Kings’ youth to test renewed Sharks team
SAN JOSE -- Todd McLellan discovered a lot about his team during his triumphant NHL coaching debut, a dominant performance by the San Jose Sharks in a 4-1 victory over the Ducks on Thursday.
He expects to find out even more tonight, when the Sharks face the Kings at HP Pavilion.
It’s easy to be motivated for the season opener, especially when it’s at home and against a close rival. The Sharks followed McLellan’s game plan as if it had always been in place: They went to the net at every chance, scored twice on power plays, killed two disadvantages and got defensemen involved in the offense smoothly enough to produce a goal and three assists.
Now, McLellan wants to know if they can follow that with another strong effort tonight, against the young and still-evolving Kings.
Only then will he get an inkling of how deeply the Sharks have taken his words to heart and whether they’re determined to recast the character of a team that flopped in the second round of the playoffs each of the last three seasons.
“Are we going to buckle down and compete again? Are we going to be fat, patting ourselves on the back? Is our leadership going to do what leadership is supposed to do in this situation? So we’ll learn a lot about our team,” he said Friday.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that youthfulness in L.A. will be tough for us to handle. They’re going to play hard, and we’d better be ready.”
McLellan was hired in San Jose after three seasons as an assistant to Mike Babcock in Detroit, where he was responsible for the Red Wings’ power play and shaped it into a potent unit.
Before that he coached the Minnesota Wild’s top farm team in Houston for four years. He cited the Wild’s general manager, Doug Risebrough, and its coach, Jacques Lemaire, as two of his strongest influences.
Certainly, he had two dramatically different on-ice philosophies to draw from.
“You can even go further back to when you were a junior,” said McLellan, who spent four seasons as coach and general manager of the Swift Current Broncos of the Western Hockey League.
“There are situations that present themselves on a daily basis, whether it’s relationships with individuals or hockey situations, that you can always refer to the past and how you handled it or wish you had.”
He has fused his experiences into a philosophy that he calls a foundation or intent, not a system. By whatever name, his ideas seem to have been accepted by a team that has had plenty of talent the last few seasons but hasn’t had nearly the same amount of fire.
Thanks to McLellan, defenseman Rob Blake has found new wrinkles to the game in this, his 19th NHL season.
“It’s funny. You play this many years and you get a month here and you learn so many different things about puck retrieval and positions to be to get shots,” Blake said.
“The open ice, the way the game’s played now with everybody backing in, there’s open ice on the outside, and you learn how to take advantage of it. I think he’s got real good knowledge of that.”
For winger Jonathan Cheechoo, the change from Ron Wilson to McLellan has been like cramming for an exam.
“Having a new coach brings some new energy. New life, kind of,” Cheechoo said.
“It was tough during preseason. There was a lot of new information to take in and not a lot of time, but the coaches were good about it. They weren’t pushing it on us too much.
“They let us go play, but at the same time they wanted to get the basics down and fine-tune it as we went along. I think it worked out well. Everybody’s kind of bought into it and likes the way things look with this system.”
Early success would go a long way toward reassuring players that McLellan knows what he’s doing.
“And by winning some games or individuals getting rewarded for commitment, for playing a certain way, that’s important,” McLellan said.
“It’s the commitment level that’s the most important right off the bat. If we don’t win battles it doesn’t matter what we do on the ice.”
Helene Elliott can be reached at email@example.com. To read previous columns by Elliott, go to latimes.com/elliott.