Tue Apr 17 01:45pm EDT
The Saginaw Spirit's transformation in the second half of the season can't be called a quick fix — but it was rapid enough for bench boss Greg Gilbert to be voted as the OHL's coach of the year.
Saginaw, frankly, was disspirited and disarray when the former NHL and AHL coach took over in December, languishing outside the playoff picture in the Ontario Hockey League's Western Conference. For the way he helped the Spirit rejuvenate themselves by climbing from ninth place to fifth. They also knocked of the Nail Yakupov-led Sarnia Sting in the first round before meeting their match in the Western semifinal vs. regular-season champion London, who wrapped up a six-game win on Saturday. All in all, the result was as much as the 50-year-old Mississauga native could have hoped for when he returned to the OHL by taking the job.
"You couldn't ask for a better ending — well, you could ask for a better ending, hopefully we'd still be playing," said Gilbert. "For something like this to happen, it's great for myself and great for the organization."
The Spirit easily could have punted on the season after their disjointed start. After coach-GM Todd Watson parted ways with the team, new general manager Jim Paliafito made some trades for the future by dealing NHL draft picks Anthony Camara, John McFarland and Jamie Oleksiak to the top three teams in the Eastern Conference. The Spirit also gave Chicago Blackhawks prospect Brandon Saad the captaincy. It paid off with a 20-10-1-5 finish down the stretch, which works out to a .639 point percentage.
That was enough to give Gilbert the approval of the rest of the league in the balloting for the Matt Leyden Trophy. It turned out to be a three-way race. Gilbert received 45 of a possible 95 points in the balloting. Kitchener Rangers coach-GM Steve Spott was second with 39 and the Brampton Battalion's Stan Butler was third with 34.
'Very, very surprised'
Spott helped the Rangers repeat their third-place finish in the West despite a whack of injuries and seeing former captain Gabriel Landeskog off to the NHL at age 19. Butler helped a band of unknowns in Brampton finish a strong fourth in the East.
"The most important thing to me is the rest of the coaches giving me the opportunity to receive this award," Gilbert said. "They were there the whole year and I came in mid-December ... Any of those coaches who were nominated deserve the award as much as I do. I was actually very, very surprised when I did find out because I came in halfway through the season, Usually an award like this goes to a coach who's been there all year and has had an outstanding season. So I'm very thankful and very honoured to have it.
"It's an award I'll always cherish but a lot of people put a lot of hard work into turning this ship around here," added Gilbert. "My assistant coaches John Kisil and George Daniel did a great job. Obviously the ownership group in Saginaw, I thank them very much and [general manager] Jim Paliafito for giving me the opportunity to get back into the fray and do what I love best."
Gilbert is the second consecutive recipient of the Matt Leyden Trophy who came to the OHL following a stint in the American Hockey League. The former Calgary Flames coach's approach with his players was a big reason why the Spirit played more to their potential in the second half.
"He motivated us and taught us to play the right way and treated us like NHLers," graduating overage defenceman Brad Walch said in a team release. "He taught me to be a better player and a better teammate."
The Spirit will have a new look next season, particularly on the top two lines. Three of their top five scorers are moving on, with 85-point man Vincent Trocheck and potential overager Garret Ross being the more prominent returnees. Saad, who tore up the league with 76 points in 44 games and a +35 plus/minus, is irreplaceable. But it shouldn't be forgotten how he helped the Spirit fight to the finish.
"First and foremost, the player you have to mention would be Brandon Saad," Gilbert said. "He took over our captaincy when we decided to make a change and move some people out and move some people in. Josh Shalla and Michael Fine and Vincent Trocheck and Brad Walch, who's a hometown boy here, were outstanding for us.
"As we all know, your older players are extensions of your coaches' arms and those guys did a great job in the dressing room holding people accountable to how we want to play. I could name every player on our team. I'm very grateful to these guys and we know we'll be losing a few of them [before next season] but they're all great human beings and I feel very fortunate to have had the time with them."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.