SAN JOSE -- Now, it is all on the players. Because nobody can blame the coach anymore.
Monday's dismissal of Ron Wilson by the San Jose Sharks was hardly a stunner, in spite of his success with the team. He was a great coach in the regular season -- and I do not use the word "great" lightly. No man in franchise history ever stood behind the bench and won more, both in terms of percentage and raw victories.
The trouble always began in late April or early May. In three of Wilson's four playoff seasons, the Sharks were defeated by a lower-seeded team. On the fourth occasion, the Sharks were leading higher-seeded Detroit before everything fell apart.
Bottom line: If you are seeded higher in a series, you are supposed to win. The Sharks didn't. If you are ahead in a series, you should win. The Sharks didn't. Once each year. Like clockwork.
How, then, could you expect our beloved Los Tiburones to return next autumn with the same recipe and expect a different result in May 2009? Wilson was the most obvious ingredient to change. But by choosing that option rather than blowing up the roster -- management says there will be some changes, but nothing major -- the pressure now falls squarely on the Sharks players. Even their ousted coach hinted as much.
"There's enough talent there to win the Stanley Cup," Wilson said of his former roster in a media conference call. "That's why I wanted to come back."
He won't, though. There's no mystery why. During the Ron Wilson era, the Sharks had a maddening inability to sustain intense hard-core hockey for three consecutive playoff periods.
Or, as general manager Doug Wilson calls the desired quality: "Systemic efficiency at a high level."
So there you have it. Every spring, at the high playoff level, the Sharks were either non-systematically efficient, or systematically non-efficient. Take your pick. Personally, I believe the system was fine. The efficiency was not.
Can you blame Ron Wilson for that? Absolutely. At least in part. Maybe a large part. Maybe a small part. Next year, we will discover which.
Monday's announcement will set off no mass wailing in the Sharks' dressing room. Ron Wilson had a few allies there. But only a few. He was not unanimously popular -- though, of course, no one says coaches should be.
Wilson's motivational method was to acerbicly point fingers and name names. In Game 4 against Detroit in 2007 when the Sharks infamously blew their third-period lead, there were reports of the coach scorching the ears of the offending players, face to face, in front of the entire room before the overtime. The Sharks went on to lose the overtime and the series.
All along, some players were annoyed by Wilson's ego and even his widely publicized reputation as a lover of computer technology. Early in his tenure, Wilson was riding a key Sharks player extremely hard about his defensive lapses.
"What's going on out there with you?" Wilson asked the player angrily after one shift.
"Why don't you check one of your laptop programs?" the player retorted. "Maybe you'll get an answer."
At the start of the next period when the team returned to the bench, Wilson leaned over and tapped the player on the shoulder.
"Hey," Wilson said, "I did check my laptop. And you know what it said? It said that I shouldn't play you in this period. So keep your seat."
If only these motivational ploys had taken the Sharks to the Stanley Cup Finals. Monday's announcement would never have happened.
Frankly, I wasn't sure that Wilson even wanted to stick around and coach the Sharks another season. I had seen him so exasperated with the team at various points.
However, during a rather spirited discussion last week, Wilson set me straight. He was no quitter, he told me. He blistered my ears for even suggesting he might resign. He also didn't much like my suggestion that the Sharks' formula had to change, possibly including him. We didn't part on terrific terms.
So be it. Wilson won't believe this, but I will miss him. I learned a lot from him about hockey. I enjoyed his perspective. He'll have another NHL job as soon as he wants one.
Heck, he might even come back one day to beat the Sharks in a playoff series. If that should happen, we will definitely know the players were the issue in terms of pushing through the second-round barrier. Because as of today, no matter who the next coach is, the onus is on them. All on them.