I'll admit, this time last year I had my of questions about Todd McLellan and the Sharks' chances to ever compete for the Cup under his reign.
These doubts, I felt, were justified. Since the lockout, the Sharks never looked as weak in a playoff series loss as they did against the Ducks. We blamed Hiller, Pronger and Getzlaf. We blamed Nabokov, Thornton and Pavelski. We blamed Todd McLellan and his staff for not having a good game plan till it was too late. In my mind, McLellan was the most to blame. If Sharks fired Ron Wilson for being unable to take the team past the second round since the lockout, shouldn't we have been concerned that under McLellan the Sharks took it one step further and lost in the first round? Worse, they lost to a team that was within one missed penalty shot from missing the playoffs altogether.
But last season erased my doubts. I still feel the same way I felt a year ago about that most painful playoff loss to our biggest rival. But it was what lessons McLellan learned from it and how he changed his approach that has me believing he is the right man for this job at this time. During last season, he improved the Sharks in the following 5 areas.
1. Rebounding After Losses. Remember that dreaded feeling after Game 1 of the Colorado Avalanche series? The Sharks didn't play well, as it all ended with a strange goal in the last two minutes. We all thought, "please, not again" thinking back to how lost the Sharks looked against the Ducks the year before. What was even more frightening was the trap that Joe Sacco designed to limit the chances the Sharks had in that game. More than anything else, Sacco had a better game plan. But McLellan was not as concerned and he went back to the video room to come up with answers to avoid the trap. After the heroics of Game 2, and the strangest playoffs game in recent history Game 3 (cough, Dan Boyle, cough), McLellan designed a way to break the trap. The Sharks found a way to overcome and advance to the next round. As much as we love crediting Joe Pavelski as the main hero in that series, Todd McLellan's plan was just as important.
2. Peaking at the Right Time. The NHL season is long and hard. Playoffs come after playing 82 games in seven months. On top of that, Sharks travel more than most teams in the NHL. The season before, I had my questions about how McLellan handled the season's workload. The team came out firing on all cylinders and was close to reaching the record for most wins to start a season. Then came the injuries, and the team started to slide. They slid so far that going into the playoffs, we all had serious doubts about how they'd play. This was not the case this year. McLellan knew how to manage his players - whether it was Rob Blake taking time off, or Scott Nichol and Manny Malhotra looking fresh and rested in the playoffs. Generally speaking, the team was in a much better position mentally and physically going into the playoffs. They played so well in the final two weeks of the regular season that we couldn't wait till playoffs. Neither could the team - and it showed. They played a desperate kind of hockey because they knew the moment arrived. McLellan trained them well on when to feel desperate.
3. Matching Lines. We all had our concerns about how McLellan would handle the top stars, especially with the arrival of Dany Heatley. I'd get irritated every time the top line of Marleau-Heatley-Thornton was broken, or Setoguchi was thrown on the 3rd or 4th line. And yet when we look at it long term, McLellan did a much better job with line combinations this year. In the playoffs, he knew exactly what to do when the top line wasn't producing, or when the 2nd line started to disappear. He also handled the match-ups better, lining up the right players against the opposition. No one in the game does this better than the master mind of the historical win of Canada over Russia, Mike Babcock. Yet, it was McLellan who knew exactly how to neutralize Detroit's main weapons. In the end, the pupil handled that aspect better than his master.
4. Managing Injuries. Poor injury recovery was perhaps the biggest reason why the Sharks looked so lost against Anaheim in the playoffs a year ago. Once the playoffs started, some players, like Mike Grier or Ryane Clowe, were rushed to the roster from an injury reserve at the expense of younger players who were contributing earlier. As a result, they didn't look confident and contributed very little. This year, players took their time to fully recover from injury, even if it meant that Joe Thornton had to be sidelined for the first time in years. We can still argue about whether Dany Heatley should have missed more than one game when he became injured against Colorado Avalanche. But while he might have lost his "sniper's aim" (only two goals in 14 games), he was still contributing in assists. Heatley finished with more assists in the playoffs than Joe Thornton or Joe Pavelski. Again, McLellan knew that Heatley was needed and used him in the right role.
5. Keeping the Team Focused on the Right Goal. The year before, the team wanted to win the President's Cup. This year, there was no such goal. As worried as we were when the Sharks were on the longest losing streak of the last five years in March, the team remained calm. As they came out of the slump, they started playing the best hockey of the season. They didn't try to win the overall no. 1 seed, or even the Western Conference title. The goal was to advance in the playoffs.
While we can still count last season as a failure because the ultimate goal of winning the Stanley Cup was not achieved, the growth of Todd McLellan was one of the most positive outcomes that happened to the Sharks last year. To me his contribution to the team's success in the first two rounds of the playoffs were as big as were those of Joe Pavelski and Joe Thornton. Going into this next season, coaching is the least of our concerns in San Jose.