Todd McLellan's task is clear: Guide the Sharks to their first Stanley Cup Final appearance.
It’s no secret the expectations in San Jose are among the highest in the league, and remain without a doubt the most unfulfilled. Yet McLellan begins his sixth season behind the bench of a team that many believe to be the best Sharks team in franchise history.
But after a barnburner start that left the team atop every statistical category, San Jose’s recent play has brought the team Hertling hurtling back to the rest of the pack in the Western Conference.
Now, after the team’s third consecutive overtime loss—the most recent coming via shootout to the basement-dwelling Buffalo Sabres—all eyes turn to McLellan to right the ship.
It’s easy to discount the head coach’s impact when things are going well, but make no mistake that McLellan was at the center of the Sharks’ hot start. Sticking with the chemistry formed late last season, McLellan struck gold early with his line combinations and capitalized for nearly five goals per game for the first eight games.
Even in the wake of a rash of injuries, the Sharks coach could do no wrong early on. McLellan’s decisions to avoid disrupting any more than necessary to fill holes left by injury proved very successful, leading to increased contributions by fourth-line players and prospects.
But the prolonged absence from Brent Burns on San Jose’s top line appears to have finally stymied the Sharks, who have yet to find an acceptable replacement without completely disassembling everything in the process.
With no specific timetable for Burns’ return, the Sharks have so far utilized (in order): Freddie Hamilton, John McCarthy, James Sheppard, Matt Nieto, Tyler Kennedy and most recently Tommy Wingels, who appears to be the best fit of the bunch.
But even with early-season injuries, the Sharks rank second in even-strength goals scored, a very good sign for a team whose success rises and falls with its even-strength production.
McLellan is a pretty even-keeled coach, which is essential for a veteran team like San Jose. But there are times where you’d like to see some fire beyond the disappointment and threats levied during the postgame press conference. Tuesday night was one of those times.
Despite anticipating the lapse that was unfolding in front of him, it took Sabres head coach Ron Rolston to call a timeout after the Sharks leveled the game with two quick goals in the third period to see any sign of life out of McLellan.
Buffalo wasn’t the only instance where McLellan opted to try to hold on. The Sharks were clearly reeling for much of the third period against Boston, and eventually suffered their only regulation loss when the Bruins finally capitalized with 0.8 seconds remaining.
It’s true that players like Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau have been around too long to have a coach breathing fire in their ears. McLellan claims that he “can’t be the catalyst,” but he does need to find a way to effectively interject—even if it’s just sparingly—if this team expects to win a Cup with its current player contingent.
San Jose has never appeared to put much trust in the team's backup goaltenders, and this season is no exception. Antti Niemi has started 14 of the team’s 15 games, putting him on pace to start 76 games, not including any time he may see for Team Finland at the 2014 Winter Olympics.
McLellan will absolutely need to lean on Niemi if San Jose has any hope of contending for a Stanley Cup, and he can’t afford to wear his goaltender out early on.
Backup Alex Stalock was impressive in his one start, making 38 saves against Ottawa—more than Niemi has made in any of his starts this season.
But it’s difficult to fault McLellan’s goaltending decisions given Niemi’s solid numbers in virtually every category. And other than the recent opportunity to start Stalock against Buffalo, the Sharks have been smart to ride Niemi, who has been a bit of an unsung hero for San Jose.
There are few (if any) things in the league more entertaining than watching the Sharks’ top power-play unit running on all cylinders. But the dynamic five-man unit has also proven to be fragile, as evidenced by the seven-game absence of Dan Boyle, the unit’s quarterback.
Despite going 6-for-21 immediately following his injury, the Sharks clearly struggled to find a replacement to fill that role, going 2-for-15 over the final four games while testing out players like Jason Demers, Matt Irwin and Justin Braun in Boyle’s role.
The power play is a lowly 1-for-10 since Boyle’s return, the lone goal coming from Boyle himself. But there’s no need to worry about this group in the long run.
It may be worth worrying about the second unit, which is still searching for its identity. Missing Burns hasn’t helped this group, which has the potential to be exciting with the recent surging of Tim Kennedy and Tommy Wingels.
If the Sharks don't reach the Stanley Cup Final, will McLellan still be behind the bench next season?
The Sharks’ penalty kill has been much better since Hall-of-Famer Larry Robinson joined the coaching staff prior to the 2012-13 season. After finishing second-to-last in 2011-12, the Sharks rocketed up to sixth under Robinson’s watch.
This year’s team is hovering around the same success rate, but the increase in overall team speed has resulted in more puck pressure and has led to increased short-handed opportunities.
It could go under game management, but since shootouts are a “specialty” situation, they’re worth mentioning given the Sharks’ obvious struggles with them.
In four shootouts this season, the Sharks are 1-3 with only three goals scored. But what’s really shocking is that if not for Logan Couture, the Sharks would be 0-4 with zero goals scored.