- Scott Burnside, NHL
- 0 Shares
SAN JOSE -- For a guy who appears to have taken up permanent residence on the so-called "coaching hot seat," Ron Wilson looks neither overdone nor overly concerned.
The acerbic San Jose Sharks coach is strolling around the team's dressing room on the morning of a game against Los Angeles, coffee in hand, needling Kings broadcaster and former NHLer Jim Fox about his backchecking and holding forth on possible changes to the game.
Wilson vs. Wilson
There could hardly be two more different personality types than Doug and Ron Wilson (pictured).
Doug, an NHL defenseman for 16 seasons who was involved in the formative years of the NHL Players' Association, is measured and calm and not given to histrionics. He insisted the media misinterpreted his deliberateness for indecisiveness in returning Ron Wilson to the coaching post. He said he would take the same amount of time to assess the team's performance if they'd won the Stanley Cup.
"I think a lot of people jumped to whatever conclusions," he said.
Ron played 177 NHL games, but is considered one of the brightest coaches in the game who is always at the forefront of technological advances and is a master of breaking the game down statistically.
For instance, he has identified a key problem with his team this season -- shift lengths. He said they're too long. Players are staying out too long, in part because he thinks they want to do too much, and the team has struggled offensively as a result.
In a recent Anaheim-Los Angeles game, where the Ducks came from behind to defeat the Kings, Wilson noted the Ducks forwards were averaging 49 seconds a shift. His forwards average almost 10 seconds more a shift.
"You want to play 21 minutes? Don't do it in 21 shifts, do it in 26 or 27," he said. "The games where we mentally think short shifts, we score four or five goals. When you have the night when it starts [where] you didn't score early in the game, the shifts always start to sort of drag out. You have no offense because you're tired."
-- Scott Burnside
Later that evening, Wilson's Sharks will drop a 3-2 shootout decision to the Kings in a game that was a microcosm of San Jose's up-and-down season.
The single point pushed the Sharks back inside the playoff bubble into eighth place in the Western Conference. They are 11-8-4, which isn't all that bad unless you've been a preseason Stanley Cup darling for the past two or three seasons and haven't come close to delivering the goods yet.
That's the problem with expectations -- they do funny things to people and teams.
Being good most of the time doesn't cut it if you aspire to be great. And with each less-than-inspiring effort, like the Los Angeles game in which they once again failed to capitalize on chances but turned in a stellar defensive performance, come more questions about the Sharks and Wilson's future.
The two questions, it would seem, are inexorably linked. But the coach doesn't seem to care too much what the media thinks about his job security or the expectations heaped on his team's shoulders.
"What kind of pressure is that [being picked to win the Stanley Cup]?" Wilson asked. "Are you in here with a gun threatening me if we don't win the Stanley Cup? Now if that were the case, I'd be worried. Somebody picks somebody to win the Stanley cup. Whether they're right or wrong.
"People still fail to realize that we're the second-youngest team in the league. Hey, some idiot said to me the other day, 'If you guys don't win this year, is it time to break up the team.' Break up the team? We're putting ourselves in position. We're going to win the Stanley Cup. We have a lot of things we still have to learn. We have new experiences to gain. We're going to be patient. It's not what everybody's expectations are; it's we'll win when we're ready to win."
But there's been an inescapable theme surrounding the Sharks since the lockout, and it's been a failure to close the deal. In the past two postseasons, they have blown series leads and bowed out in the second round.
After last season's second-round loss to Detroit, general manager Doug Wilson appeared to waffle over whether to bring back Ron Wilson, reinforcing the feeling, right or wrong, that the coach is one stretch of poor play away from taking the coaching high dive.
"You do see the stuff [that's being written and said]," coach Wilson said. "So, if I've lost the whole team, why are we playing so well defensively? You look at stuff like that. I'm not a fool. You go in there and you're always trying to figure out as a coach, 'Are they listening? Are they getting this? What are we going to do to change how we prepare?' Damn, you do that every day. You don't need the media. That stuff's there."
Doug Wilson has been supportive of his coach, but he is likewise unequivocal about his desire to see his talented squad perform better on a more consistent basis.
"We expect more and we expect more sooner than later," he said. "It's been an interesting year. We're not going to just accept how we're playing. We need a lot more from a lot more of our players."
The team's play during the first quarter of the NHL season suggests the team isn't quite there yet, and the incongruities in their play are vexing to both Wilson the coach and Wilson the GM.
The Sharks rank 16th on the power play and 26th at home, a great departure from last season when they had the league's second-ranked unit on the man advantage. They are also dreadful at home (3-5-2) yet marvelous on the road, where they are the league's most productive team (8-3-2).
"Our goal this year is to learn from [the playoff disappointments], how to put a team away. How to put a good team or a great team away, when the opportunities are there," Ron Wilson said. "I admit, it's been hit or miss so far."
One of the things Wilson has tried to do is back off from the criticism of his team. A year ago, Wilson drew criticism from some quarters when he criticized some of his veteran players, including captain Patrick Marleau, who had a grisly second-round series against the Wings.
"We're going through a process right now where, honest to God, we've got to back off a little bit and let those guys fight it in the room over what they're supposed to be doing. Not be hearing me come in there mad at the end of every period, get mad at themselves," Wilson said. "We've got a plan; the plan works. Defensively, we're second in the league in just about every defensive category -- goals against, shots against, PK [penalty kill]. We've got that part down.
"Now, get mad at yourselves for not digging in and scoring goals and going into the dangerous areas to do the job. That's what we've got to do. If we do that, we're going to be fine."
Wilson said the decision to back off a little this season was the result of discussion amongst the management and coaching teams.
"We talk about it as a group; Dougie, me, the coaches. What does this team have to do right now? What do they have to figure out? Do I have to hold a couple of guys who've played 800 games in the league? Do I have to hold their hand at this point, or are they going to actually lead on the ice, by example?" the coach said.
A team that was tied for the second-most productive offense in the West is now 11th in the conference in goals scored.
"I think a lot of guys in this room have to be challenged and maybe that challenge is going to propel this team further," offered newcomer Jeremy Roenick, who has been a pleasant surprise for the Sharks with 13 points and five game-winning goals.
"Our mental toughness is being questioned right now and I think it's up to a lot of us to bring that out," he added. "If that does come out and we do go on a roll, this team could be very, very tough to beat because of what we're going through right now."
Production has been off for players like Jonathan Cheechoo, (just three goals from the NHL's goal-scoring leader two seasons ago) and Milan Michalek (nine points in 20 games so far after a 66-point campaign in 2006-07). Even Joe Thornton, with 25 points in 23 games, is well of his pace.
"I feel when we're confident and playing our best, there aren't too many teams that can compete with us," Thornton said. "That's the raw deal. But we just haven't been getting it from everybody right now. But I really do still believe that after 20-something games, we haven't even hit the sky yet. We've got a lot to improve, but we'll get there this year."
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
Sharks coach Ron Wilson hears the cries for his dismissal. But he, more than anyone, believes it's only a matter of time before his team picks up steam.