It's Wilson vs. Sutter ... until the puck drops

Updated: May 6, 2004, 12:12 PM ET
By Ray Ratto | Special to ESPN.com

DENVER -- Ron Wilson sounded almost wistful ... well, OK, as wistful as he ever sounds ... when he considered his San Jose Sharks' next test.

Darryl Sutter
Sutter
Ron Wilson
Wilson
"I'll tell you," he told you, "Calgary's phenomenal. They're very physical. They pounded mercilessly on the Red Wings. If they [the aforementioned Red Wings] had somehow survived that series, they wouldn't have been able to skate with us."

OK, so wistful probably wasn't the right word. I mean, Ron Wilson does wistful the way Charles Durning does pretty.

Still, Wilson sure sounded as though he would have just as soon taken a crippled Detroit team over a healthy Calgary team in the Western Conference finals.

Yeah, yeah, we know. What a sport he is. Maybe they'll let him play the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Cup final.

Still, Wilson knows that Topic A between now and Sunday's first game will center around the topic, "Darryl Sutter. Ron Wilson. Compare and contrast, with extra points for irritating one of the subjects."

This is baggage that neither Sutter, the Sharks coach who was, nor Wilson, the Sharks coach who is, particularly needed. They'd like to talk about the hockey.

On the other hand, who asked them what they wanted? You got one day of Miikka Kiprusoff v. Evgeni Nabokov. You got maybe a day and a half of Jarome Iginla, Human Exemplar. And a couple of hours of Flames' 89 Cup nostalgia ... hey, is that a badger sleeping on Lanny McDonald's face?

But there are four days between now and Mother's Day, when the two teams get together, and time must be spent arguing pointlessly over which coach is a superior example of the pacing-behind-the-dasher art.

And why will we do this? Because five days is a long time, and because we can, using the utterly bogus evidence of who wins this series as proof.

What? Bogus talk before a series starts? Next, you'll be telling us that there's a badger sleeping on Donald Trump's head.

Still, there's a manner of idiot's logic to this, and what better place to exercise it?

The Flames play pretty much as the Sharks did under Sutter. They grind, they hit, they finish already-finished checks, they have one standout player, and they goaltend.

The Sharks, on the other hand, don't play all that much like they used to. They skate, they go forward, they try to make the game fast by opening the rink, and they goaltend.

In fact, Wilson, who never met a notebook he couldn't try to bend to his will, started the cage-poking after Tuesday's 3-1 series-closing win over Colorado by saying, "He'll know some of our individuals, but I wouldn't say he has an edge, because we play a completely different style than when he was around."

In fairness, he also said, "The morality of that family is incredible," so it wasn't like he forgot his duty to acknowledge his opposite suit.

But we digress. If Sutter can beat his old players with his new players, that would seem to vindicate him for having the temerity to be fired last season in San Jose, mostly for reasons that had more to do with the Sharks' Flexi-straw investor structure than any shortcomings in his work.

On the other hand, if Wilson can beat Sutter's new players with his old players, then that must prove, well, what, exactly?

You see the problem here. What this series will actually prove is what group of players will play better for a longer period of time than the other. It won't really establish Ron Wilson's place in the universe viz. Darryl Sutter or vice versa.

But, and don't take this the wrong way, this is a debate that will end up having more legs than, say, Robyn Regehr v. Scott Hannan, or Oleg Saprykin v. Alexander Korolyuk. It's just a sexier topic, and the only reason we said that is because it marks the first time ever that the words "Darryl Sutter," "Ron Wilson" and "sexy" have appeared in the same sentence.

And if it isn't the first time those words have appeared in the same sentence, then it must have been written by the same person who thinks the words "John Tortorella," "Ken Hitchcock" and "way hot" belong in the same sentence.

But we digress again. The point here is, this is not a series that will otherwise grip the bulk of the continent, at least not in the pre-series tub-thumping.

Still, the hockey will be great viewing for those who do bother, because the one thing that separates the Stanley Cup playoffs from all other postseason endeavors is the fact that the allegedly inferior team can win any game, and in fact any number of games. That makes it easier for both teams in any game to play as though the mortgage were on the line, even when it isn't.

And once the games start, there is at least an even-money bet that they will grab our attention, and the coaches will become an afterthought -- no matter how sexy they might be.

Ray Ratto is a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

ALSO SEE