SAN JOSE, Calif. - With the latest technology and the oldest mind games, coach Ron Wilson led the San Jose Sharks to more victories than any NHL club over the past four seasons.
Not enough of those victories came in the post-season to please general manager Doug Wilson, who's making big changes to a talented team that usually wins, but just can't win it all.
San Jose fired Ron Wilson on Monday after his club followed another outstanding regular season with yet another early exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Sharks won the Pacific Division and compiled the NHL's second-best record with 49 wins and 108 points, but the Dallas Stars knocked them out of the second round in six games on May 4. San Jose ended its past three seasons with six-game losses in the second round, and the Sharks lost to a lower-seeded team in three of their four post-seasons under Ron Wilson.
After a week of evaluation with his ownership group, Doug Wilson dramatically dispatched the most successful coach in franchise history to begin shaking up his collection of playoff underachievers.
"Sometimes the class needs a new professor, and sometimes the professor needs a new class," said Doug Wilson, who claimed the Sharks played only "five good playoff games" among their 13 post-season outings this spring.
"The results (show) we didn't get over that hump," Doug Wilson added. "We kind of got to a certain point, and we got bogged down. You can't just sit back and assume things will be different. I'm not going to apologize for where we're at, but where we're at today is we're not playing, and we think across the board that we should be farther along."
Ron Wilson's clubs never repeated their trip to the 2004 Western Conference finals despite a roster starring former MVP Joe Thornton, captain Patrick Marleau and goalie Evgeni Nabokov. Doug Wilson acknowledged further changes are in store for that roster, but he started with Ron Wilson, a technological innovator and sometimes stern taskmaster who coached nine seasons in Anaheim and Washington before joining San Jose.
He became the Sharks' leader in victories and winning percentage while going 206-134-45 and winning two division titles during 4 1/2 seasons behind their bench despite the franchise's consistent decision to have one of the NHL's lowest payrolls.
"In most ways I was shocked when Doug told me, but in some ways I guess I was not surprised," Ron Wilson said in a telephone interview. "When it happens when you don't expect it, you're disappointed. I can honestly say that I couldn't be prouder of my work here. I think our team's record speaks for itself. Obviously we didn't win a Stanley Cup while I was here. I'm disappointed in that as any coach would be."
His 518 victories are the eighth-most in NHL history, trailing only Mike Keenan and Bryan Murray among active coaches, and he's ninth with 1,091 career games coached.
Rob Zettler and Tim Hunter, Ron Wilson's respected assistant coaches, remained under contract to the Sharks and will be candidates in Doug Wilson's coaching search, the general manager said. Doug Wilson said he could interview his first hopefuls by Tuesday.
"Even though coaching can be a very callous and negative position, my staff and I poured my heart and soul into this," Ron Wilson said. "It's very difficult to talk about this unemotionally."
After putting together a 20-game streak without a regulation defeat shortly before the regular season ended, the second-seeded Sharks seemed poised for their playoff breakthrough, with many experts picking them to win their first title.
San Jose, the NHL's best road team and the league's best penalty-killers during the regular season, tenaciously held off Keenan's Calgary Flames in the first round before falling into an 0-3 hole to the Stars in the tight second-round series, which featured four overtime games.
"I can't control guys falling down," Ron Wilson said, remembering the decisive goal in San Jose's Game 2 loss to Dallas, which was set up by Joe Pavelski's pratfalling turnover to Brad Richards. "I can't control bounces in the playoffs. I would play that series again and go in with the same game plan. You out-chance and outshoot a team, and sometimes it isn't meant to be."
Wilson's cerebral, sarcastic nature has appealed to many of his players over the years, but others chafed under his style. Though Doug Wilson got his job five months after the Sharks hired Ron Wilson in December 2002, the two former NHL defencemen seemed to forge a strong working bond during their half-decade together.
"Dougie has been an unbelievable guy to work with," Ron Wilson said. "Today is the one day you don't want to see Dougie Wilson come into your office with a stern look on his face, but that's life, and you move on."
Wilson, who also has coached the U.S. national team on several occasions, is likely to be a candidate for most NHL coaching vacancies if he decides to jump right back behind a bench. Colorado, Atlanta, Florida and Toronto currently have openings, but Wilson said his first priority is to decompress back home in South Carolina before a summer which includes his oldest daughter's wedding.
"The only thing the team can do better, apparently, is win the Stanley Cup," Ron Wilson said. "There's enough talent there, and that's why I wanted to come back."