Thursday, December 4, 2008

Sharks Pay Tribute to Former Coach by Dominating His New Team

Let me get one thing straight: Ron Wilson deserves a lot of credit for the Sharks' current success.

He helped develop a lot of young players, and he got more out of Joe Thornton than anyone had in Boston. More than that, his focus on fundamentals and everyone fulfilling their defensive responsibilities made Todd McLellan's job easier.

That being said, I was leading the charge in calling for him to lose his job this off-season. He just was not the man to take this team to the next level.

This team was not going any further year after year, they played tight in key games, they would stop being aggressive if they had a lead in the second-half of a game...all recipes for disaster.

In the 2006 playoffs, Wilson had his team enter the third period playing to hang on to a 2-1 lead in Edmonton when a victory would have all but ended the series. They gave up a goal and lost in multiple overtimes.

In the 2007 playoffs, the Sharks didn't change from their puck possession strategy even though the Red Wings were out-performing them in that regard; the Sharks were bigger than their opponent and would have benefited from a grinding style. Instead, less than 35 seconds away from a 3-1 series advantage, their Russian Roulette with shots on goal failed as Robert Lang tied the game that Detroit would later win in overtime, and the Sharks never won again.

Then in 2008, the Sharks were not focused or prepared for their first round series against Calgary, and appeared to be worn down by the time they faced Dallas in the second round. They did not play well in their first two home games and were not able to make up that deficit, once again unable to get past two wins in the second round.

Afterward, Wilson infamously said about the season "we should be rejoicing." He was understandably defensive about his job being called into question, considering he has the best coaching record in franchise history. But if you even suggest you should be rejoicing about not being able to get out of the second round when in two of the three years you were the team with home ice advantage, you just don't get it.

And now he was back in town, leading a mediocre-at-best Toronto team to a 9-9-6 record. He say it's his dream job, leading the league's most-storied franchise that he grew up a fan of and played for. Ironically, it is perhaps the only one viewed as more under-achieving than San Jose.

But Wilson is the right man for this job. He will get veterans to be rededicated to fundamentals or give the ice time they feel they are entitled to away to a younger player who is doing the little things. He will make sure their defense is solid so they are in as many games as possible with a chance to win.

Wilson will have this team in the playoffs by 2009. They will probably win a series by 2010. And by 2012 when they still have not gotten past the second round, he will need to be replaced by someone like McLellan.

Then again, Wilson never had the talent to work with that McLellan has. Comparing what the two coaches are able to do with this franchise is unfair on two levels: Wilson laid the roads that McLellan only needed to smooth over, and McLellan was given a $10 million budget to work with.

And Wilson's current team has less talent than the one he coached last year. Toronto is in transition, trying to dump some large salaries and rebuild, a process made harder by contracts other teams do not want. And to make matters worse for Tuesday's contest, they had just played the night before in Los Angeles.

In watching this game I was reminded of a couple flaws persistent in the Ron Wilson era, most notably letting up with a lead. Toronto out-shot San Jose 12-6 in the second period and closed the gap to 4-1 on a goal by Nikolai Kulemin (assisted by Niklas Hagman and Mikhail Grabovski) 9:10 into the period.

But the first line's best period all season came in the first, and that's saying a lot. Joe Thornton had three assists and a goal, Devin Setoguchi had a goal and an assist, and Patrick Marleau had two assists. Other scorers were Dan Boyle and Marc-Eduoard Vlasic, who took a beautiful no-look backhand feed from Thornton across the crease on the power play (the others were all even-strength); Rob Blake also assisted on the Sharks first goal.

Joe Pavelski pretty much ended the game with a short-handed goal (assisted by Milan Michalek) four minuted into the third period. Toronto got a goal in the final 35 seconds from Hagman, with assists by Nik Antropov and Grabovski, to make it appear closer than it was. They out-shot San Jose 31-30, leaving San Jose unbeaten in games they are out-shot (6-0-0).

The win tied the Sharks for the NHL all-time best start through 25 games with 43 points. However, that stat is misleading since prior to the 1999-2000 season no teams earned any points for an overtime loss, and prior to the lockout, there were no shootouts ensuring that someone would get two points in every game. Taking away those "extra" points, the Sharks would have 39, still good for fifth-best all-time.

The good news is that of the four other teams to finish better, all four made the Stanley Cup Finals. Even better is that two of them won it, and that is the only stat I care about.


The Robber Baron said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Robber Baron said...

Funny how this has become more like an easy victory vs a Battle. Did the 4 other teams in the pacific decide to throw in the towel already???

Good job on representing the Sharks. Keep up the good work even if the rest of your colleagues have made a run for the hills.

MJ Kasprzak said...

Yeah, in one of my earlier comments I posed that--I hope the actual battle of the Pacific is as lopsided as the Battle of the Pacific far, so good!

Thanks for responding--wish I knew what the other comment that was removed was.