- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 30, 2004

You can’t fire the players, so you fire the coach. How many times have we heard that rationalization over the years? It’s accepted as virtual gospel nowadays, what with guaranteed contracts and no-trade clauses and salary caps. If a team gets stuck in the sand, it’s always the coach (or manager) who gets canned.

But does it really have to be that way? I raise the question because the San Jose Sharks reached the 100-point plateau Sunday night, a franchise record, by beating the Dallas Stars 2-1 in overtime. And the Sharks happen to be coached by someone quite familiar to Washingtonians: Ron Wilson.

Wilson guided the Capitals to their only Stanley Cup Finals appearance in 1998 but was fired four years later because, as George McPhee put it, “Sometimes a coach’s relationship with a team runs its course.” Wils has been in San Jose barely a season-and-a-half, though, so his relationship with the Sharks is still on solid footing. Indeed, after last year’s free-fall to 14th place in the Western Conference, his players are absolutely thrilled to be contenders for the Cup.

“We’ve grown a lot,” team leader Vincent Damphousse said after the win over Dallas. “We’ve learned to trust each other and” — key phrase coming up — “buy into the system.”

The Caps had ceased to buy into Wilson’s system when the club let him go in 2002. Many of the players were tired of his badgering, well intentioned or not, and the front office thought he was the wrong coach for the type of team being assembled. For one thing, he preached defense first, and that didn’t exactly play to Jaromir Jagr’s strengths. And with Robert Lang soon to come aboard …

But Ted Leonsis’ dream of putting a high-scoring, crowd-pleasing club on the ice turned out to be a financial and organizational disaster. At the same time the Sharks are gearing up for a long playoff run, the Caps are bracing for the possibility of finishing with the worst record in the league — and Leonsis is talking about the team returning to its roots, becoming a lovable band of hard-working, blue-collar, overachievers again.

A Ron Wilson-type team, in other words.

But getting back to my original point, this mania about firing the coach because you can’t fire the players. In other sports it might be true, but in hockey it clearly isn’t — as the Caps have been proving in recent months. In trading away Jagr, Lang, Peter Bondra, Sergei Gonchar, Michael Nylander, Mike Grier, Anson Carter and Steve Konowalchuk, what has McPhee been doing if not firing the players? Granted, the moves were made to reduce the payroll, not because of dissatisfaction with each and every guy, but still … It shows you can do a wholesale housecleaning in the NHL, and do it quickly, if you want.

Let’s hope Leonsis remembers this the next time he wants to take the club in a different direction — or the next time one of his stars whines about the coach. If he’s convinced the coach in question knows his stuff (that is, has steered three different clubs into the playoffs, as Wilson has now done, and led Team USA to the World Cup hockey title) why not get rid of the complainer(s) and keep the coach?

In hockey, the trade market is always hopping, it seems. Good players are forever being swapped for each other, for a variety of reasons (personality conflict, contract status, the need of a change of scenery, etc.) There’s nothing to prevent a team from wiping the slate clean and letting the coach start over — except that nobody ever does it.

In fact, of all the sports, the NHL is the quickest to change coaches whenever something goes wrong. It’s the ADD League. The reason Wilson got a chance in San Jose is that the Sharks bailed on Darryl Sutter — after he’d taken them to the playoffs five straight seasons (each time with a better record than before). But the club won only eight of its first 24 games last year, so Sutter got the boot.

San Jose got off to an even slower start this season under Wilson, winning just three of its first 19. But since then, the Sharks are 38-14-4-4, including 8-1-1 in their last 10. And they’ve done it without a single 30-goal scorer. (Patrick Marleau and Jonathan “Sneeze” Cheechoo are tops with 28.) Wils simply has them playing together, playing the kind of grinding defense his Caps teams used to be famous for — before they began loathing him for it.

“Nobody expected this, not even me,” he said after San Jose all but wrapped up the second seed in the conference playoffs Sunday night.

And nobody in Washington expected the Caps’ season to go as it has, certainly not Ted Leonsis.

Connect the dots.

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