With the regular season winding down, the San Jose Sharks find themselves back in the playoff field after an uncharacteristic miss last year. The Sharks are guaranteed to play one of their California rivals in the first round, though whether the Kings or Ducks draw in remains to be seen. Either will be a tough match-up for a San Jose squad that has struggled to get anywhere in the playoffs for years now. But good teams have to beat good teams en route to glory, so there will be no excuses.
But there also doesn't seem to be much anxiety in San Jose right now, even with the daunting task in front of the squad. A lot of the credit goes to first-year coach Peter DeBoer, who has instilled a new vibe around the team.
"It’s the energy and how he uses the players," said defenseman Brent Burns. "He demands respect from guys, but he also keeps an open door. You want to be a rink rat with him and you feel good about yourself.”
For DeBoer, it's gratifying that players such as Burns, Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski – the leaders of the team – are the first ones to arrive and last ones to leave on most days. And even though DeBoer was previously coaching in the East with New Jersey, he was well aware of the pressure the Sharks had been under prior to his arrival.
"They’ve been a well-coached team for years that won a lot of games but fell short – and they felt the weight of that," DeBoer said. "For me it was less about systems and more about getting them to enjoy coming to the rink.”
And the new boss isn't doing it alone. DeBoer put together a staff that went heavy on positive coaches who love to teach, tabbing Bob Boughner, Steve Spott and Johan Hedberg to lead the charge.
While it would be dishonest to call DeBoer a miracle worker – the Sharks are better than last year, but not by leaps and bounds in the standings – it is interesting to see Burns having a Norris-caliber season and Thornton garnering Hart Trophy talk.
And really – we won't know how mentally fit this group is until that first playoff series, when the screws are tightened and everyone starts to wonder if they'll choke again. But it does feel like GM Doug Wilson's removal of Todd McLellan as coach last summer has paid dividends.
Not to say McLellan is a bad coach overall, because he did have a lot of regular season success with the team and take San Jose to back-to-back conference finals (2010-11). But sometimes a group needs a shake-up, sometimes a new voice is necessary. While McLellan is unfortunately suffering in Edmonton (I don't feel good when I watch his post-game pressers anymore), his replacement in San Jose has reinvigorated the room.
The leaders in the room take more responsibility now, essentially taking DeBoer's message and making sure everyone is on track with it.
"There's a lot more emphasis on getting ready ourselves," said defenseman Justin Braun. "Just get the job done."
With five games remaining, there is only one job now: prepare for another Battle of California. The Sharks have lost their past two series against Los Angeles in seven gutting games, while they lost to Anaheim in the only playoff match between those two squads (the Ducks won in six back in 2009).
But outwardly, at least, you will not find despair.
"We've had troubles in the past," Braun said. "But guys want that challenge."
And with DeBoer setting the table behind the bench, the group has a nice calm about them. Is it a calm before the storm? We'll have to wait until the post-season ends to determine that one.