- Pierre LeBrun, NHL
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The San Jose Sharks have passed their early-season tests with straight A's, and they're approaching their midterms with brimming confidence. Unfairly or not, however, the only grade that will matter will come from their finals.
"Regardless of what we do during the regular season, we're going to be judged, more than likely, on the playoff run," said Sharks first-year coach Todd McLellan, who grew accustomed to those standards while working as an assistant for three seasons in Detroit before arriving in San Jose. "I'm hoping I can use some of those experiences to help us get over the hump here."
Getting over that hump has proved difficult for the perennial Stanley Cup contenders from the Bay Area. The post-lockout Sharks have averaged 48 wins and 105 points per season, but have failed to get past the second round of the playoffs all three years.
"We played 13 playoff games last year, and we thought we probably only played five good ones," Sharks general manager Doug Wilson said. "And that's not enough."
In their defense -- and this is something that doesn't get brought up very often -- the Sharks' teams of the past five years (they reached the conference finals in 2004) competed with a payroll that ranked in the bottom 10 of the league. Finally, with the sense that the team's window was really opening up to make a Cup run, ownership gave the green light to add some expensive pieces.
Still, even as the Sharks have pulverized the opposition through the opening three months of the season, the question people around the league are asking themselves is this: Are they the real deal?
"The Sharks have been the class of the league this year," said Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke, whose former team in Anaheim beat San Jose to the Cup dance two years ago. "Dan Boyle has been tremendous for them. He's been a huge addition. And Rob Blake is beating back Father Time. Those are the two biggest differences for me."
Before the question could even be posed to him completely, Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock answered, "They're for real."
We fully agree. But there's nothing the Sharks can do to fast-forward the calendar to April and May (and hopefully June) to answer the question themselves. So until then, the regular-season tests will have to suffice.
"We'll gather experience from every game so that when we get to the point later in the year, we've had [it] ingrained in us to do things the right way, not to cheat, not to cut corners," Wilson said. "And that's what this group is trying to accomplish."
Wilson categorically dismissed any notion that there's an unspoken truth weighing on his players: Stanley Cup or bust.
"No, there's no elephant in that room," Wilson said emphatically. "None. As [Wings GM] Kenny Holland will also say, you want to put yourself in a position to get to the final table. And you worry about that when the time comes. What you try to do is become a hockey team that stays right in the moment.
"Every day you're trying to get better. You dwell on the challenges that come at you today. I think that's probably what Detroit did better last year than what they had done in the last five years."
There's some symmetry between the Wings and the Sharks, aside from the McLellan hiring. Detroit was eliminated by Calgary (2004), Edmonton (2006) and Anaheim (2007) before delivering its latest Stanley Cup last spring. The Sharks hope their playoff lessons, which include eliminations at the hands of Edmonton (2006), Detroit (2007) and Dallas (2008), have given them the acumen to get it right next time around.
Regardless of what we do during the regular season, we're going to be judged, more than likely, on the playoff run.
-- Sharks head coach Todd McLellan
"All that playoff experience over the last few years is probably going to help us reach our ultimate goal of winning the Cup," said Sharks captain Patrick Marleau, in his 11th season. "People may look at it in a negative way, and sure, everybody would have wanted to go further. But that kind of experience you can't get anywhere else."
But just to make sure, Wilson addressed some issues last summer. He believes there are three key elements at play in the current transformation of the Sharks.
1. The coaching change: "Sometimes the class needs another professor, and sometimes the professor needs another class," Doug Wilson said of firing Ron Wilson. The Sharks' GM reiterated his respect for Ron Wilson and what he had accomplished for the organization, but clearly believed a new voice was needed. He interviewed "as many as 20 people" before choosing McLellan. "When we got to Todd, it was just very obvious he was the right guy at the right time for this organization."
2. The additions of Boyle, Blake and Brad Lukowich, three Cup winners who bolstered the blue line. "Boyle and Blake certainly fit right into how we wanted to play from the back end and generate the offense, help the power play and the possession-and-recovery game that we wanted to play as an organization," Doug Wilson said.
3. The growth and evolution of San Jose's players who have been with the organization for a while. For Marleau to Joe Thornton to Milan Michalek, Joe Pavelski and Evgeni Nabokov, the time is now. "They've now come into their prime with a lot of experience," Wilson said.
And -- voila! -- you've got your 2008-09 Sharks, on pace to challenge Detroit's NHL record of 62 wins in a season.
"Throw all three of those things together, and we think it explains why we are where we are right now," Wilson said. "We think this is the cusp of some exciting times for the San Jose Sharks."
