San Jose Coach Todd McLellan's job security didn't look so solid a month ago, when the Sharks were a wobbly 10-10-4. He heard speculation that he'd be fired and handled the uncertainty as best he could.
"We just come to work every day. We work hard," he said Monday, then paused.
"Those are the cliches that coaches will give you. But when those rumors start, you're not prepared as a coach. You don't get the training for that," he said. "You can spend as many games as you want in the league and learn about power play, penalty kill, matching lines and all that type of stuff, but when that happens you've got to stay focused. You have to have people around you that keep you focused on your task and your job. And the staff that I'm fortunate to have here did that."
It helped, too, that the Sharks — who had to play 16 of their first 21 games on the road — settled in at home and got in some constructive practices. Starting with a 6-4 victory over the Ducks at San Jose on Nov. 29, the Sharks went on to win nine of 10 games and barge back into the West playoff picture, no small feat.
The Sharks, who lost to the Ducks, 3-2, in overtime on Monday night at Anaheim, are largely the same group that squandered a 3-0 series lead over the Kings in the first round of the playoffs last spring, but with a few new faces in key roles. "There really weren't many changes," Logan Couture said. "We did get some younger players and they've stepped in and done a great job for us this year."
James Sheppard has anchored a solid third line. Brenden Dillon, acquired from Dallas last month, has meshed on defense with the dynamic and sometimes adventurous Brent Burns. Couture, Tommy Wingels, Joe Pavelski and Marc-Edouard Vlasic have become the young leaders but the old guard — Joe Thornton (29 points in his first 34 games) and Patrick Marleau (27 points) — is still producing.
Turning things around took more mental effort than physical exertion.
"Just the understanding that I think we knew we had a good team," Pavelski said. "We started not taking anything for granted. We have to play every night. We have to do a lot of little things, a lot of intangibles that lead to wins. Sometimes you don't understand how hard they are and on a consistent basis you have to be able to do them."
They'll have to maintain the strong special-teams play that has put them in the top 10 in power-play and penalty-killing efficiency and hope their depth continues to come through. Even then, the West is tough and their playoff history is less than glorious.
"Everyone's chipping in," Couture said. "That's what successful teams have: four lines that go out and they score on a regular basis. . . . When we've got everyone going, we're a tough team to beat."
The slightest letup will bring the rumors to McLellan's door again. "That can happen again awfully quick," he said, "especially in our league."
AHL looking west
The American Hockey League is considering whether to stretch beyond its traditional East and Midwest roots and establish a division on the West Coast to accommodate teams whose top affiliates now are thousands of miles away.
The idea has been discussed before but appears to be gaining momentum. The Bakersfield Californian reported last week the ECHL's Bakersfield Condors — owned by the Edmonton Oilers — could be elevated to the AHL to play in a prospective Pacific division. In addition, the Calgary Flames reportedly are considering buying the ECHL's Stockton Thunder and moving their AHL operations west from Glens Falls, N.Y.
Many factors complicate establishing an AHL West, including the need for at least four NHL teams to be involved so it will make economic sense. In addition, some NHL clubs own their AHL affiliate but others don't: the Kings own the Manchester (N.H.) Monarchs and part of the ECHL Ontario Reign but the Ducks don't own the Norfolk (Va.) Admirals. That means some NHL clubs could shift their AHL operations more easily than others. Also, some ECHL rinks likely would need upgrades or modifications.
The Ducks have long hoped to have an AHL farm team in San Diego but couldn't be the lone West Coast outpost. They've kept their AHL affiliation agreements short so they'd be free to move if the AHL formulates a viable Pacific plan.
An AHL spokesman said Monday the league has been working on a framework and process that would satisfy the desire of Western teams to have their affiliates closer but said no timetable has been set.
• Gordie Howe, slowed by dementia and strokes, has shown remarkable improvement since participating in a stem cell clinical trial in Mexico on Dec. 8. Howe, 86, has since been walking, talking and helping with household chores. "His response was truly miraculous," his family said in a statement.
• The NHL Network will broadcast 28 games from the World Junior Championships, to be held in Montreal and Toronto starting Friday and ending Jan. 5. Former Pittsburgh Penguins and U.S. Olympic coach Dan Bylsma will be the analyst on games involving Team USA. The U.S. games also will be available via live stream on NHL.com.
• The NHL's holiday trade freeze, which began Friday, ends Saturday at midnight local time.