Todd McLellan has become the first casualty of the Sharks' disappointing season, with general manager Doug Wilson announcing today that the team's head coach of seven years won't be returning to the bench for an eighth season. Assistant coaches Jim Johnson and Jay Woodcroft along with video coordinator Brett Heimlich have also been relieved of their duties, while associate coach Larry Robinson had already retired from behind-the-bench duties at the end of the season and will focus on his new role as a director of player development with the team.
At least in the regular season, McLellan's run with the Sharks was extremely successful. He compiled a 311-166-63 record over seven seasons in San Jose, winning a President's Trophy, two regular season Western Conference titles and three Pacific Division pennants. He became the second-fastest coach in league history to reach 300 wins this season and the Sharks were consistently one of the best puck possession teams in the league over the course of his tenure in addition to boasting one of the best power plays in the NHL. Much of that success can admittedly be credited to having a very talented roster but McLellan was able to find ways to use the Sharks' size and skill to their advantage, particularly when up a man.
The playoffs, however, were a different story. Consider this: in just four full seasons behind the San Jose bench, managing significantly weaker Sharks rosters, former head coach Ron Wilson won five playoff series. In seven full seasons as Sharks bench boss, McLellan also won five. Again, there's only so much a coach can control and the fact that Wilson received better playoff goaltending than McLellan is a big reason for the discrepancy but it's not like we're comparing McLellan to Scotty Bowman here; Wilson hasn't even been able to find another head coaching job since getting canned by Toronto over three years ago.
McLellan's preference for low-skill, ostensibly low-risk players over more talented options (Eager and Huskins over McGinn and Braun in 2011; Hannan over Demers or Tennyson in 2013; Brown, Desjardins and Hannan over Havlat, Kennedy and Irwin last year) hurt the Sharks in several playoff series, as did his insistence on sticking with dump-and-chase hockey even when opponents were easily able to counter it.
When the Sharks fired Ron Wilson back in 2008, Doug Wilson explained it by saying that "sometimes the class needs a new professor." While there's little doubt McLellan was set up to fail with this season's roster, his playoff track record is far from flawless and he himself admitted the message was getting stale; to those ends, perhaps bringing in a new head coach, even one who's unlikely to be significantly better (or worse) than McLellan, makes sense. Ultimately, whether or not this move works out for the Sharks in the long run depends very much on who they bring in as a replacement. From Mike Babcock to Dan Bylsma to Claude Julien to Peter DeBoer to Ken Hitchcock, there could be several intriguing options available this summer depending on how the postseason shakes out.
McLellan will have plenty of suitors in his own right, as he should. There are many things he does well behind the bench, his flaws aren't much different from those of other respected head coaches around the league and teams will likely understand this year's Sharks roster was a flawed and directionless one that he had the thankless task of trying to guide to a playoff spot. He'd be a great fit in Toronto, Buffalo, Philadelphia or Edmonton, lending instant structure and stability to teams desperately in need of both, or even back at his old haunts in Detroit should Babcock leave for greener pastures.