In a showdown of Western Conference division leaders, the Detroit Red Wings
will invade San Jose's HP Pavilion Thursday night (10:30 p.m. ET) to challenge the Sharks, who are undefeated in 5 games this season at the Shark Tank.
The teams finished one-two in the West last season and are on track to repeat. The Red Wings are 7-1-2 and lead the Central Division in their bid to defend the Stanley Cup they won in June. The Sharks are 8-2-0, the best 10-game start in franchise history, and atop the Pacific Division.
The game features the first meeting between Red Wings coach Mike Babcock and his former assistant, Todd McLellan
. The first-year Sharks coach spent the last three seasons as an assistant in Detroit and earned his first Stanley Cup ring in June.
But though he knows his former team is the reigning NHL champion, it's safe to say the former New York Islanders
center isn't intimidated.
"We are going to have our hands full," McLellan said. "Our goaltending is going to have to be very good. You know they are going to try to get the puck to the net and 96 (Tomas Holmstrom
) will be standing right there. Knowing their principles, we might have a better understanding.
"It's hard to argue with the success that that organization has had," McLellan said. "Mike Babcock has had wonderful success."
McLellan said while he has great admiration for Babcock and learned a great deal under him, he is not an imitator.
"I'm different in the way I approach the players and the way I react to situations," McLellan said. "I have to be Todd McLellan
. I can't try to emulate (Mike) all the time because that is not who I am. I have to react to what is right. We're looking for the same result even if it's not always the same X's and O's. It's all about getting through to the players and trying to react. I might react differently than Mike in some situations."
McLellan said he still talks to Babcock on a regular basis, but that their conversations aren’t always hockey-related.
"We haven't talked about that game in particular," McLellan said of their first meeting. "We talk about the family, how the boys are doing. We haven't addressed it one bit. We'll prepare for the things they do well and they will counter us. More is being made about it by the media than the coaches."
McLellan has had his eye on becoming an NHL bench boss almost since he retired from the AHL Springfield Indians in 1989. Four years later, he was behind the bench of the North Battleford North Stars in his home province of Saskatchewan. He moved the next year to coaching the Swift Current Broncos in the Western Hockey League, and was there for 6 years. He then moved to the professional ranks to coach the IHL Cleveland Lumberjacks for 1 season.
McLellan was hired in 2002 by the Minnesota Wild
to coach their AHL affiliate, the Houston Aeros, for 4 years. He won the AHL championship, the Calder Cup, in his second season before moving on to Detroit.
"I've always been fortunate. I got into coaching at the right time," McLellan said. "I'm not sure everyone who played the game back then wanted to coach when they were done. Now, you see a number of coaches who played in the NHL.
"I always wanted to coach. If I wasn't coaching, I'd be teaching. After my injuries, it allowed me to do exactly what I wanted to do. I never had that feeling of should I go and do this or should I go and do that? ... I'm still fairly young. It's been a fast path and very rewarding to this point."
McLellan said it was difficult to leave the Red Wings, but Sharks' General Manager Doug Wilson offered him a position he's been pursuing for 15 years.
"When you are leaving your 'family,' it's tough and I have a ton of respect for the people in that organization," McLellan said. "They treated me very well. I needed a new experience. ... They believed in winning, and that's all they wanted to do. Everything I needed as a young coach to prepare me for a head-coaching job was there in Detroit."
McLellan praised the Wild for giving him his first AHL coaching opportunity and took pains to express what that opportunity has meant to him.
"Everything, they were the ones who gave me my chance," he said. "(General Manager) Doug Risebrough and the organization took a chance on a WHL coach. I don't make the step to the Red Wings without their involvement. The mentoring Doug gave me was second to none. A lot of my coaching thoughts evolved from talking to him. He made me more confident in what I was doing and how I approached the players.
"Doug (Wilson) was looking for someone who had won some championships," said McLellan, who led the WHL Broncos to division titles in 1996 and 2000. "Our organization and Detroit had some parallels. (Detroit) had trouble getting past the first round for a few years before they won. Doug was looking for someone with that kind of experience.
"We are going to have our hands full. Our goaltending is going to have to be very good. You know they are going to try to get the puck to the net and '96' will be standing right there. Knowing their principles, we might have a better understanding. Winning faceoffs is going to be important. We're seeing that all around the League. It's hard to argue with the success that that organization has had. Mike Babcock has had wonderful success." -- Sharks coach Todd McLellan
"I've enjoyed the process here. It's been a really good experience and I've been made really comfortable by the organization, from the top on down," McLellan said. "I've been able to access any tools that we need and that's allowed us to put our imprint on the team. The players have been good. We've had some growing pains.
"My time is occupied more. I don't have as much free time and the burden of responsibility is larger and that comes into play every day."
McLellan said there is one major difference between the Red Wings and the Sharks.
"Puck possession. No doubt, Detroit had it more than anybody else in the league, but they also give it up a lot," he said. "Having it is one thing and going and getting it is another. Detroit does that better than anyone."