The night of nights — This is the night that Todd McLellan has been waiting a long time for.
McLellan cut his coaching teeth in junior hockey and the minors, then earned a Stanley Cup ring in June as an assistant with the Detroit Red Wings. But tonight, the 40-year-old makes his debut as an NHL bench boss when the San Jose Sharks host Anaheim in their season-opener, one of four games on the schedule.
The Sharks won the Pacific Division title and were second in the overall standings last season under Ron Wilson, but were beaten in the second round of the playoffs by Dallas — their third straight second-round flameout. GM Doug Wilson said goodbye to Ron Wilson (who quickly found a home in Toronto) and brought in McLellan, whose assignment is to take one of the NHL's better teams to the next level.
So just how is he going to do it?
"Give me a few more months to figure that out," McLellan said. "We're putting everything in place. This is a process, and (October) is just one part of it — but a very important part."
McLellan's system is more aggressive than Wilson's, whose teams often seemed unwilling to go for the jugular when they had an opponent down by a goal or two. It emphasizes puck control and fluid movement as well as aggression, but the Sharks are still getting the hang of it.
"The first couple of exhibition games, it was tough to get used to it, but we're hockey players," said center and former NHL scoring champ Joe Thornton, who makes the offense go. "We're going to get a lot of shots on net, and we'll try to be a quick transition team that can take advantage of new things. Its stuff that I already like to do, but I just love playing hockey, so I'll play any way the coach asks me."
One key for McLellan will be getting Thornton, one of the NHL's biggest players, to add a more physical tone to his abundant skill. If that happens, the Sharks will be hard to contain.
"I just don't want our hockey club to be mechanical," McLellan said. "I want them to use the skill and talent that they have, and the system will take care of itself eventually."
Ready for their debuts — McLellan is the only one of the NHL's four first-time coaches who'll make his debut on Thursday — as well as the only one taking over a team that looks like a Cup contender.
The other three make their debuts on Friday night.
Peter DeBoer, who coached Kitchener to the Memorial Cup Final, will be behind a pro bench for the first time when Florida visits Carolina. John Anderson, a success with Atlanta's top farm team, coaches the parent Thrashers for the first time when Washington comes to town. Also, Scott Gordon, who coached Boston's AHL team in Providence last season, steps behind the bench for the New York Islanders. None of those three teams made the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2007-08.
Anderson was busy on Wednesday shuffling his lines after a 1-5 preseason. He moved center Eric Christensen off the first line with Ilya Kovalchuk and Jason Williams and replaced him with Todd White.
"I want to balance the lines up front where they can both score goals," Anderson said. "Christensen can give a little bit more punch to our second line."
Anderson will have friends coming to the opener from Chicago and Toronto (where he played). But his best friend, Bruce Boudreau, will be only a few feet away — on the opposing bench. The former teammates and roommates, who coached against each other in the minors, will do so for the first time at the NHL level.
"It seemed very appropriate," Boudreau told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "that we faced each other right off the bat."
Anderson and DeBoer will see each other on Saturday, when the Thrashers are the guests at Florida's home opener.
Gordon, who wasn't hired until August, has spent most of his time trying to teach an up-tempo system to a team that's full of young players from whom little is expected this season. The Islanders may go through some growing pains, but Gordon wants to make sure that, at a minimum, they're no fun to play against.
"I want the players to be relentless on the puck," he said. "If you can do that, you're hard to play against. When you're passive, you're playing into the hands of the opposition."
The new alternate uniforms, with a red base trimmed in white and gold, will debut on Nov. 14 when the Thrashers host Carolina. The Thrashers will wear the new unis 14 times throughout the season, including the team's 10 subsequent home games against Southeast Division opponents and four Sunday games at Philips Arena.
"We are very excited to introduce our players and coaching staff to the season ticket-holders that will be cheering for them all season long at Philips Arena," Executive Vice President and General Manager Don Waddell said. "This event is also a great opportunity to allow our most passionate fans to get a glimpse of our new-look uniforms first-hand."
Sad beginning — There will be sadness mixed in with the excitement of the season-opener at GM Place tonight.
Prior to the Vancouver Canucks' game with the Calgary Flames, the organization will stage a pre-game video tribute and celebration in memory of defenseman Luc Bourdon, who died in a motorcycle accident on June 5.
"It's not going to be easy, that’s for sure," new Canucks captain Roberto Luongo told the team's Web site. "We've lost a friend and a teammate and that’s always something that’s hard to deal with. At the same time, we have to rally around that and really dedicate the game to Luc and try to win it for him."