The coaching change has proven to be a huge boost. Not surprisingly, McLellan has the Sharks playing a puck-possession style that has the team controlling the tempo of games and outshooting opponents. (Gee, where have we seen that before?)
Ron Wilson is a terrific coach who now is helping the Toronto Maple Leafs exceed expectations, but clearly he had worn out his welcome in San Jose.
"The players just get tired of the badgering," said a Western Conference NHL executive who requested anonymity. "They function at a decent level like they did last year, but not at the level they're at now. Enter the new coach, who's a pretty good guy and a good coach in his own right. But he inherits a team that's poised technically to be a very, very good team. Not only from a talent standpoint but from the teaching standpoint. So now you've got the good guy behind the bench and the players are having fun playing.
"It's evidenced the most in Marleau. He had a tough time with Ron Wilson. Look at the year he's having now."
Marleau dipped to a six-year low in points last season (48 in 78 games), when there clearly were issues between coach and captain. This season a refreshed Marleau is flying high and on pace for a 90-point season.
One of the very first things McLellan did after taking the Sharks' job was reach out to Marleau, inviting him out to a steak dinner.
"That was awesome for me just to sit there and get his point of view of how he saw the team and find out exactly what he expected out of me," Marleau said. "There's no guessing that way. It was very good for me."
The two had actually met back in the mid-1990s when McLellan was coaching the Western Hockey League's Swift Current Broncos and Marleau was a minor hockey star there.
"It wasn't a close relationship, but we had a relationship -- we felt comfortable around each other," McLellan said. "In getting the job, the first thing I wanted to do is rekindle that relationship, let him know that I believed in him regardless of the past or anything else. The first thing I told him was, 'You're going to have a good year.' Sometimes players just need to hear that."
Some people outside the organization wondered if perhaps McLellan should strip the "C" from Marleau's uniform. Perhaps the captaincy, the theory went, had been a burden on the player. The notion never crossed McLellan's mind.
"I had no intent of doing that at all," he said. "Had we done that, we would have based it on the past, and that's not what we came here for. We came here to establish a new program. There hasn't been one instance this year where I regret that decision at all. He's been the ultimate captain. He's stepped up when he needed to step up, whether verbally or with his play.
"There's been a few nights where he put the team on his shoulders and carried it. He holds people accountable in the locker room the right way. He's doing what he needs to be doing as a captain, and I think the followers are appreciative of that."
McLellan, 41, has won over everyone connected to the Sharks' organization. His staff -- which includes assistant coaches Trent Yawney, Todd Richards and Jay Woodcroft -- maintains a clear line of communication with the players. No one is left in the dark.
"Right away, from Day 1, the first thing I thought was that he was really sharp," Boyle said. "Really, the whole staff. I didn't know any of them, to be honest with you, coming in. But they have very smart hockey minds. They all know the game and they've all played it. We have a game plan for every night. They are very, very organized. Every player knows what they have to do."
When the coaches aren't in the dressing room, McLellan is confident he's got solid backing from his leaders on the team. And that's another reason why the additions of Blake, Boyle and Lukowich have been so influential.
"I'm a big believer that the meeting after the meeting is the important meeting," McLellan said. "We can meet as a hockey club and talk about things and I can hold them accountable, but when I walk out the door and it closes, if they're not buying it or if only a few are, the message isn't getting across. As a coaching staff, we have to have that support system in the locker room.
"Those three defensemen have won Stanley Cups. They can step up and say, 'You know what, guys? You may not believe it now, but he's right.' Or they may come and see us as coaches and say, 'You know what? We're not buying this yet. Can we do it this way?' And we're open to that as well."
Boyle, who is having an outstanding season, singled out the Sharks last summer when the Tampa Bay Lightning told him he was no longer wanted. The 32-year-old puck-mover had a no-trade clause in the six-year $40 million contact extension he signed in February, and he controlled his fate.
"Pretty much what sealed the deal for me was a conversation with Doug Wilson," Boyle said. "He talked about the present and the future. He said this wasn't an organization that only wanted to win right now but [that] the pieces were in place to be competitive for several years. That was important to me. I didn't want for it to be a one-shot deal."
That's not to be overlooked. For as much as the Sharks appear poised to finally break through this season, they should be able to hang around the NHL penthouse for a few more years regardless.
"The majority of our players are just entering their prime now," Wilson said. "We foresee an exciting time for this organization for an extended period of time. We built this not for a one-year window, but potentially a five-year window. And that's an exciting time."
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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