Now, 22 months later, he has to do just that when this Western Conference Semifinal series starts Thursday (9 p.m. EDT, VERSUS, TSN) at HP Pavilion.
"I think most teams think that," McLellan said after the morning skate when asked if the road to Lord Stanley goes through Detroit. "When they built their team at the beginning of the year, they probably think about Detroit and having to overcome and beat them at some point. We'll see if we've done the right thing."
Both McLellan and Red Wings coach Mike Babcock arrived in the NHL via junior hockey in the Western Hockey League. McLellan, 42, guided Swift Current to six straight playoff appearances, while Babcock won 228 games over six seasons with the Spokane Chiefs from 1994-2000.
In 2003, McLellan led the AHL's Houston Aeros to a Calder Cup title, while Babcock -- who also coached in the AHL (Cincinnati) from 2000-02, came within a game of winning the Stanley Cup as his Anaheim Mighty Ducks lost in Game 7 at New Jersey in 2003.
"We both came out of junior hockey together at the same time," Babcock said. "I think we were being interviewed for a number of jobs in the American League together, so I knew that one day he was going in that direction as a career coach. He's done well."
Indeed, McLellan has. San Jose has won 104 regular-season games since his arrival and helped erase its reputation as a postseason underachiever by eliminating the Colorado Avalanche in six games in the first round.
And when it comes to McLellan's success as a head coach, he knows he owes thanks to the man he'll now try to beat.
"Mike's obviously very, very bright -- to the point where he's ahead of the curve all the time," McLellan said of Babcock. "He uses his players wisely. They respond to him on a nightly basis. He definitely has been through this before. He has a calmness about him, yet he's very direct. He tells the players how he wants it done. In my experience with him, I learned a lot. If we can apply those principles here and get the players to respond, then we're where we need to be."
Mike's obviously very, very bright -- to the point where he's ahead of the curve all the time. He uses his players wisely. They respond to him on a nightly basis. He definitely has been through this before. He has a calmness about him, yet he's very direct. He tells the players how he wants it done. In my experience with him, I learned a lot. - Todd McLellan on Mike Babcock
Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom
isn't surprised by McLellan's NHL success. During their days together in Detroit, the 40-year-old defenseman was certain the former Red Wings assistant one day would land a head-coaching position.
"He's got very good systems," Lidstrom said. "I think they play a similar style to what we do, so I'm sure he took a lot of what we had going on here. He's very structured and he seems to have the players playing real well for him, too. He's been a real good coach for them.
"I think you had that feeling that he wanted to become a head coach. He had a lot of good ideas. You're happy for him in a sense that he has had some success here with the Sharks, but now we're facing him, so it's a different story."
Babcock agreed that he had a sense during their days in Detroit that McLellan would soon make a solid head coach in the NHL. Less than two years since sipping champagne out of Lord Stanley together, McLellan has a chance to deny Babcock of a fourth trip to the Final.
"He's smart, he's a good man and a good family guy," Babcock said of McLellan. "I rode to the rink every day with him for three years. I coached against him in junior hockey. I enjoyed coaching with him. He's a bright guy. He's a hard-worker, he's honest and he communicates real well. Obviously, he's done a real good job here."