The events are bound to have an effect on the players, coaches and fans, who otherwise would be getting revved up for the opener against their Northwest Division rival.
"I thought so much about him all summer," said Alex Burrows, one of Bourdon’s closest friends on the Canucks. "I think about him every day and I know [Thursday] is going to be a tough day. He was a special player and a special friend of mine. We'll see how it goes, but hopefully we’ll all get through it."
The Canucks' task will be to challenge the emotion into their play on the ice.
"It's going to be hard to play," center Ryan Kesler said. "It’s going to be tough, but we have to play and we're going to play our best. He was a good friend, a good teammate, and it's tough to lose someone like that."
Kiddie corps — Dustin Brown is the latest member of the young captains brigade.
The Los Angeles Kings named the 23-year-old right wing as their new captain on Wednesday, with center Anze Kopitar and defenseman Matt Greene as alternates.
"Dustin has impressed me a great deal with his leadership," coach Terry Murray said. "He comes to the rink each day prepared and his on-ice work shows a great deal of focus. He has total commitment to this team."
Brown, 23, is the youngest captain in Kings history. The Ithaca, N.Y., native is entering his fifth season with the Kings and is coming off a career-high 33-goal season in which he also led the NHL with 311 hits.
The two alternates aren't exactly ready for Social Security, either. Kopitar, 21, is entering his third NHL season after leading the Kings with 77 points in 2007-08. Greene, who's all of 25, came to the Kings during the summer in a trade with Edmonton.
"This was a difficult decision to make as we have a lot of quality candidates," Murray said. "But we, as an organization, are excited about the three players selected, and we believe they will help lead our club both now and in the future."
Rivet, who came from San Jose in an offseason trade, might have been the most surprised man on the team when the announcement was made.
"I’m obviously a little bit surprised, I'm new to the team and new to the organization," Rivet said. "There are a lot of players that have been brought up together and it's a real tight family… I'm really happy to be part of it right now."
Under coach Lindy Ruff, the Sabres rotated the captaincy monthly in 2003-04 and 2007-08, and used co-captains (Daniel Briere and Chris Drury) in 2005-07. He said the decision to go back to the traditional format came down to the team — which voted on having a permanent captain.
"The players showed a lot of instant respect for him and what he's done," Ruff said. "Was I a little bit surprised? Yeah. I've liked, and loved actually, what he's done in practice and games. But to come in and garner that much respect and trust from his teammates in a short period of time… it says a lot."
Some of that approval may have been gained during Rivet's first exhibition game with the team, when he tangled with Toronto's Ryan Hollweg midway through the first period after he felt a late jab was thrown in front of the net.
Standing up for his teammate undoubtedly sent a message in the locker room.
"I've said all along first of all [a captain has] to be the guy you want to follow on the ice," Ruff said. "His actions on the ice dictate more than what he can say in the room. There are different types of captain, and I think Craig is going to be a great captain for this hockey team. He's got good character. He's going to be right there for his teammates."
Who is that masked man? — Martin Brodeur will have a new look when he and the New Jersey Devils take the ice against the Islanders at the Prudential Center on Friday.
The four-time Vezina Trophy winner showed off his new mask Wednesday at practice and is expected to wear it for the Devils' season-opener.
The new "MB30" logo combines Brodeur's initials with the number he has worn since his first full season in New Jersey, and incorporates the horns and curled tail that are familiar to any Devils fan. The interior is subtly accented by the crisscrossing shape of a goal net.
Brodeur believes it's not a big revision from his previous mask.
"It's going to be hard to notice, I think," Brodeur said. "It's the same color scheme. For people facing me, there really won't be a difference. It's really more for TV or even for people looking up from top. I don't think it should be a big difference for people."
It's just the third different mask that Brodeur has worn in a Devils uniform since being called up from juniors in 1991-92. That year, the last in which the Devils wore red and green, Brodeur had a 2-1-0 record in four appearances while wearing a simple red mask with a white stripe on the side.
When Brodeur returned to New Jersey for the 1993-94 season, he brought with him the Michel Lefebvre design that has become such an identifying part of his goaltending legacy. Sporting a Devils-inspired "J" on the forehead and red flames on either side, the signature look had been with Brodeur through 536 wins and 96 shutouts, as well as three Stanley Cup championships.
Brodeur's Web site, www.martinbrodeur30.com, is also set to launch on Friday.
Material from wire services and team Web sites was used in this.
Contact John Kreiser at email@example.com