Saturday, September 20, 2008

Sharks coach lays down the law

PA: Detroit Red Wings v Philadelphia Flyers

You can say this about new Sharks coach Todd McLellan. He doesn’t waste time. He brought his players together before their first training camp practice Saturday and took, oh, less than a minute, to take full control and lay down the law.

No, he didn’t say there’s a new sheriff in town, a la Denny Green. But he told his players that he had a plan and that they two choices, either buy in or move over.

Let’s let Sharks winger Jody Shelley give his recap: “‘It’s going to be black or white. We’re going to make it as clear as we can. Let’s go. And do it or get out of the way.’”

“That’s the message,” Shelley said. “That’s what he did from the first second we were in the room. He knows our weaknesses from seeing us, and he knows where we can be better. He was direct in proving that point right from the first minute.”

McLellan brought a new system to the Sharks from Detroit, where he was a Red Wings assistant and won a Stanley Cup last year. In this case, change is good. Because McLellan’s plan should create a more aggressive offense and lead to more goals for a Sharks team that was, putting it kindly, offensively challenged last year.

“I think you’re going to see more drive the net, more shots, more puck control,” Sharks center Joe Thornton said. “I think those three things are going to be what becomes Shark hockey.”

What’s more, defensemen are no longer going to be spectators when the Sharks get the puck and attack. They’re going to be active participants and join in the rush. That was clear during practice when the Sharks began putting McLellan’s plan into action.

“He wants a four-man rush and that defenseman coming up,” Thornton said. “We didn’t score a lot of goals last year, so I think that’s going to add to our total this year.”

“I want them to be active,” McLellan said of his defensemen. “I want them to know that they’re required to go and be part of the play. We may as well start right off the bat and get them going. They responded well today.”

In the past, critics have accused the Sharks have being soft, unwilling to pay the physical price it costs to get bodies in front of the net. If McLellan has his way – and I’m betting he will – that should change this year, too.

“If you look at the game, that’s where all the goals are scored,” center Joe Pavelski said. “So why not get there? It’s tough to get there. It’s really easy to play on the outside, but to penetrate and get in there, that’s the tough thing. That’s where the work’s going to come into play.”

The Sharks were working extremely hard Saturday with three groups of players rotating between two rinks. They even had a scrimmage between the “B” and “C” groups, and the pace, at most times, was furious for the first day of practice.

No doubt that had something to do with having a new coach in the house.

“Everyone wants to show what they’ve got,” Pavelski said. “It’s a new coaching staff. They’re excited. It’s kind of a fresh start for a lot of people.”

A fresh start and, as Sharks general manager Doug Wilson put it earlier in the year, a new voice to listen to.

“Ears and eyes are wide open,” Shelley said. “We kind of left here last year thinking we deserved better. Some of us left maybe not knowing why we didn’t win in some situations. I think there were some clear points made about why and what happened. There was an underlying message as to, ‘Hey, this is who we’re going to be. Our identity is going to be a hard working team, and this is the system we’re going to be. That’s it. So listen and do it.’ That’s good.”

Thornton said changing coaches from Ron Wilson to McLellan was like “putting a fresh coach of paint over some old paint. It’s nice to hear a different voice, and I think some of the guys needed to hear a different voice. And I think it’s going to be good. I know I enjoyed having Ronnie as coach. He’s a very smart coach. But it’s good to have a change. Change never hurts.”

Most coaches consider themselves to be teachers. And in a sense, McLellan was acting like any smart teacher on the first day of school, establishing his authority and discipline. There may be times later in the season where he’ll loosen the reigns.

“In camp, that’s our job,” McLellan said. “A coach has to provide leadership. If I’m out there wavering and not following with my plan, we’re going to be in a lot of trouble. Yes, early in the year we want to accomplish a lot of things. It’s black and white. There aren’t many gray areas. We’re going to do it that way.

“They’re smart people. They’re very good, high-intelligence players. So they’re going to have something to offer as well, and I’d be an idiot not to listen to them sometimes. … I want us to have a relationship.”

So far, Jeremy Roenick likes what he’s seen and heard from his new coach.

“He’s definitely a players’ coach,” Roenick said. “He definitely communicates with the players a lot. That’s very important I think for a coach. He’s a no-excuse kind of guy. It’s going to be his way and the coaches’ way in there or you’re not going to play. That’s exactly how it should be. … It’s all about the team. It’s all about doing the same thing, line after line and wave after wave. And if we commit to it and do it the right way and do it with hard work, we’re going to be very, very hard to beat, no question.”

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