SAN JOSE -- Todd McLellan won’t win the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s top head coach this season. He wasn’t considered for Team Canada’s Olympic staff, and has yet to guide the Sharks to an appearance in the Stanley Cup Final through five full seasons.
But according to Sharks associate coach Larry Robinson -- he of nine Stanley Cup rings and a place in the Hockey Hall of Fame -- McLellan should not be left out of the discussion when it comes to the NHL’s best bench bosses.
“I don’t think he holds back door to any of them,” Robinson said. “It’s not just his record, it’s his preparation, his knowledge of the game, knowledge of the players, the way he runs practices, the speed of his practices. He’s terrific. I don’t think I’ve run into too many that are more prepared than he is.”
McLellan’s best work since he took over for Ron Wilson in the summer of 2008 may have come in the past 12 months. The Sharks looked stale, uninspired and in decline midway through the 2013 shortened season, and it wouldn’t have been all that shocking if general manager Doug Wilson blew up the roster prior to the trade deadline.
Instead, a series of lesser moves helped energize the club, which was playing its best hockey when it lost in seven games to Los Angeles in the second round.
Wilson has rightly been given credit for making his team a faster and harder one to play against. It doesn’t work, though, without a head coach that can bring everyone on board and his players to buy in to the new identity -- quickly. McLellan was able to do it.
“You see a situation like last year when we were struggling, and he found a way to get us going at the end of the year,” Brad Stuart said.
For the most part, the Sharks have been able to maintain that identity in what has been a generally successful 2013-14 campaign. That’s despite losing the player that embodied that identity shift, Raffi Torres, for all but five games, as well as top rookie Tomas Hertl since December and star center Logan Couture for a month.
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McLellan, who has now overseen four 100-plus point seasons with the Sharks and is second to only Bruce Boudreau in wins as a head coach since 2008-09, isn’t concerned with any outside recognition, though.
“The only thing that’s important about coaching is what your group believes. That is the players in the locker room and the people in the organization. That’s all that matters,” McLellan said.
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The players that have been around McLellan for a while point to his approachability. If there’s a problem, either individually or with the group, they know they can go a-knocking at his office door.
Dan Boyle, the Sharks’ elder statesman, has experienced his share of coaching styles in a 15-year NHL career. Having a head coach that can maintain a strong relationship with the players has become essential in this day and age, according to Boyle.
“I just think some coaches have a 'my way or the highway' attitude. … I think the game is evolving, the game changes, it’s important to hear from your players, and I think that’s one of his biggest assets,” said Boyle, who can list Mike Kennan and John Tortorella as former coaches of his.
“He’ll listen to us, and he’s obviously got to make his own decisions, too, but coaches I’ve had in the past, they don’t even want to hear about us. That’s one of the positive things that I think he brings.”
McLellan, a fifth-round Islanders draft pick in 1986, said that as a player he responded better to the coaches that maintained an open dialogue with the roster. That’s apparently stuck with him since a shoulder injury ended his career prematurely in 1989.
“We, the staff, are evaluating players daily. If they can’t come in and talk to us and tell us what they’re thinking and what they’re feeling, and we don’t have a relationship at all, the evaluation may not be very fair,” McLellan said. “We have to know what’s going on in their world, and what’s in their minds.”
The line that has to be walked by McLellan is maintaining that positive relationship, but being heavy handed when necessary, indicated Robinson.
“There’s another saying, you don’t want the nuts running the asylum,” Robinson said. “You can’t just be closed-minded. The guys are the ones that are on the ice, and he definitely is a great listener.”
And, that open door policy also applies to McLellan’s staff, which includes Robinson, Jim Johnson and Jay Woodcroft, among others.
“For us as assistants, it’s great, too, because he doesn’t have a closed door policy on us,” Robinson said. “He uses our ideas and enjoys our input. We feel like we’re a part of the team, too. It’s not just ‘this is the way we’re doing it, to heck with you guys.’ We share ideas, and everything that’s done around here is done as a group. It makes us feel good, too. That’s a great point on his part.”
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McLellan doesn’t hesitate to admit that he’s still learning on the job. When Robinson joined up with the staff in the summer of 2012, he brought a wealth of experience with him to the Bay Area.
As a former head coach of the New Jersey Devils, Robinson knew the toll the job can take on a man.
“The one thing with Larry, that over and above all the hockey knowledge and everything, I think he’s taught me to relax a little bit,” McLellan said. “Enjoy it. … That’s one of the things that I’ve learned from him. You have to come in and laugh at yourself sometimes. You have to laugh at the players a little bit. Not joking around, but there are some comical moments throughout the year, and if you’re not prepared to enjoy them with everybody else, then that will weigh on you.”
“I’ve always had the philosophy that if you’re not enjoying what you’re doing, then you shouldn’t be doing it,” Robinson said. “I’ve been in his shoes. If I can help him out and take any of the pressure off of him, then I find that’s more my job than anything else. That’s a stressful job.”
The Sharks have already clinched another spot in the postseason, meaning McLellan is a perfect six-for-six in making it to the tournament in his tenure as head coach. Perhaps this is the year he is finally able to get his group past the Western Conference Final, where it lost in 2010 and 2011.
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And, maybe with that, McLellan will be hailed by a broader audience as one of the best at his trade. Even if that happens, though, don’t expect the 46-year-old to pay it much concern.
“Who believes what and all that type of stuff is irrelevant, because if you can’t convince the group inside that you have the ability to lead them, forget about the outside," McLellan said.