Greg Gilbert New Saginaw Spirit Coach

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Greg Gilbert New Saginaw Spirit Coach

SAGINAW — New Saginaw Spirit coach Greg Gilbert is just beginning the evaluation process of his new team, one he said started Monday at his introduction and will continue for several weeks.

But it didn’t take him long to determine this: given the talent level on this year’s Spirit team, their place in the standings — ninth in the Western Conference — doesn’t add up.

“I think these guys here, looking at some of the skill and the players we have in the room are much more capable of being at a higher position than we are right now,” Gilbert said Monday at his introductory press conference. “I’m not going to say we’re going to sweep the second half and walk through everybody and win a championship. It takes time.”

Gilbert was announced as the Spirit’s new coach Saturday, when the team fired Todd Watson after four-and-a-half years. He will take to the bench for the first time Wednesday when Saginaw travels to Sault Ste. Marie.

In Gilbert, the Spirit have their first coach with experience as an NHL head coach. He spent parts of three seasons coaching the Calgary Flames from 2001-03, and has spent 14 total seasons as a coach at the NHL, AHL and OHL level.

His last OHL experience was from 2003-06, when he led the Mississauga IceDogs to a pair of 80-point seasons and a berth in the OHL finals.

While Watson served as both the team’s coach and General Manager, Gilbert will serve only as coach, while Jim Paliafito, formerly the team’s assistant general manager and director of scouting, will take over as general manager.

Gilbert acknowledged the differences to coaching at the AHL level, where he has been for his last four seasons as a coach, and at the OHL level. One of the his first goals is making his current Spirit team, one that team management said had stopped responding to Watson’s coaching, into a closer-knit bunch.

“Our job as coaches is to push these players to be better, to work harder, to work not only for themselves but to work hard and be unselfish and work for each other,” Gilbert said. “That, in itself, creates a closer-knit team.”

Gilbert said he doesn’t want to confuse players by making changes in systems right away. When he does begin to implement his style of play, he his team will have an aggressive forecheck, but use a system not entirely different than is in place.

“It’s going to be very similar,” Gilbert said. “I don’t want to give it away, but I call it a transfer. Everybody’s going to be moving, and moving their legs, taking away time and space, a lot quicker than it has been.”

One of the few specific aspects of this Spirit team Gilbert did address was the fact that they have given up 137 goals, second-most in the league, despite having a veteran team and defensive group.

“To be second-to-last, with all the skill they have on this hockey club, is unacceptable,” Gilbert said. “Our job as coaches is to get these guys to understand that playing without the puck is just as important as playing with it.”

Gilbert takes over a team that has struggled through its first half, but played some of its best hockey in two games since Watsons’ dismissal, when they came from behind in a 6-4 win Saturday over Belleville, and beat Erie, 7-1 on Sunday.

“I think after that weekend, we proved to ourselves that we can play good hockey still,” defenseman Brad Walch said. “We’ll find a way to get better and learn.”

Associate coach John Kisil and assistant coach George Daniel will remain with the team, Gilbert said, as he continues to evaluate.

“That’s something that I’ll deal with down the road,” Gilbert said of making coaching staff decisions. “But right now, the guys that are here are going to be here for a bit.”

From his Monday introduction, Gilbert will go right into learning the team, developing a plan, and becoming the sixth coach to lead the Spirit.

“I’m looking forward to it,” Gilbert said. “I can’t wait to get on the ice to be honest with you.”

Kyle Austin

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