Programmed for Success
After the Jagr debacle, Leonsis said the Caps have embarked on a strategy "not unlike what you are seeing from the Sharks and the Flames and the Lightning." Wilson called the Caps' recent reorganization "ironic because you're sent somewhere, and you're doing something that they wish they were doing before."
The overhaul in San Jose began with the purge of high-priced veterans such as former team captain Owen Nolan, Teemu Selanne and Bryan Marchment, the nucleus of what had been a talented-but-underperforming team. The goal was to clean out what had been a poisonous locker room and bring in fast, hungry players on whom Wilson could graft his system.
Wilson and his two assistants, Hunter and Rob Zettler, then did statistical and video analysis of last year's Stanley Cup playoffs. They looked in particular at teams such as Anaheim and Minnesota that had made dramatic leaps from the previous year. They determined that statistics such as penalty-killing and goals against average were critical.
In training camp, Wilson set three goals for the Sharks:
Win the Stanley Cup.
Finish in the top 10 in penalty-killing
Finish in the top 10 in goals against.
All three goals seemed far-fetched. The Sharks finished dead last in penalty-killing last year, allowing a power-play goal 19 percent of the time. They finished 26th in goals against, allowing 239. They finished with the second-worst record in the Western Conference.
When Wilson broke it down, however, it wasn't as formidable. "If your penalty-killing is bad, that means you're going to be scored against one goal a game," said Wilson. "And since the difference between winning and losing is like one-tenth of a goal, you're dead. For us to get from 30th to the top 10, we had to give up one less power-play goal every three games."
"That doesn't sound hard, does it?" Wilson told the Sharks.
They agreed it did not.
To make it work, Wilson "wanted everybody to be part of the defense," said center Vincent Damphousse. "When attackers come up on our defensemen, our forwards have to pressure from behind. It forces them to make the play quicker than they want. As soon as somebody gets the puck, he wants the first guy to be on him."
"If you don't have time and space on the ice, it's hard to make any kind of play," said right winger Todd Harvey.
Wilson used his SMART Board to illustrate his theories during meetings, then applied repetition to pound it into the Sharks during practices. The system was slow to take. When Wilson returned to Washington in early November this season, San Jose had two wins in its first 14 games.
"At the start of the season it was tough sledding for us," said Harvey. "We didn't know what we were doing. But as soon as we bought into his program, and he got everybody to buy in, well, that's what makes a team. Everybody is buying into this system now."
Wilson and his players attribute the turnaround to a players-only meeting following a 5-0 loss at Carolina on Oct. 28. Wilson first gathered a group of veterans, including Damphousse, center Mike Ricci, left wing Scott Thornton and defenseman Kyle McLaren. That meeting, Wilson said, was effectively "a cue card" to help the players initiate dialogue amongst themselves.
The entire team then met, without Wilson or the coaching staff. "We just realized that we've got to trust each other," said Damphousse. "I think everybody had a chance to talk, and it just cleared whatever doubts there may have been about whether the older guys trusted the younger guys and the younger guys trusted the older guys."
After the meeting, only Detroit had a better record. And a group of previously unheralded players -- defenseman Scott Hannan, center Alyn McCauley, center Wayne Primeau -- emerged. Goaltender Evgeni Nabokov, of Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan, set a franchise record with nine shutouts.
Wilson said he thinks his younger players may be more receptive to his methods because they're more computer-savvy. But when asked to describe how the technology works, players merely shrugged. But none seemed to doubt its effectiveness.
"It's the new age of hockey," said Harvey.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company