When the Detroit Red Wings and San Jose Sharks faceoff Tuesday night (and again Dec. 6) it’ll be a battle of the behemoths – even if the Sharks haven’t found their groove quite yet.
“I think since the lockout they’ve been the two most preeminent organizations in the Western Conference,” said Sharks assistant coach Jay Woodcroft.
And he should know. There’s a connection between the Red Wings and Sharks that goes beyond sheer regular season dominance and shows up behind the benches.
From 2005 to 2008, Sharks coach Todd McLellan and Woodcroft worked as assistants to Mike Babcock with the Red Wings. In their last season with the team, the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup and that summer the two moved on to San Jose.
“I say I studied at Red Wing University for three years,” Woodcroft said. “When you get to pick the brains of Ken Holland, Jim Nill, Jim Devellano and work with Mike Babcock you learn a lot. We cherished our three years. Todd and I learned how to succeed in the NHL.”
And succeed they have. In their first year in San Jose, the Sharks posted a franchise record 53 wins and 117 points to win their first Presidents’ Trophy, which is surprising considering how the Sharks have been known for their proficiency in the regular season for some time. Unfortunately, they got a bad draw and lined up against an underrated No. 8 seed from Anaheim, which extended the Sharks’ post-season drought for another year.
San Jose was again dominant in 2009-10, winning 50 games for the third time in franchise history (and second in a row) to finish tops in the West for consecutive seasons. The only other team to do that since the lockout? You got it: The Detroit Red Wings. The Sharks also went on their longest post-lockout playoff run when they advanced to the Western Conference final.
“The teams are a bit similar in that they have high end talent, speed and size down the middle, puck-movers on the backend who can get the puck to the forwards, great goaltenders and both teams have that desire to succeed,” Woodcroft said.
While the Red Wings have proven winners in the lineup such as Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Nicklas Lidstrom, the Sharks have their own studs in Dany Heatley, Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle. On top of that, while the Red Wings perpetually bring along youngsters to fill gaps in the lineup and eventually develop into stars themselves, the Sharks have seen the same types of developments lately. In the past two years we’ve seen Ryane Clowe and Joe Pavelski come to the fore and this season we’re seeing the same from 21-year-old Logan Couture.
But while the two sides consider each other worthy adversaries, both have their own agenda and are ultimately chasing the same goal.
“Todd and I respect especially the players who were there when we were,” Woodcroft said. “We saw how hard they worked, what they gave; I have complete respect for the guys in that room and I’m proud to say I worked there.
“That said, we’re with the Sharks now and it’s our job to push the players in our dressing room and we have to get these individuals to take their games to the next level.”
Will the Sharks ever reach the heights the Red Wings have achieved? With a star-studded lineup like they have you’d think it’d only be a matter of time before they break through. And while it’s easy to point to the shortfalls on Thornton’s playoff resume or how the franchise seems to have a post-season curse, that’s all in the past.
The new era in San Jose is off to a pretty impressive start and it’s actually eerily similar to the beginning McLellan and Woodcroft had in Detroit when they first arrived with Babcock in 2005-06. Presidents’ Trophy and first round defeat in Year 1, a 50-win season, top ranking in the West and conference final appearance in Year 2.
Can they match the Red Wings’ Stanley Cup in Year 3? Don’t let the slow start fool you.
Rory Boylen is TheHockeyNews.com's web editor. His blog appears Tuesdays only on THN.com.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.