Anaheim calling to the hockey world...
After four seasons, the Mighty Ducks' first head coach, Ron Wilson, led the franchise to its Stanley Cup Playoffs debut, a campaign that ended in a contentious second round sweep by the Detroit Red Wings and, surprisingly, an announcement that the team would not be renewing Wilson's contract. The ins and outs of that decision and the details of how early that decision was made lead many, including Wilson himself, to say the coach was fired. But honestly, that's a Duck Tales post all its own. The important thing to take away is that one year after they parted ways, the Mighty Ducks were in complete disarray, and Ron Wilson was leading the Washington Capitals to the Stanley Cup Finals.
In August, the Ducks named Pierre Pagé as Wilson's replacement. Pagé was a seven-year bench chief (227-258-69) whose most notable achievement at the time was executing the Eric Lindros trade as the GM of the Quebec Nordiques. Before that, he had served as the head coach for the Minnesota Northstars under then-GM Jack Ferreira, who just so happened to be looking for a new coach for the Ducks when Pagé could not see eye to eye with the Flames on a contract renewal. Ferreira had this to say as far as why his longtime friend was a more than adequate replacement for Wilson:
"If Pierre had been available when we began this franchise, he would have been our coach." -
Before the season even started, the chips were stacked against Pagé. It was an Olympic year, so the coach had to factor in what that layoff (and for some key players, that playing time) would do to his squad. What's more, the Ducks were set to open their schedule in Japan to promote the Nagano Games. While it may have been an honor to be part of the first NHL contests played outside of North America, the trip added a huge burden to an already travel-intensive west coast schedule. All that BEFORE you factor in the absence of Paul Kariya, who was in the camp of players that were reportedly unhappy with Ron Wilson's dismissal in addition to the star forward's ongoing contract-negotiation-turned-holdout.
As a coach, Pagé believed in speed with the puck and grit on the opposing puck carrier. He also believed in shuffling his lines to get exactly what he wanted while using essential pairings to anchor chemistry (sound familiar?). If he didn't like what he saw on the ice, he would overplay established NHLers as soon as he would scratch them. And he wasn't afraid to call players out, sometimes in the press, for not performing.
In theory, he was the kind of coach you wanted if you were missing superstars in your lineup or generally just couldn't get the most out of your team, but the taskmaster's sound and fury amounted to twisting at windmills as the season progressed. The team went 26-43-13 and 3-4-13 in OT, good for 2nd to last in the Western Conference and the fourth lowest finish in the league. It was also the worst winning percentage the team had ever managed in an 82 game schedule, and remains the second worst in franchise history. The Ducks' home record (12-23-6) was built on an average goals-for of 2.29 and a goals-against of 3.27, making the Pond a rather unattractive place to see a hockey game that year. The obvious question is, were they a playoff team but for Paul Kariya's holdout?
Well, before Kariya signed, Anaheim played 32 games for a record of 11-15-6, and amidst long winless streaks, they posted a goals-for/goals-against of 70/91. Kariya returned on December 12th to face Ron Wilson's Capitals, and with the left winger back in the lineup, the team did manage 62 goals (17 of which belonged to the returning forward) in 22 games. However, Anaheim gave up 72 goals-against and stumbled to a 7-12-3 record.
That 22-game stretch ended with the season's most infamous incident, a cross check to the head by the Blackhawks' Gary Suter which put Paul Kariya out for the year. It was his second concussion from a cheapshot in as many seasons, following a blatant elbow from Maple Leafs defenseman Mathieu Schneider that sidelined the left winger for two games in November of 1996. Suddenly, the prospect of the Ducks losing their franchise player for a few months paled by comparison to the possibility of losing him for good.
The incident, as well as newbie enforcer Brent Severyn's decision to reason with Gary Suter verbally (but not physically) afterwards, cast a pall over the rest of the season and led to desperate and impromptu team-building exercises like the March 13th Rumble at Reunion. The Ducks could only continue their downward spiral, however, finishing the season 8-16-4 and allowing 88 goals-against to 55 goals-for in that span.
Throughout the season, Ferreira tried to help his friend, and when he could get deals done, the team shipped off longtime Ducks Bobby Dollas and Joe Sacco to the Oilers and Islanders respectively to bring in key players or just do something, anything to wake up the team. However, Ferreira was also trying to keep his own job after his management of the Kariya holdout and, frankly, the Pagé hiring. The GM found himself renewing Teemu Selanne's contract well ahead of schedule, but in the end, none of it was enough to improve confidence in his abilities. He was replaced in the offseason by his former assistant general manager, Pierre Gauthier; Pagé was replaced by Craig Hartsburg, a coach whom the Ducks had explored after firing Wilson.
It's tough to lay the season on Pagé's shoulders, but that's traditionally what you do with a head coach, especially one who finds himself yelling at players that are largely ignoring him. I suppose you tell yourself it's easier to get rid of a coach than it is to get rid of players or that if the players all agree that the coach is not worth their attention, then maybe he isn't.
It's also difficult to avoid contrasting Pierre Pagé to Ron Wilson. After all, the Ducks followed up their best finish in franchise history with their worst (except for the shortened Lockout year), even if multiple factors away from the bench were in play. By dropping Wilson, management sent the message to future coaches that results weren't everything. Of course, one year later, by shuffling management, ownership sent that message that no, results most definitely are everything.