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What Can Todd McLellan, Sharks Coach, Tell Us About Todd McLellan, Kings Coach?

You know about that 3-0 lead, but there’s plenty more we can learn from Todd McLellan’s tenure behind the bench in San Jose.

2015 Coors Light Stadium Series - Los Angeles Kings v San Jose Sharks Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

(NOTE: This article, one of two focusing on Todd McLellan’s past head coaching stints, will closely follow the format of an article we wrote after the hiring of Willie Desjardins. Enjoy!)

On Tuesday afternoon, Todd McLellan was hired to replace Willie Desjardins as coach of the Los Angeles Kings. And because it’s the NHL, you shouldn’t be surprised that the guy who was hired once got fired himself. Unlike the dismissal of John Stevens, the dismissal of Desjardins was a formality, a move that was telegraphed since, I don’t know, New Year’s? In the wake of the last move, we knew that the firing of Stevens and the hiring of Desjardins would be looked on as two separate, crucial decisions for Rob Blake. Now? This is one move, and it’s more important than the other two combined.

A coach’s hiring will be broken down by everyone, but I’d argue that a coach’s firing is generally much more revealing. Which brings us to McLellan. Yes, he was fired by the Oilers, and we’ll get into that. But unlike Desjardins, he had another stint behind the bench, one which ended (at least partially) on his terms. McLellan was the most successful coach in the history of the San Jose Sharks by almost every significant measure, lasting seven years as head coach in San Jose before he and the Sharks parted ways in the 2017 offseason. And to figure out what he’s bringing to the table for Los Angeles, we’re going to look at that stint.

Mostly: how it ended.

McLellan was hired as a first-time head coach by San Jose in 2008 after four years as an assistant for a juggernaut Detroit team. With a Cup ring on his finger, he was brought in to take over for Ron Wilson, whose great regular season teams had failed to break through in the postseason. (This is a theme.) Reaction to the hire was positive, and he was among the most successful in a new wave of inexperienced hires. Also hired as a first-time coach that summer: Florida’s Peter DeBoer, who eventually took over for McLellan and immediately led the Sharks to a Cup Final. DeBoer was brought in because, for all his regular season success, McLellan similarly couldn’t find a way to get through his Western Conference rivals in the postseason. It only took one missed playoffs for McLellan and the Sharks to part ways.

Now, 2014-15 was a bonkers season that also saw the Kings miss the playoffs, while vastly inferior Canucks and Flames squads snuck in. I’m inclined to argue that in the wake of the Kings’ reverse sweep in 2014, McLellan and his Sharks got unlucky at exactly the wrong time. Having said that, there were plenty of opinions about McLellan’s coaching by that point, and even more about what went wrong in 2014-15.

The Decision-Making

McLellan, like almost every coach out there, relied on veterans for much of his tenure. Interestingly, the season in which he finally seemed to lean on younger talent was 2014-15, perhaps as an overcorrection to what went wrong the previous year. McLellan stuck with what had worked — namely, using Pavelski on Joe Thornton’s wing, but made other noticeable changes, such as trying Brent Burns on defense.

Both of these moves forced McLellan to try younger talent, especially at center. Tomas Hertl, Matt Nieto, Barclay Goodrow, Chris Tierney, and Melker Karlsson were under-25 players who got considerable run at forward, while 19-year-old blueliner Mirco Mueller played in 39 games and averaged 16 minutes a night. All five forwards are now regulars and all five are playing their best hockey now in 2019, though Mueller has struggled. But after waiting so long to phase in young talent in San Jose, McLellan might have misjudged his timing on working them into the lineup for a team that had been so good for so long. The one player who arguably should have played more was Hertl, and he didn’t use Hertl at center.

Hertl had spent much of 2013-14 in the minors despite his remarkable four-goal game in October, and in 2014-15, McLellan played Hertl in all 82 games. However, Hertl’s ice time dropped over the course of the season, and he began ceding time to players like Tommy Wingels and Andrew Desjardins. Hertl, perhaps unsurprisingly, broke out upon receiving increased responsibility in 2015-16:

Tomas Hertl, 2013-16 (via hockeyviz.com)
https://hockeyviz.com/player/hertlto93

Then again, it’s also worth mentioning that these Sharks employed John Scott and Mike Brown. Though GM Ron Wilson didn’t end up trading Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau after the Sharks’ playoff disaster, McLellan’s team just wasn’t set up for success in the way they could have been.

McLellan comes to a team which also isn’t set up for success, and he’s got a limited amount of less young talent to work with. Expect McLellan to make some crucial early decisions — where to play Adrian Kempe, how much responsiblity to give Derek Forbort and Paul LaDue, and how to coax bounceback seasons from Ilya Kovalchuk and Jeff Carter — and to stick with them if they work.

The Culture

Much of the impetus for Todd McLellan’s departure was based on the belief that McLellan’s team had failed to respond to what should have been a massive motivator, that first-round loss at the hands of the Kings. This is, to say the least, a concern for me. McLellan was brought in primarily to provide a stabilizing presence for a Kings team whose practice habits were, in the words of Tyler Toffoli, “pathetic.” Drew Doughty will say he’s mad as hell and can’t take it anymore or whatever, and Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown will say they need to get better, but that’s all lip service if the coach doesn’t run a tight ship.

I think Rob Blake’s relationship with McLellan might actually help here in terms of presenting a unified front to players and an organized philosophy, but again, early results will be key. If the Kings struggle out of the gate and end up out of contention by January 1, it’s crucial that they find some results and keep the troops interested, in order to avoid another lost season and set up for a decent 2020-21. The legendary “Kings culture” took a massive hit last year; is McLellan up for reconstructing it?

The Results

Jon Cooper and the Tampa Bay Lightning have provided fine evidence that the playoffs are wildly unpredictable, and that even the most well-respected coaches can find difficulty winning a seven-game series. Todd McLellan’s regular season squads were largely excellent, but for various reasons, playoff success never followed. Note that the Sharks received above-average goaltending in every regular season he coached in San Jose, but Evgeni Nabokov and Antti Niemi were never able to get hot (or even warm) in the playoffs. It didn’t help that the Sharks got tough draws; the 2010 Blackhawks, the 2011 Canucks, and the 2013 and 2014 Kings were formidable opponents.

Having said that: McLellan lost a series to Randy Carlyle’s Ducks (and not for the last time) with the President’s Trophy winners, his 2012 Sharks lost to a Blues squad which got swept in the next round, and McLellan’s most successful playoff team was way back in 2010. These things can (and usually do) happen when you’re the Sharks, but McLellan had no room for error when his teams didn’t bring home hardware. Claude Julien won a Cup with the Boston Bruins in 2011, but you can bet that if his team followed up their 3-0 collapse in 2010 with no postseason berth in 2011, he would have lost his job too.

The expectations are lower for a McLellan-helmed team than they’ve ever been this year, as even his hapless Oilers (more on that soon) were supposed to be on the cusp of greatness. McLellan’s expectations this season will be colored by Rob Blake’s offseason moves, the draft results, and the training camp prognosis for Gabriel Vilardi and Jeff Carter. For now, though, not much is expected, aside from a competitive team that looks a lot better than last year’s squad. McLellan’s history supports that, but he’s never had a team quite like this one.