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Sharks, McLellan enjoying honeymoon phase

Monday, 02.09.2009 / 6:49 PM / NHL Insider

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

BOSTON -- Winning the 2008 Stanley Cup championship as an assistant with Detroit gave Todd McLellan instant credibility inside the San Jose Sharks dressing room when he was named coach this summer.

The fact that the system delivered immediate results to the Sharks turned that credibility into respect.

"The results drove it right away," veteran Sharks defenseman Rob Blake told NHL.com.

McLellan has brought Detroit's puck-possession system with him to San Jose and catered it to his personnel. The marriage is still in the honeymoon phase.

The Sharks enter Tuesday night's game at Boston, which can be seen live on VERSUS in the U.S., as the top team in the Western Conference with 36 wins and 79 points. They've scored 172 goals and allowed 119, the best differential in the conference.

"When you have the puck you are the top defensive team in the League, and Detroit has done that year after year," Blake said. "That's the type of offense he's creating."

As soon as he got the job on June 12, just days after parading the Stanley Cup through downtown Detroit, McLellan started hammering home his strategy.

His goal wasn't only to turn the Sharks into a puck-possession team, but he wanted them to be one that wasn't afraid to take chances, one that would drive the net, one that would challenge the opposing defense in all of the hard areas.

"A lot of times you'll see our guy get the blue line and the guy in the middle lane drives to the net all the time," Blake said. "We watched in training camp a lot of things from the Wings and their middle lane drives. You can see the results. Then we started playing a few exhibition games, guys were going to the net, getting pucks on their sticks and putting it in the net. You realize this is result driven."

McLellan began imploring his players to play a fast-paced game, to consistently bring their energy. Whether your name was Thornton or Plihal, you were going to be held accountable just the same. History meant nothing on this team.

"I was excited when he explained how he wanted to play, how he approaches the game, how practices were going to be, how routines were going to be," Sharks captain Patrick Marleau said. "He makes things so simple, but you know you have to work at them. In the exhibition season we started with the system and automatically got the results from putting in the effort. It's not too hard to buy into that."

It's even easier when you're constantly being challenged by your head coach to do more.

"Even in practice he always says, 'Make sure you get what you need. Are you challenging yourself to score goals today? Did you work hard?'" Marleau added. "In games, 'Did you get your shots, your chances? Did you play the body?' It's always something. He puts it in the back of your head so you're working on it."

The additions of veteran puck movers like Blake and Dan Boyle over the summer has enabled the Sharks to play with the speed McLellan asks for by using lots of tape-to-tape passes. Boyle and Blake have also allowed McLellan to cater the power play to his liking.

He ran Detroit's power play last season and it finished third in the NHL (20.7 percent). The Sharks are clicking 23.2 percent of the time.

"This year it's more about execution," wing Ryane Clowe said. "We focus on it in practice. You have to know what you're doing and you have to make the right decision. Guys aren't uptight about what will happen. We're just worrying about executing it."

Lately, though, the Sharks haven't been executing as well. For the first time all season, they've lost three straight games (0-1-2) and Tuesday they're heading straight into the home of the League's hottest team for their first VERSUS game of the season.
"I was excited when he explained how he wanted to play, how he approaches the game, how practices were going to be, how routines were going to be. He makes things so simple, but you know you have to work at them. In the exhibition season we started with the system and automatically got the results from putting in the effort. It's not too hard to buy into that." -- Sharks captain Patrick Marleau
The Boston Bruins have overtaken the Sharks as the President's Trophy leaders with 85 points. San Jose's three-game slide has also enabled Detroit to inch within just two points of the top spot in the Western Conference.

This, as they say, is where the cream rises. McLellan, who admitted to concern about his team falling behind early in games lately, is as curious as anybody to see how his players plan to find their way out of the maze.

"I believe we're in that phase now where mental toughness is important," he said. "I hate using the (phrase) 'the grind' or the 'dog days.' I believe you give yourself or your team permission to take nights off then because it becomes an excuse, but we're in a situation where we haven't won on a consistent basis and we're on the road, facing tough teams and facing some injuries. All this adversity, will it affect us positively or negatively? And, not only in the standings, but mentally is it going to prepare us for Game 4 or 5 of the first round when maybe it is not going the way we want it to be?"

The Sharks have faced this crossroads before and haven't come out on the other side looking too pretty. They have been one of the League's most dominant regular season teams since the work stoppage, but have yet to make it out of the conference semifinal.

Perhaps, as Joe Thornton said, they were victims of believing in their own hype, of staring into the crystal ball instead of managing the next game.

McLellan won't allow his team to look ahead. It's just another aspect of his coaching philosophy that the Sharks are learning all about now.

Inside the dressing room, it's hard to tell the difference between a three-game winning streak and a three-game losing streak.

"He tries to keep the team at one level," defenseman Christian Ehrhoff said. "Even if we win a game 7-1 or we lose to the Wings like we did, 6-0, he always has a clear view of the game and what the team has to look like."

Fast. Aggressive. Controlled. Intelligent. Consistent.

Contact Dan Rosen at drosen@nhl.com

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