s not just some of our high-talented offensive forwards. We’re very pleased with everybody’s play, and I think it’s all backstopped by great goaltending, which has been our biggest success probably to date."
The B-Sens have been fortunate to boast a lot of talent in goal this season. Robin Lehner leads the way with an 8-4-1 record and a stingy 1.92 goals-against average, but that’s not to overlook the noteworthy contributions of this B-Sens squad’s stingy defense as a whole.
The B-Sens boast the league’s third-best penalty kill, allowing only 11 goals in the 102 times they have been shorthanded (89.2 percent). And although the league doesn’t track blocked shots, Binghamton would surely be among the leaders in that category as it is not a rare sight these days to see B-Sens players throwing their bodies in front of pucks in attempt to keep them away from their goaltenders.
“Like our goaltending, our defense has been a big backstop for us, especially on the penalty kill," Richardson said. "[Assistant coach] Steve Stirling does a great job running the penalty kill and having the players understanding what they have to do to be successful.
“And that’s blocking shots and sacrificing for the team. They’ve done a great job right from day one on that."
It’s not difficult for the players on this season’s team to want to play hard and sacrifice for Richardson. On most game nights as the media gather around players for post-game interviews, you’ll often hear them singing the praises of their head coach.
“It’s nice to have a players’ coach who isn’t that far out of the game and who’s played recently enough to really understand what we’re going through. Especially a coach who played for so many years in the NHL as a defenseman,” said blueliner Eric Gryba. “It’s perfect for guys in this league to listen to what he has to say and he’s very good about sharing his knowledge.”
With the B-Sens off and running out of the gate, the double-C word (as in Calder Cup) has been uttered more than a few times around the players from diehard fans in the Binghamton community. The thought of it brings a smile to the faces of the players – especially when mentioned to one of the 11 on the roster that were part of the 2011 championship squad.
A championship surely would be a nice feather in the cap for a first-year head coach, but Richardson isn’t getting too far ahead of himself.
“We need to understand that just as it is important to play 60 minutes in a game, you have to play the whole 76 games to complete a season," the head coach said.
"We are off to a good start, but we have to be professional and come to the rink every day with that same professional mentality that we’re going to keep doing the best that we can, and the success will follow."