I know that historical analogies, especially in the sporting universe, are a risky proposition. But Todd McLelland’s second season in San Jose reminds me a lot of Mike Babcock’s second season in Detroit.
Babcock, as you’ll recall, was brought in at the beginning of the lockout to replace Dave Lewis and bring the tough, dominating personality that the Red Wings had been missing since Scotty Bowman’s retirement. That season —- 2005-06 —- the Red Wings dominated the conference and the league, amassing 58 wins, 124 points and winning the President’s Trophy. Then, they went and lost in the first round to eighth-seeded Edmonton, arguably the greatest upset defeat in Wings history. Manny Legace lost his job, Steve Yzerman retired and Brendan Shanahan skipped town.
In 2006-07, the team everyone was talking about was Anaheim Ducks. That year, the Ducks had acquired former Wing-killer Chris Pronger, who joined Scott Niedermayer and formed the most fearsome one-two punch among NHL defenses. While a late-season surge had allowed the Red Wings to recapture the conference, with 113 points, nobody gave the Wings too much chance. Many experts predicted them to fall again in the first round, to Calgary, and most predicted them to fail against San Jose in the second round.
The Red Wings, of course, didn’t win the Stanley Cup that year -— they’d have to wait one more. The Ducks made good on the experts' predictions and defeated the Senators in an underwhelming final. But Detroit showed a lot of heart and grit that year, winning two tough series and taking the Ducks to six games —- despite leading the overall goal count in the series 17-16, and despite playing without two top defensemen: Mathieu Schneider or Niklas Kronwall.
San Jose’s 2008-09 campaign reminds me a lot of Detroit’s in 2005-06. Like Detroit, they had a new coach who was supposed to bring a change in focus. Like Detroit, they put together a great regular season, capturing the President’s Trophy. Like Detroit, they were out in the first round after just six games. The Sharks had been underwhelming in playoffs past -— the Red Wings had been too, including a first-round sweep at the hands of the then-Mighty Ducks in 2003 -— but like the Red Wings, they’d never lost more miserably when expectations were so high. The Sharks had been frustrated and embarrassed before; now, they were humiliated.
This season, the Sharks have put together another strong campaign. They may even win the conference again. But no matter how they finish the season, they will be playing in the shadow of the Chicago Blackhawks, just as the Red Wings played in the shadow of the Ducks. After years of failing to deliver in the spring, and one season removed from their greatest failure, most analysts are sick of it and finally ready to write the Sharks off.
That’s why, I think, this may be the most important Stanley Cup tournament in Sharks history. More than any other postseason, it will tell us what this team is made of. It will tell us what Todd McLellan is made of as a coach.
I don’t think San Jose has to win the Stanley Cup this season in order to prove it can be successful in the playoffs. Chicago is probably still the team to beat, and a handful of others -— including Vancouver and, if they can keep their act together, Detroit -— are still dangerous.
But San Jose has to show us something. Some fire from Joe Thornton. A few stolen games from Evgeni Nabokov. Big goals from Marleau and Heatley. Aggressive forechecking. Tough wins.
If San Jose can play determined, desperate hockey and get into a conference final, win or lose, my faith in the Sharks will restored. If they don’t, I think we have to ask this question: If being on the wrong side of an eighth-seed upset can’t inspire you to play harder, then what on earth possibly can?