- Terry Frei, Special to ESPN.com
- 0 Shares
Five years ago this month, Tony Granato was one of the San Jose Sharks' veterans, joining a contingent of players and members of the organization at Clement Park, across the street from Columbine High School in suburban Denver.
The first-round series between the Sharks and the Colorado Avalanche had been scheduled to open in Denver, but the NHL and the Avalanche agreed to move the first two games to San Jose after the April 20 shootings at the high school left the Denver area -- and, indeed, the nation -- in shock.
Two years ago, Granato was a member of the Sharks' radio broadcasting crew when San Jose again faced the Avalanche in the Western Conference semifinals. That time, Colorado came back from a 3-2 deficit to advance, and part of Granato's job was to attempt to put in perspective some of the moves made by the coaches -- Colorado's Bob Hartley and San Jose's Darryl Sutter.
And now, as the Sharks and Avalanche prepare to meet again in the conference semifinals, Granato still is learning how wild the fluctuations of evaluation can be, as he stands behind the Colorado bench in his second playoff run as head coach.
"I don't know if it's strange, but it's exciting," Granato said of going against the franchise that brought him in from the Los Angeles Kings as a free agent in 1996. "No matter who you're playing at this stage of the season, it's a challenge. It's a good hockey team. We're a team that's ready. We're a team that had a very good first round."
Since Granato left the San Jose broadcast crew, the Sharks have been through considerable changes -- including the firings of general manager Dean Lombardi and Sutter -- but there still are enough familiar faces around the Sharks to make the 39-year-old Avalanche coach nod frequently in greeting. At one point this season, after a warm conversation with a convivial man in the HP Pavilion hallway after a morning skate, Granato even revealed a state secret as he introduced his buddy to a writer.
"That's Sharky," he said of the Sharks' wildly popular costumed mascot.
There have been times, especially during the Avalanche's first-round flameout against the Wild a year ago, during the stumbles through the final 25 games of this season, and even during the first-round victory over Dallas, that Granato has been portrayed as having as much business calling the shots behind an elite team's bench as, well, Sharky.
Yet when the Avalanche were doing well, he has been portrayed as a coaching natural, taking to this business like an intuitive swimmer doing the freestyle after being tossed in the pool for the first time.
He has been derided as befuddled and overmatched, especially when it seemed in the two games at Dallas that the Avalanche had stopped their puck-pursuing aggressiveness and were determined to sit on leads.
He has been ripped, and rightfully so, for occasionally watching his team indulging in Sutteresque message-sending -- when this is a franchise that pretended to be above that sort of thing.
Granato has a lot of evolving to do as a coach, especially to become a great one, but that mostly involves developing a confident decisiveness, trusting his own instincts and being himself -- rather than toeing a carefully drawn company line.
Yes, it's folly to assume that bland public pronouncements are the speeches made behind closed doors, yet too often those of us in this business -- and those reading us -- make that assumption. But when it comes off as denial, it contributes to an atmosphere that doesn't enhance the coach's credibility.
That line is championed by Pierre Lacroix, the highly successful GM who has done a remarkable job in his decade with the franchise. That approach isn't disingenuous, because the one-for-all, don't-rock-the-boat mantra is as genuine in hockey -- and in Colorado -- as anywhere in major-league sports. But when it squeezes the individuality out of the coach, at least for public display, that in the long run can be counterproductive because it contributes to the impression that when things aren't going well, Granato is in denial of the problems, not combating them.
Granato was elevated because the Avalanche stars were chafing under Hartley, and Lacroix was seeing his dream of overseeing an unprecedented nine straight division championships slipping away. He coached with a recent ex-player's touch, running snappier practices. It is what the Avalanche wanted, and they responded. Of course, the major inevitability about such transitions is that at some point, when the team struggles (as all teams do), the parroted talk will be that the boys now need a disciplinarian and a detail-oriented taskmaster.
You know, someone like Bob Hartley.
The most comical illustrations of the contradictions in evaluation of Granato's work have come over the past few weeks. He has been ripped for presumably being so in command that he has placed his team in a strategic strait jacket, demanding that the Avs sit back and try to take the air out of the puck, to speak, after getting leads. (In truth, his failing was not insisting that the Avalanche keep pressing, and there is a difference between that and ordaining excessive caution.) Yet the next criticism is that Granato has about as much influence on the Avalanche as a rink supervisor overseeing drop-in hockey.
Either he is this master puppeteer, manipulating his veteran-laden team, or he is powerless.
Of course, the truth is somewhere in the middle. But that's what the Avalanche were seeking when they hired him.
And then you come to one of the bottom lines.
Granato's regular-season record as a head coach is 72-33-17-11. That's better at the same stages than either of his predecessors, Marc Crawford and Hartley, rightfully regarded as two of the best in the business.
The Avalanche's playoff victory over Dallas was a relief for Granato, though he portrayed it as just another step in a quest. It was safe to assume that Lacroix reluctantly would have made a change if the Avalanche had lost in the first round for the second straight season, couching it that Granato had done a good job but something had to be done after two straight underachievements. And despite that record, Granato probably would have been stamped as a flop as a head coach, not getting anywhere near the most of a talented roster.
In some ways, Granato can't win. He has a job others would covet, but his credentials are skimpy. He didn't pay his dues. Absolutely, that has drawn some resentment from contemporaries around the league, even from the ex-players among the league's coaching ranks who did more extensive apprenticeships.
Above all, though, there are those high expectations.
Terry Frei, of The Denver Post, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming," available nationwide, and of the upcoming "Third Down and a War to Go."
As head coach of the Avalanche, Tony Granato can't win -- even if he doesn't lose.