by Mike Chen on 10/15/08 at 01:55 PM ET
With a victory over Columbus, the San Jose Sharks have gotten off to their best start ever and Todd McLellan’s short coaching record remains unblemished. It’s difficult to judge things this early in the season but anyone who’s seen a Sharks game so far can tell you that this team is far, far different from any previous Sharks team. There’s a swagger to the whole squad, a confidence that was never there under Ron Wilson.
Under Kevin Constantine (Sharks v1.0), the Sharks were a defense-goaltending squad that overachieved on the backs of miraculous Arturs Irbe saves and Sergei Makarov/Igor Larionov chemistry. The Darryl Sutter days (Sharks v2.0) were about grit and power, almost to the point where skill was being squeezed out—ask Teemu Selanne about that. Even in 2003-04, when Ron Wilson (Sharks v3.0) transformed a bunch of speedy second-liners into Conference Finalists, that was more about system and synchronicity, the proverbial lightning in a bottle. The post-lockout Wilson squads were hit and miss but even at their best, everything seemed like a controlled affair. And these guys under Todd McLellan (Sharks v4.0—hey, the tech speak works, we are talking about a Silicon Valley team, after all)? There’s just a different shine to the whole package, a feeling like all the parts are finally working cohesively together.
It’s only four games in, but this Sharks team has showcased all the traits you want to see in a team so far: speed, skill, size, emotion, and grit. They bounce back from a sluggish shift or a bad goal and before you know it, the whole team is in overdrive with flying bodies and blueline shots overwhelming the competition.
Whatever elixir McLellan has got the team on, it’s working. Towards the end of the Wilson era, the Sharks were so inconsistent that it seemed like the team’s system had gotten into each player’s psyche. The entire team had a tentativeness about it, like the smart kid in school who underachieves because she’s terrified of her screaming parents. Whether the Wilson message just started to ring hollow or if it was all some sort of amazing coincidence, the whole thing just became one erratic journey.
Still, players and teams often have to undergo that sort of journey to figure out who they are and how they’re going to live up to their potential. It wasn’t that long ago when the Detroit locker room was reportedly in shambles over the tough-guy act of Mike Babcock. Those types of situations are usually sink-or-swim moments; the locker room either collapses under the weight of accusation and expectation or they come out the other end bigger, stronger, better.
In the original Transformers movie (the good animated one from 1985 where a ton of Transformers brutally die, not the awful Michael Bay one), Ultra Magnus tries to open the Matrix of Leadership by prying the damn thing open (apparently, he didn’t see the finger holes in the handles). He curses, he grips, he pulls, but ultimately the evil Galvatron blasts him to pieces. In the climax of the film, another Autobot named Hot Rod recognizes that the strength is within him (and he uses the finger holes in the Matrix’s handle) and opens the Matrix to “light their darkest hour.” He evolves into a bigger, stronger, better version of himself that defeats Galvatron and the planet-destroying Unicron while becoming all he can figuratively be.
Ok, so maybe I’m just trying to force 1980’s cartoon references into this. But I see this year’s Sharks as Hot Rod, not Ultra Magnus. Confidence breeds confidence, but you’ve gotta have that moment where you know that it comes from within, not from the outside. Patrick Marleau is the perfect symbol of this team, more so than Joe Thornton or Jonathan Cheechoo. Marleau’s always been a skilled player; quiet, humble, and maybe a little bit too passive. Because of that, his performance was erratic and he never seemed to fully throw himself into the game.
Since his mid-February transformation—the proverbial opening of the Matrix, when he told the Sharks locker room that he needed to be a better, more accountable player—Marleau showed more grit, passion, and consistency than he had in his entire career. For that season though, the team’s bad habits and whatever friction there was under Wilson forced a collapse under their own weight. Too little, too late for a team that disappeared against Dallas for three games before staging a valiant-but-failed comeback.
Marleau seems to have shaken that off and continued his upwardly mobile path that started eight months ago. Call it swagger, call it confidence, or call it growth. Whatever it is, the Sharks seem to simply know that they’re a better collective mesh of talent than previous years have shown, and Marleau is leading the charge. For his part, McLellan seems to have tapped into this and given the team the tools and system to utilize the speed and skill of the team while working with the maturing leadership group. Of course, it helps that Doug Wilson went out and got Rob Blake and Dan Boyle.
Again, it’s only four games in. There’s definitely work to be done here. Joe Thornton looks to be a little lost since he’s moved out of his half-board office, while third- and fourth-line contributions are sparse. To grab a censor-worthy line from Pulp Fiction, it’s not time to start sucking each other’s &*!$‘s quite yet. Good starts can collapse quickly and painfully—just ask the Ottawa Senators. But the regular season is there to work those sorts of things out.
Still, for someone who’s watched the Sharks from day one, it’s easy sense that something’s different about this team. It starts from Marleau and it trickles down to the forwards and defense. It works with the coaching staff, not in spite of it or against it. And it doesn’t necessarily mean a Stanley Cup, but it’s laying down the foundation to possibly get there—and that’s the first step of the journey.
(By the way, most of my Sharks-related writing shows up over at Battle of California. If you’re not familiar with it, check it out for non-stop California hockey fun complete with illustrations.)
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