SAN JOSE, Calif. – Todd McLellan knows his first two months on the job were a bigger success than a rookie NHL head coach has any right to expect.
His San Jose Sharks are the class of the league through the season’s first quarter, blowing away almost every opponent they’ve faced with speed, depth and a relentless game plan that puts dozens of shots on net each night. The Sharks’ 16-3-1 start matched the third-best mark in NHL history, even with star goalie Evgeni Nabokov sidelined by injury for several games.
Yet a good early season record isn’t what excites McLellan, who still hasn’t had time to add many personal touches to the office at the Sharks’ training complex that was occupied for 5 1/2 years by fired coach Ron Wilson.
The former Detroit assistant is much more pleased by the confidence and chemistry he sees in a club that had been good for several years, but never discovered the right combination of strategy, toughness and mental fortitude to turn that success into Stanley Cups.
“There’s always a chance” of complacency, McLellan said after his club finished a methodical 7-2 rout of Washington, one of the Eastern Conference’s top clubs, on Monday.
“It’s a human trait that it could happen, and we’re human,” McLellan added. “But we’re doing everything in our power not to let that happen to us. … We’ve got a bunch of guys here who are all on the same page, who all want to be part of something special.”
The Sharks might be Silicon Valley’s signature pro sports team, but McLellan’s approach is more Microsoft than Apple. Instead of creating revolutionary strategies to solve the Sharks’ problems, the coach borrowed heavily from the Red Wings’ impressive work during last season’s title run, adapting those schemes to a talented roster coming off three straight second-round playoff defeats.
The early results are stunning: San Jose has led the league in goals and shots for most of the regular season while winning 11 of its first 12 home games. The Sharks haven’t lost back-to-back games in regulation this season, and they had a double-digit lead in the Pacific Division over second-place Anaheim by mid-November.
“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out what we’re doing,” said forward Jeremy Roenick, a solid veteran presence in his second season with San Jose since postponing retirement. “It’s tremendous talent and a great system, which is a pretty lethal combination.”
Fans at the always-noisy Shark Tank watch a club with three legitimate scoring lines, all of them determined to generate an endless stream of shots. Captain Patrick Marleau, a longtime centre, agreeably moved to a wing spot on the top line with former MVP Joe Thornton and Devin Setoguchi, a breakout star in his second NHL season.
Fans also see a revamped defensive corps led by newcomers Dan Boyle, Rob Blake and Brad Lukowich, who love the freedom to join the offensive rush with aggressive shots that generate rebounds for their forwards. The Sharks don’t neglect their own defensive play, but keeping pressure on an opponent’s goalie allows Nabokov and Brian Boucher to spend an inordinate amount of time all alone on the other end.
“It’s so much fun to play how we play,” Blake said. “With the group of forwards that we have, we want the puck in their hands as much as possible. You come into this locker-room before a game and look around at what we have, and you just expect to win games.”
San Jose also doesn’t seem to be lacking grit, as the Sharks showed in early season tussles with Pacific Division rivals Anaheim and Dallas. In their biggest overall test to date, the Sharks beat Detroit 4-2 on Oct. 30 in the early chapter of a rivalry that could be revisited in the spring.
Even the champs left impressed.
“I thought we got Winged tonight,” Detroit coach Mike Babcock said after that loss. “I thought they did everything exactly like we try to do. They just did it better.”
That’s exactly what general manager Doug Wilson hoped would happen when he decided not to scrap his entire roster after another playoff flameout last spring. After dropping Ron Wilson and hiring McLellan, who campaigned for the job with a 6 a.m. phone call a few hours after the Red Wings won the Cup, the Sharks concentrated on the blue-line in their few off-season moves, trading for Boyle and Lukowich and signing Blake.
Just like that, a club that always lacked proven defencemen had three with Stanley Cup rings and a burning desire to improve. Boyle felt disrespected by Tampa Bay, while Blake was eager to avoid another losing season with the Los Angeles Kings.
“I think we’ve been able to add some things to this club from the blue-line, things it maybe didn’t have last year,” said Blake, who will turn 39 next month. “(McLellan) has a really good idea what he wants to see out there, and we’re trying to do what he wants. It’s working.”
McLellan makes it work by keeping in close contact with the pulse of his locker-room. At 41, the softly greying coach is only a bit older than several of his players – old enough to command respect, but young enough to relate to 20-somethings Christian Ehrhoff, Ryane Clowe and Setoguchi, who have all taken significant steps forward under his leadership.
When the Sharks played just one game in a recent eight-day stretch, McLellan gave them a handful of days off, but he also held a team meeting in which players could give feedback on how the coach’s big ideas are working.
“We’ve treated it a bit like training camp, and we picked a couple of areas to polish up,” McLellan said. “There’s always work you can do, especially this early in a season. We know it’s still early.”