New-look Sharks out-Winging their opponents early on in season
If you can't beat them, become them. Such is the formula in San Jose, where the revamped Sharks have emulated the defending Stanley Cup champion Red Wings' style -- and so far, so good.
The reverberations of the 2007 Stanley Cup victory of the Anaheim Ducks, it is fair to say, are still being felt.
The Ducks partially brawled their way to that title, and last season much of the Western Conference added muscle with which to confront Anaheim.
This season, fighting is up again in the NHL, with knuckle-dragging apparently back in vogue as even clean checks require revenge and payback. Even the Montreal Canadiens felt compelled to add heavyweight Georges Laraque, the fourth team in four years to buy the notion that Laraque will somehow be a difference-maker because of his ability to intimidate, despite the fact he can't play when it matters most.
The Detroit Red Wings, needless to say, proved there was another way last season, riding skill, speed and Tre Kronor power to an impressive Stanley Cup title. The Wings hardly fought at all, didn't carry an enforcer and roared through the postseason.
That left the San Jose Sharks, to name one team, in a bit of a conundrum.
Follow the Ducks or follow the Wings?
Simply being the Sharks, after all, wouldn't do. That had become synonymous with strong regular seasons -- 418 points in four seasons -- and disappointing playoff pratfalls.
Well, for better or worse, the Sharks chose to imitate the Wings.
In fact, beating the Red Wings 4-2 in Silicon Valley on Thursday night boosted the Sharks to 9-2 on the season, the best start in San Jose franchise history. It was a game that came on the heels of an impressive win over the Eastern Conference defending champs from Pittsburgh, in which Sidney Crosby and Co. were held to just 11 shots by the stingy Sharks defense.
The Wings, it's fair to say, left town thinking they'd just played themselves.
"I think we saw a lot of similarities to how we play," defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom told the Detroit Free Press after the loss. "Even on the power play and penalty kill, we saw a lot of similarities."
Head coach Mike Babcock went even further.
"I thought we got 'Winged' tonight," he told reporters. "I thought they did everything exactly like we try to do things. They just did it better."
Detroit may feel flattered by the imitation, but that didn't help them, as the Sharks spotted them a 1-0 lead then scored four straight goals to win going away.
"Not only are they the Stanley Cup champs," said San Jose winger Ryane Clowe. "But we stole their assistant coach."
That, of course, is the most concrete evidence that San Jose plotted to copy Detroit this season. Detroit assistant coach Todd McLellan was hired by the Sharks to replace the fired Ron Wilson, who was canned somewhat reluctantly by Doug Wilson and was immediately snapped up by the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Sharks added defensemen Dan Boyle and Rob Blake, but chose not to toy with the core of their lineup, retaining Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Jonathan Cheechoo and goalie Evgeni Nabokov, among others.
Instead, they changed the coaches, and already the Sharks GM says he sees a difference in terms of the "clarity" with which his team is playing.
"There were things Detroit did last year that we want this team to do," Wilson told the San Jose Mercury News. "You want a team to say, 'This is the way we're going to play and you have to stop us.' At times last year we didn't play that way."
The Sharks were dumped in the second round of the postseason by Detroit in '07, but a tough six-game loss to Dallas last spring was even more bitter to digest. "Sometimes the class needs a new professor, and sometimes the professor needs a new class," said Wilson in explaining his decision to fire Ron Wilson. The Sharks GM said the team played only a handful of good games among its 13 postseason contests, leading him to believe the trend was irreversible.
"The only thing the team can do better, apparently, is win the Stanley Cup," said Ron Wilson after his firing.
His assistant coaches, Rob Zettler and Tim Hunter, were initially candidates for the vacant head-coaching job, but the Sharks were undoubtedly aware that elevating assistants often doesn't work, as had been the case in Ottawa last year when the Senators foundered after starting the season with 15 wins in their first 17 games.
Plus, they clearly didn't want continuity. They wanted change. They wanted to be more like Detroit, a team that could translate potential into triumph.
Enter McLellan. The team is 6-0 at home under its new coach, just as tough defensively but with a new emphasis on puck possession and getting shots on net, up an average of eight per game from last season.
Interestingly, the NHL's top three teams this season in terms of shots are San Jose, Detroit and, surprisingly, the Maple Leafs, showing that Ron Wilson may have had similar notions to McLellan.
But the Sharks needed change, and while McLellan was a gamble, at 41 years of age he'd served enough of an apprenticeship that the risk was mitigated. They didn't go all the way to the Detroit approach, hiring goon Jody Shelley to ride shotgun on the fourth line, but the overall intent to be the Winged Sharks is there. San Jose's strength during Doug Wilson's tenure has been its ability to be competitive despite self-imposed budgetary restraints, and developing affordable young players was a big part of that. But bringing in Boyle and Blake at a combined cost of close to $12 million now has the Sharks close to the league's $56 million salary cap.
Boyle, in particular, is the kind of puck-mover the Sharks felt they were missing and tried to acquire on a permanent basis when they made a trade-deadline deal to land Brian Campbell last winter. But Campbell left via free agency to Chicago, so Wilson peddled defenseman Matt Carle in a package to get Boyle, a Stanley Cup champion with Tampa in 2004, from the Lightning.
The take on the coaching change is that the team grew weary of Ron Wilson's hectoring, but that's always the easy analysis. That said, Marleau is a player who, after a nightmarish 19-goal campaign a year ago, seems to be back on track with six goals in 11 games this fall. A longtime center, he's playing left wing on the Sharks' top unit with Thornton in the middle and Devon Setoguchi on the right side, and that group is flying.
Blake is playing with young blueliner Marc-Edouard Vlasic, the perfect example of a team that now hopes it has the correct blend of youth and experience. Up the middle, the 29-year-old Thornton and Jeremy Roenick, 38, are the vets, with 24-year-old Joe Pavelski and rookie Jamie McGinn, just 20, providing the youthful energy.
With almost 37 shots per game so far, the Sharks are firing away with their new Detroit attitude, moving away from the close-to-the-vest approach that served them so well in regular seasons past, but left them watching too much of the playoffs from home.
It looks great now. When it comes to the spring, however, it will be a lot tougher to out-Wing the Wings.
Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."