The first shoe has dropped in San Jose.
After missing the playoffs for the first time in 11 years, the Sharks announced that they and coach Todd McLellan had “mutually agreed to part ways” on Monday morning.
The decision brings an end to the most successful era in the franchise’s history. McLellan's teams went 311-163-66 and won one Presidents' Trophy and three Pacific Division titles in his seven seasons behind the bench, but never played in a Stanley Cup finals. Under McLellan, San Jose won just five playoff rounds and never advanced beyond the Western Conference finals.
A good part of the Sharks’ perennial underachievement was on the coach. McLellan maddened the team’s fans by giving ice time to veterans instead of taking a chance on younger players with more upside. He was also unable to lift San Jose out of the league’s bottom-third in five-on-five goal differential, goals-against and penalty killing. And by his own admission, his message had grown stale.
All of McLellan’s failures came into sharp focus in the last 12 months. Last spring, in the first round against the Kings, the Sharks became just the third team in playoff history to blow a 3–0 series lead. Even that humiliation, however, was preferable to what happened to them in 2014–15, when they dropped 22 points in the standings and did not qualify for the playoffs.
Support for McLellan in the front office and in the room was flagging. McLellan himself even seemed to have lost some of his passion for the job. This was the right decision for the organization.
It just can’t be the last one.
For all of McLellan’s failings, he wasn’t exactly handed a championship caliber team. He was saddled with subpar goalies in Antti Niemi (who, to be fair, won a Stanley Cup in 2010) and Alex Stalock. McLellan was also forced to build his blue line around defenseman Brent Burns, a converted forward who is brilliant on the attack but who has never quite seemed to grasp the critical nuances of how to play in his own zone without the puck. And up front the coach had to rely on Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, a pair of complacent stars in decline, while the bottom end of his roster was filled with players who had been picked off the scrap heap.
All of that is on general manager Doug Wilson. He was the one who decided to stand pat with his goaltending after last year’s playoff debacle. He’s the one who pushed to replace Dan Boyle with Burns, a player who said—and proved repeatedly—that he was more comfortable at forward. Wilson is the one whose big off-season acquisition was journeyman winger John Scott. And Wilson is the one who not only gifted Thornton and Marleau with the no-movement clauses that granted them long tenures in San Jose, but who also inexplicably instigated a public pissing match with his ex-captain by calling out Thornton's communication skills at a season-ticket holders event last month.
Wilson received a vote of confidence from team owner Hasso Plattner earlier this season, but the big boss might be reconsidering. His GM didn't just fail to deliver an expected return to the playoffs, he also muddied the waters around the team with mixed messaging. At various times referred to his plan for 2014–15 and beyond as a rebuild, a reboot and a refresh.
Like McLellan, Wilson has more black ink than red on his ledger—that playoff streak counts for something. So too does the drafting and development of such players as Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. But there’s something stale about Wilson’s leadership. And now the Sharks, like the Bruins, feel like a team that would benefit from a different hand at the wheel.
Maybe that person would take a modern approach to building the bottom six. Maybe he could repair some of the team’s fractured relationships. Maybe he could even convince Thornton and Marleau that a change of scenery would be in their best interests, as well as the organization’s.
Is that asking too much?
The next GM doesn’t have to be a miracle worker. He just has to offer a fresh start. That’s what this team needs more than anything.
As for McLellan, he’s sure to be a hot commodity in a market filled with teams looking for a proven coach. Despite his playoff failures, he’s still highly regarded around the NHL—as his next gig coaching Team Canada at the upcoming World Championship proves. Now that he’s available, he has immediately become a front-runner to fill the vacancies in Toronto, Philadelphia, Buffalo and Edmonton.
There’s a possibility that Red Wings coach Mike Babcock could move on when his contract ends this summer, opening up a spot for McLellan with his former organization. The Coyotes could also be in the market for a new bench boss if Dave Tippett opts out of his job. Clearly, McLellan won’t be out of work for long.