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NHL - A Tale of Two Coaches

By Mike Chen
Sunday, April 4th, 2004
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At the season's start, they were both afterthoughts. Maybe, just maybe, they would make the playoffs. Might have a few good streaks here or there, but there was no way either of these teams could possibly be consistent throughout the season.

The Calgary Flames and San Jose Sharks did not exceed expectations. They destroyed them. With the Sharks locking in second place in the Western Conference and the Flames in the playoffs since before the calendar year changed, these two teams are irrefutable successes. And behind that success, lurks two distinctly different coaches with one common bond.

The road to the Jack Adams trophy for coach of the year, it seems, is through San Jose.

Darryl Sutter took a floundering San Jose expansion franchise, hammered his unique version of grit and experience into the psyche of the team, and turned them into a Western Conference powerhouse.

Ron Wilson led a group of grinders with superstars Teemu Selanne and Paul Kariya to the first playoff berth in Mighty Ducks history, along with winning a World Cup championship, and taking an unlikely Washington Capitals squad to a Stanley Cup final.

Both Wilson and Sutter got the axe for their team's failure. Wilson created a chasm between him and superstar Jaromir Jagr while losing the attention of his team. Sutter failed to change his team's system when his grinding veterans lost a step and his skill players were smothered in his defensive dump-and-chase routine.

Wilson and Sutter, refreshed and mindful of their past mistakes, approached their new teams with a different mindset. And though it took a little bit of time -- both coaches had losing finishes to the 2002-2003 season -- they won the respect and the attention of their players.

Ron Wilson has always been known as an acerbic, witty, and flexible coach. He built his system around the assets available to him. In Anaheim, he took a group consisting mostly of grinders and put them in a defensive system. He was smart enough to recognize the magic of the Selanne/Kariya duo, and put them with defensive center Steve Rucchin. That line was given leeway in their defensive assignments and the green light for being creative with the puck.

In Washington, he dealt with injuries and forward defensive liabilities by playing with a third defenseman in a rover position for a few games-much to the chagrin of Jaromir Jagr.

Many Sharks observers penned Wilson in to fail. He was a figurehead brought in by management, a big name to appease the new ownership. Wilson had never even coached a young team, so why should he succeed now?

Perhaps Ron Wilson of 1995 would have failed with a team as young as the Sharks. But the current Wilson was smart enough to learn from his mistakes. He knew when to push buttons and when to keep quiet. He knew that he could utilize the youth and speed of his skaters if he could just get them to believe in themselves. And in order to do that, Wilson commissioned a rotating captaincy.

At first, it seemed like a token move for a team with no identity. Wilson's plan, however, became evident as the season grew on-to have the veteran leaders in Mike Ricci and Vincent Damphousse set the bar, only to transfer the mantle to the younger players.

Wilson's plan succeeded. Gradually, the captaincy and alternate captaincy shifted from experience to youth. An in-house meeting challenged Patrick Marleau and Marco Sturm to take control of the team.

Eventually, the leadership letters stopped rotating. Patrick Marleau, who carried the team on his back for a good portion of the season in addition to become more physical and better at face offs, received the C and never let it go. Alyn McCauley and Mike Rathje stand proudly as the alternate captains. Now, on the cusp of the playoffs, it is clear that Ron Wilson had a plan from day one to not only alter the on ice system, but to finally bring about the maturation of his young squad.

Darryl Sutter's selection as coach, and eventually GM, of the Calgary Flames could have been an publicity stunt. He was, after all, a good Alberta boy, and what better way to ignite public interest in a horrible team than by bringing the local boy home and giving him the keys to the castle?

Sutter missed the playoffs for the first time in his coaching/playing career after taking over the Flames in 2002-2003. After taking the role of general manager, as well, Sutter repeated his early San Jose keys to success. He tweaked the roster, eliminating those that he thought would not fit into his gritty system. He appointed Jarome Iginla captain in a move designed elevate the young superstar-similar to naming Owen Nolan captain of the Sharks.

The Flames started out the season hovering around the .500 mark. Ironically, it took the arrival of a former Sutter player -- and one of the keys to the Shark collapse in 2002-2003-to spark the team.

Miikka Kiprusoff -- the odd man out behind Evgeni Nabokov and Vesa Toskala -- showed that he was not going to blow his second chance at being a starting goaltender after failing miserably last year during Nabokov's hold out. With the arrival of Kiprusoff, along with other Sutter troops such as Dave Lowry and Shean Donavon, the Flames soared to their best record in years and never looked back.

While many Sutter critics thought that he squashed the development of youth in San Jose, Sutter acknowledged that one of the keys to his current team is his young defensive group. Robyn Regehr, Jordan Leopold, and Tony Lydman make up the core of a defense that has no players over 30-years-old. This is a far cry from the veteran Shark group of Gary Suter, Bryan Marchment, and Marcus Ragnarsson that Sutter relied on. His willingness to be flexible with his youth showed a new direction for Sutter.

Both Ron Wilson and Darryl Sutter have passed their first tests with their new teams. The next challenge is to see if both coaches continue to adapt. Sutter's Achilles heel in San Jose was his unwillingness to let the young skill players have more responsibility. Wilson's downfall in Washington was losing the focus of his veterans.

As the players mature, both coaches will find themselves in similar predicaments that led to their previous firings. Only time will tell if both Sutter and Wilson will succeed or if they will be doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.

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