The Detroit assistant coach, on the morning after the Red Wings defeated Pittsburgh for the Stanley Cup, called Sharks Executive Vice President and General Manager Doug Wilson to set up an interview. Not at 9 a.m. or even a few minutes before Noon. But right when morning rush hour begins.
“Here’s a guy who just won the Stanley Cup and the next morning at 6 o’clock,” Wilson said, “I’m getting a call (from McLellan) saying he’s ready to hop on a plane and wanting to interview with us.”
No one can blame McLellan for foregoing the Stanley Cup-winning celebration.
After all, how many times does one get a chance to coach a team that’s won two Pacific Division titles and at least 43 games in each of the last four years? How many times does one get to coach players who’ve recently won the Hart Memorial and Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophies (Joe Thornton
and Jonathan Cheechoo) and another with a strong chance of winning the Vezina (Evgeni Nabokov)?
McLellan is blessed to have a tremendous amount of talent sitting in front of him on the bench. He’s also fortunate to have a team that has plenty in common with the team he just left.
One example he cited was at center, comparing Thornton and Patrick Marleau
to Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk and 2008 Conn Smythe Trophy winner (Stanley Cup Playoffs Most Valuable Player) Henrik Zetterberg.
“’Pav’ and Hank were at a point in their career a few years ago where they were prepared to lead the team,” McLellan said. “But they still had to evolve as players and push themselves beyond their expected limits and they found a way to do that.
“I think Patrick and Joe are in that situation as well and I think that will happen.”
The parallels also extend off-the-ice as well.
“Doug is very similar to Kenny Holland (Detroit vice president/general manager),” McLellan said. “He’s not about to push panic buttons at any point (when things aren’t going well). He has a very clear plan. That was very comforting to me to know I came from an organization like that and I’m going to one (that’s the same).”
And this very strong core should help McLellan execute his plan, which will start with a foundation that will be in place from Day One of training camp. McLellan said he’ll stick with this foundation from camp, through the regular season and deep into the playoffs.
Speed through the middle on offense and defense is part of McLellan’s foundation. “We’re going to be fast,” he said. “Speed through the middle of the ice will be essential. Teams are too good defensively and in the neutral zone. If you play on the outside, you have no chance.”
And most importantly, McLellan wants his players to go to the net and put the puck on the opponent’s goal.
“If you look at the Sharks,” McLellan said, “they had a strong possession game in the offensive zone, but often, the puck didn’t get to the net. I want us to throw the puck at the net. I want the opposing goaltender to work and earn his pay every night.”
McLellan’s foundation will mesh with the other ways he wants his team to play.
“I’d like for us to play a strong puck pursuit and puck recovery game,” he said. “The Red Wings have that label. They gave up the puck as much as any team in the League, but they were prepared to get it again and compete for it.
“I’d like to incorporate the defense in the offense more and get them active. Obviously, 216 goals last year (what the Sharks scored in 2007-08) wasn’t enough to get over the hump, so the offense has to come up a little more.”
However, boosting the goal scoring won’t come because the defensive effort was sacrificed.
“That (more goals) doesn’t come without being responsible on the other side of the puck,” McLellan said. “Everybody will be held accountable for their actions and players will earn what they receive.”
McLellan understands the sacrifices one has to make to be successful in the National Hockey League, having experienced this season in Detroit. So while he’s got the on-ice plan, he also knows what he has to do off-the-ice.
“The coach has to create an environment where the player wants to expend an extra ounce of energy,” McLellan said. “He wants to give a little bit more to his teammates. He wants to push himself when he doesn’t feel he should be pushed anymore. There’s a fine line.
“I have to create relationships with players, get to know them well enough and figure out where that point is.”
McLellan’s Sharks have the physical skills. He also has a plan to get the most out of his players. But McLellan also knows he needs to do something else to get his team past the Western Conference Semifinals and to a place they haven’t been in their 17-year history: the Stanley Cup Finals.
“As an organization, you have to stumble a little bit before you get to the finish line,” McLellan said. “I use the analogy of a marathon. A lot of people try to run it the first time and don’t quite make it and have to start again. Without running Mile one and Mile 20, you won’t get to Mile 26.
“As an organization, and I’m speaking from the Red Wings perspective, we had to re-run that marathon time-and-time again to get to the finish line. It wasn’t without trials and tribulations,” he added. “This organization (Sharks) has worked very hard to get as far as they have in the marathon.
“It will be my job, along with the support of many others, to finally get there.”