December 10, 2011
In changing the coach, the Saginaw Spirit might have signalled what they plan to do over the next month.
Evidently, the OHL franchise, decided that Todd Watson wasn't the solution, ergo he must be part of the problem. Saginaw boasts seven NHL draft picks, but it entered Saturday night's action six points out of a playoff spot despite a lineup with seven NHL draft picks. That was enough for owner Dick Garber and president Craig Goslin to decide to see if changing the coach would change the atmosphere in the dressing room that has caused the Spirit to be less than the sum of their parts since about the two-thirds point of last season. So Watson is out as coach and GM, with former Calgary Flames coach Greg Gilbert taking over behind the bench and assistant GM and director of scouting Jim Paliafito becoming general manager.
As Goslin told Saginaw's 100.5 FM during the pregame show:
"For some reason, this team was just not responding this year and we felt, Mr. Garber and myself, both felt that a new message and a new messenger was important to see if this team would respond. We thought that a change was necessary."
[Later in the interview]
"When we asked Jim [Paliafito] to become GM, he in turn has worked diligently over the last few days to find a top-tier hockey coach. Our thoughts there were that if he could find a top-tier hockey coach, we'd replace Todd now, and if we didn't, we'd continue in our current direction. He did find a top-tier guy, a guy we feel is the cream of the crop, a guy who we feel is one of the best junior coaches ... and we also feel Todd is a top-tier coach. Like I said, for some reason that message wasn't getting through."
Is "new message" code for putting out the We Are Rebuilding: Thank You For Your Patience sign? The Spirit are 11-17-0-0 and frankly, if they were going to turn it around, it would have happened already. One never claims to know what really goes in the dressing room, but something has to be off when a team with so many draft picks, including two world junior tournament candidates, defenceman Jamie Oleksiak for Canada and centre Brandon Saad, is far below .500. (Saad has only played 10 games, but one man does not make that much of a difference.)
Watson was publicly noncommittal about rebuilding earlier this week about doing so. It could be a case where the Spirit management was more eager to rebuild than the GM. One has to be secure in his job to go down the road of strategically bottoming out in hope of bringing younger players along faster in hope of contending again sooner.
The background in scouting Paliafito might come in handy. With his former role, he ought to have a good handle on the younger players other teams might offer in exchange for any Spirit veterans, including 19-year-old centre John McFarland. Meantime, it is probably for the greater good that Gilbert is back in the league; he was a popular and respected coach with the then-Mississauga IceDogs in the early 2000s. Gilbert is expected to join the Spirit Monday and coach his first game two nights later.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet (photo: OHL Images).