by Mike Chen on 04/03/09 at 03:20 PM ET
It’s a generally accepted philosophy that the winner of the Jack Adams award can’t go to someone coaching a team that was supposed to be good. You wind up with people saying that a monkey could pull line combinations out of a hat and they’d still win with that lineup.
With that in mind, you’ll find that Jack Adams talk swirls around people that have taken young teams to the next level, like Pete DeBoer, Ken Hitchcock, Andy Murray, or Barry Trotz. As for someone like Todd McLellan, the Sharks were supposed to be good anyways, right?
Well, sure, on paper. But when you play more than half the season with about half of your starting regulars injured, maybe you should get some consideration for coach of the year.
The list of walking wounded in San Jose is a mile long, and while Joe Thornton played in every game, just about every other key player went out for some time. Since the All-Star break, the bulk of the third and fourth lines have been filled by AHL call-ups. Key scoring forwards like Ryane Clowe and Patrick Marleau have missed stretches while the entire penalty killing unit had to be reshuffled with Mike Grier and Marcel Goc going down.
Let’s not forget to mention Torrey Mitchell. The Sharks’ best penalty killer last year, along with being the third-line anchor, hasn’t played a single game all season. In fact, he’s just starting to practice with the team now.
Some will say that you can take a handful of scoring forwards and a bunch of scrubs and the skill will always overcome. It doesn’t work that way. We all know that in hockey a great third line can be as critical to a championship team as a power play quarterback. And the problem that Todd McLellan had to face this season was the evisceration of NHL-quality checkers and defensive forwards from his lineup. Proven two-way veterans like Grier were replaced on the wing with AHL players like Jamie McGinn and Tom Cavanaugh. With the loss of centers Goc and Mitchell, he had to double shift both Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau for long stretches of games, all while those guys took on their normal even-strength and special teams shifts. McLellan told the press a few weeks back that he had to be very careful managing ice time for his two key forwards as he needed them healthy and ready for the playoffs.
On the blueline, both Dan Boyle and Rob Blake missed games, and Boyle’s nagging wrist injury is at a point where the pain is manageable, but it hasn’t gone away. Evgeni Nabokov missed his share of games too. When you factor all of these things in, the Sharks haven’t had much stability in the lineup since December. Instead, McLellan’s had to constantly fill holes, either with minor-league call-ups or by asking guys to adapt to new roles on the fly.
And where McLellan should get kudos is the fact that the Sharks haven’t really stopped rolling. They’ve hit pockets of poor play, but nothing has built into an extended slump. Instead, when the team has needed to change its game or morph into something else—a grinding team versus the high-flying squad that romped through games in the first three months of the season—they’ve pushed and pulled until they found their stride. Slumping superstar goal-scorer (Jonathan Cheechoo)? Fill in Devin Setoguchi. #1 defenseman (Dan Boyle) going down? Give Marc-Edouard Vlasic some power play time. Starting goalie (Evgeni Nabokov) not able to go? Let Brian Boucher and his ridiculous stats start some games.
All of these interchangeable parts adapted to their new roles and helped the team evolve in different ways, all while maintaining their record and their high special-teams percentage. Even with just a handful of days left in the season, the Sharks still have key guys out of the lineup and they keep winning—they just win differently than how they did back in November.
Yes, Todd McLellan has a team of All-Stars and future All-Stars on his team but he’s also had giant holes to constantly fill. His ability to juggle through this, to fill in substitutes whenever necessary, to keep his team motivated and focused despite all of the excuses in the world, all of that deserves some recognition for coach of the year.
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