Following his first year as an NHL head coach, Todd McLellan was met with some criticism. Although he led his team to their best ever regular season record, the Sharks were quickly bounced from postseason contention by the 8th seeded Anaheim Ducks.
Because of this surprising and almost inexcusable playoff performance, fans and media members alike looked through the organization in order to place blame. Players were called out, the GM's deadline moves were picked apart, and the long standing captain lost his letter. Head coach Todd McLellan also saw unwanted time in the spotlight.
Looking back, the two main knocks on McLellan were his mishandling of players with injuries and his inability to adjust his game plan after the first two home losses to the Ducks. By the time McLellan got wise, it was too late.
However, signs point to improvement in both those areas. Plank has already applauded McLellan's handling of injuries to players like Devin Setoguchi, Joe Pavelski, Manny Malhotra, and Rob Blake. And, although the Sharks aren't nearly as dominant as they were just a year ago, McLellan's game strategy and game planning ability appear to have improved as well.
Most of the changes in game strategy are due to the change in player personnel. The decrease in shots from the point, an old staple of McLellan's system, is a direct result of Ehrhoff's departure. With just Blake and Boyle capable of generating consistent chances from the blue line, McLellan was forced to alter the game plan.
The Sharks still rely heavily on the rush to generate scoring chances, but that is really the only constant game-to-game. Why so many changes? Well, what's been most impressive about McLellan is his newfound ability to adjust to a team after a loss. I decided to delve into this topic after the 9-1 fleecing of Calgary, a team that shut down the Sharks offense in a 2-1 regulation win just over a month ago.
The Sharks have lost 18 games this season in either regulation or overtime. Of those 18 losses, 15 of them came to a team that they had played before or have played again since the loss. Here's the interesting stat: Following a loss, the Sharks are 9-6 in their next meeting against that team. Expanded further, they are 12-6.
For instance: The Sharks lost the first two meetings against Phoenix, but have won all three since then. Since going 1-2 against LA to start the season series, the Sharks won the next two decisions including last week's away 5-1 win in the second night of a back to back. The only team the Sharks have played more than once haven't beaten is Detroit (a 2-1 shoot out loss in Detroit and a 4-1 loss at home), and that first game was a weird one by all means.
I'm not going to say that there is any statistical correlation here, or that this speaks to an improvement in McLellan's ability to game plan. The 12-6 record, or more specifically the 9-6 record, doesn't show absolute dominance. However, it goes along well with what I'm seeing on the ice the last 19 games (a stretch in which the Sharks have won 16).
Perhaps the Sharks players are just more comfortable when playing against a familiar opponent. Maybe these numbers point to a Sharks team which has steadily improved over the course of the season. Both those things could very well be true.
But even if those two factors are contributors to the Sharks' improved record when seeing a team for a second time, I'd like to think McLellan has something to do with that.
My theory will be put to the test this week, though. Chicago comes to town Thursday, and they've pretty much had the Sharks number all season. In the last game, McLellan and the Sharks did a good job of pushing Chicago's shooters to poor scoring areas; even though Chicago outshot San Jose 47-14 during the game they had few solid scoring chances. Nabokov's decision to turn in one of his best games ever didn't hurt either.
Was that game a result of McLellan's adjustment after a 7-2 home loss? Will the Sharks improve the shot differential in the game this week? We'll have to wait to find out. But if McLellan wants to prove that he can adjust his team's strategy in order to combat another team, this will be a big test. It's a crucial trait necessary to playoff success, as we learned all too well last season.