During the last four regular seasons, and in six of the last eight, the San Jose Sharks have ruled the Pacific like Magellan, the Spanish explorer who first sailed what he called "the peaceful sea" in 1519. By this point in the schedule, it is usually safe for the seamstress to begin sewing "Pacific Division Champions" on another flag to hang at HP Pavilion.
But entering the games of Thursday, December 15, the Sharks were in unusual depths: two points behind Dallas with a 15-10-3 overall mark that was good for eighth in the Western Conference. Lots of teams would be happy to be as ship-shape with the Christmas holiday approaching, but in San Jose, all it has brought coach Todd McLellan are questions about his job security and an admonition from blustery broadcaster Mike Milbury during a nationally televised game against Colorado on December 13th that the Sharks need a "kick in the rear end."
The day before, a Monday, McLellan had told his players to get their minds off hockey. To that end, many of them walked around Denver's Cherry Creek Mall to get some early shopping done and take in the new Jonah Hill movie, "The Sitter." Captain Joe Thornton chose to watch a movie back in his hotel room. He couldn't recall the title, but pronounced the flick as being "pretty good" -- unlike his team of late.
"Hopefully, we're just going to start into our groove now and play some good hockey," Thornton said on the morning of what later turned out to be a 4-3 shootout loss to the Avalanche.
After failing to win for the seventh time in nine games (3-5-2 in their previous 10 entering Thursday), the Sharks may have made such liberty day passes harder to come by from McLellan, a 44-year-old native of Melville, Saskatchewan (population 4,300, but the hometown of hockey names such as Sid Abel, Chris Kunitz and Jarret Stoll, as well as former Houston Astro Terry Puhl).
McLellan, who has a 167-73-12 record since taking over for Ron Wilson behind the Sharks' bench in 2008, believes the core of his team -- one led by Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Ryane Clowe, Antti Niemi, Dan Boyle and Joe Pavelski -- remains strong. But he and GM Doug Wilson had hoped for more offense from two summer imports from Minnesota: forward Martin Havlat and defenseman Brent Burns.
Havlat, who is being paid $5 million this season and for three more after it, has all of one goal in his first 25 games as a Shark after being acquired straight up for Dany Heatley. Burns, the 6-5, 219-pound defenseman and marquee part of a trade involving winger Devin Setoguchi going to the Wild with an exchange of draft picks, has put up five goals and 10 points through his first 29 games, after posting 46 points last season. But at least Burns is plus-11 and McLellan, while sounding a little more flummoxed about Havlat, is confident of a big second half from "Burnsie."
"I think he understands now how we want him to play and what he needs to do within our structure," McLellan says. "When we did a study on where we're scoring, most of it is coming from in and around the blue paint. The defensemen league-wide, I think, are having a tougher time scoring because everyone's playing goal. There isn't anyone who's afraid to block a shot anymore. But [Burns has] been much better in the defensive area, and now the offensive part will come."
McLellan would like more offense overall, and one of the easiest ways to get it would be to allow veteran center Thornton more liberty away from the defensive end. Perhaps McLellan's best sales job yet as a coach was getting Thornton to buy into more of a two-way game, especially in the playoffs.
While the franchise's first Stanley Cup has remained elusive, Thornton's playoff reputation has improved greatly the last two years, partially because of his bigger commitment to backchecking. But his offensive numbers have taken a hit because of it (he's averaged less than a point per game the last two seasons after six straight above one point), and that might change if McLellan outsources more of the defensive grunt work to others and lets Thornton roam.
Not a chance. McLellan says, "If we want him to linger and play on the wrong side of the puck and gamble, that would be easy. We could just turn him loose and he'd get rewarded with a few more points. But I know we're not winning any more games that way. He's got to continue to do what he's done defensively, and when he's going hard and well on the back-check in the D-zone, everyone follows him. That's a really healthy thing for our team."
Thornton, who remains as laid back as ever, off the ice at least, might have been tempted to ease up defensively more in his younger days, but with a lot of miles on his otherwise not-very-old (31) body and probably more yesterdays than tomorrows in his career, he's anxious to get back in the playoffs for another shot at the Cup and will do whatever is best in order for the Sharks to get it.
"You've got to be up every game, ready to go. It's so important in our conference, because it's so competitive," Thornton says. "It's a grind, but I still enjoy the game a lot, probably more than I ever did."
Thornton's on-ice focus, McLellan says, "stays where it should be a lot longer than it used to. He could get rattled a little bit more and get off task. I trust him on the ice and he trusts me."
McLellan may not be a Magellan, but he is the man entrusted to lead the Sharks out of what are, for the moment, some rough seas. There is still far too much talent dressed in teal to worry about things deteriorating badly and the team sinking too far. So keep that needle and thread handy, seamstress, the flags may not be done flying just yet inside the Shark Tank.
Who knows? Maybe this will even turn out to be the season an engraver is needed.