Doug Wilson Believes in Todd McLellan: What Is Next for the San Jose Sharks?

MJ Kasprzak@BayAreaCheezhedSenior Writer IIMay 5, 2012

Doug Wilson Believes in Todd McLellan: What Is Next for the San Jose Sharks?

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    With general manager Doug Wilson likely to remain in his post into next season, it is his opinion that matters most moving forward.

    That is why coach Todd McLellan has to be happy to hear that the GM believes in him. Wilson wants to go through the process step by step before committing, and has said player interviews come first.

    He told the San Jose Mercury News  that "(t)here will be what level, time will tell."

    One is likely to be Jay Woodcroft, fired or reassigned for his oversight of the team's failed penalty kill. But presuming the rest of the staff stays intact, management has to start evaluating assets and determining what is most likely to create the most and quickest success for the team.

    Many of those changes will be players. McLellan and his predecessor Ron Wilson have dealt with eight players in common: Patrick Marleau (the only player left that Doug Wilson inherited), Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Ryane Clowe, Torrey Mitchell, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Douglas Murray and Thomas Greiss.

    Seven of these players have been considered key components of the team over McLellan's entire tenure. The team's failure means few of them should be considered safe. Others who have not been part of the team's core over time also have to be considered expendable to some degree.

    Should the Sharks follow the Philadelphia Flyers model? They dumped two top forwards from a team that was one year removed from the Stanley Cup Finals. If they can change their core that drastically and remain one of the league's top-four teams, it may provide a blueprint for Wilson.

    However, New Jersey (a lower seed with as many wins in the second round this year as they had in the previous eight) has them on the ropes. Few teams with that much upheaval are successful, but previous cosmetic changes have failed.

    The last significant change happened as early as the 2008 trade deadline, when the Sharks got enough talent on their blue line to be a puck-moving team. They bolstered that further and hired a coach to better take advantage of that talent the following summer.

    The moves seemed to work. The Sharks won the President's Trophy and, after a disappointing first-round loss, rebounded to make two consecutive conference finals.

    Last summer, it could be said they made another significant change in moving forward talent for Brent Burns. This one appeared to force the Sharks back a step, another indication upheaval does not bring quick results.

    But unless one believes the model is so flawed as to warrant tearing it down and starting over, the past should only shape direction according to the lessons it teaches. The team must still decide next steps by assessing their assets and liabilities, being willing to accept the ugly truth they need to fix moving forward.

    Hence, my evaluation of total team talent follows the same format it will for individual players, inspired by one of local renaissance man (actor, director, producer, musician, mayor and restaurateur) Clint Eastwood's best works, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

The Good

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    The San Jose Sharks were the second-best team in the league during the regular season in faceoffs. Their struggles in the circle in the playoffs were a major obstacle to achieving an upset in a series with three close losses, but that appeared to be a five-game anomaly.

    This is one reason San Jose was second in the league in shots and shot differential. However, they got one fewer point per six games (.083 point percentage margin) when they out-shot their opponents as when they were out-shot by them. This suggests this is not so much an asset but a byproduct of a trailing team.

    They also finished second on the power play but are left with reasons not to consider that a strength. They struggled to convert in the playoffs, something that has been an issue in most of the playoffs in Doug Wilson's tenure.

    This is the reason Sharks scoring (13th in this regular season after years of being top-five) drops for San Jose after it gets past tax season while it goes up league-wide.

    The Sharks are also a very good defensive team at even strength, allowing them to finish ninth in five-on-five goal ratio. They were eighth in goals allowed (three-way tie) and shots allowed, fifth in blocked shots and sixth in takeaways. Those trends continued into the playoff series.

    San Jose has deep talent on the blue line, with five players who are at least good at moving the puck among four right-handed shooters. They are among the biggest teams in the league while maintaining enough speed and skill to be able to play fast, especially while controlling the puck.

    That is why they are tough to beat when they are on: San Jose put together three 15-game stretches when they had at least 10 wins, with 25 (.833), 24 (.800) and 21 (.700) points, respectively.

The Bad

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    Obviously, the Sharks had an historically bad penalty kill, finishing second-worst in the league at 76.9 percent. Their minus-49 goal margin on the PK was sixth-worst in the league, even though they were shorthanded the least.

    Why is that discipline not mentioned among their strengths? Because it comes from a lack of aggressiveness brought on by fear of going shorthanded, negatively affecting the team's success. Just three teams had fewer hits.

    This is partially a reflection of the Sharks effective puck-possession, but that is still too little physical play for a team as big as San Jose. The same can be said for its giveaways (sixth most in the NHL) and turnover differential (seventh worst).

    The team also lacks secondary scoring, with six of eight playoff goals coming from four top players and just six players in the regular season with 10 or more goals. They lack consistency, going just 11-22-4 (.350) outside of those aforementioned 15-game streaks.

The Ugly Truth

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    No matter how well someone teaches their system, they need the right players for it. These San Jose Sharks have not yet figured out how to translate "want to win" into "need to win."

    They need more edge. That means an ability to hit, get under the skin of opponents and win the battles in front of the net.

    But they will still need to make sure at least one defenceman on each pair is elusive enough to get the puck out of his own end and one forward on every line is fast enough to break down a defence. They will want to remain a good faceoff and puck-possession team, but be better without it.

    Assuming they get the penalty kill fixed, this would make them better prepared to win in the playoffs. They can use their blue-line skill to fire pucks from the point and their size to be in position for screens, deflections and rebounds.

    That is harder to defend than the behind-the-net, along-the-halfboards schemes they currently employ. It will also result in fewer giveaways.

    There is no reason to believe Todd McLellan cannot coach a team with that makeup. It is essentially what he had as an assistant with the Detroit Red Wings, whose system the Sharks now employ to perfection against his old team.

    But which players have the right set of physical and mental attributes for this new direction? The upcoming player evaluations will focus on that as well as age, cost and market value as part of a cost-benefit analysis of both keeping them and letting them go.