Friday, April 24, 2015

Pros and Cons: Todd MacLellan

The Phanatic presents the first in what aims to a be a series of posts which aims to look at potential Flyers head coaching candidates from the perspective of writers in these candidates' home cities.

This week, it's Petshark, who covers the San Jose Sharks, offering perspective on the newly-freed Todd MacLellan for Philadelphians wondering if he can do the job here.

Hiring an NHL coach is more fun than firing one, but finding the right one from those available is tricky business.

Promoting from within seems like the safer bet, since that coach will not have to learn how the organization works and what is expected. Then again, when the team has struggled for several seasons in a row, you need to consider changing those expectations. If Flyers GM Ron Hextall is willing to do that -- and it appears that he must after the roller coaster tenure of Craig Berube -- he could be looking for an experienced man like Todd McLellan.

Are the Sharks on the verge of a meltdown similar to what the Flyers have gone through over the last two seasons? I don’t think so, but if they are, only a small part of the blame lay at McLellan's feet. That is why it is assumed that McLellan will have his pick of coaching positions after he agreed to part ways with San Jose earlier this week.

McLellan’s time with the Sharks -- a full seven seasons -- was not perfect, but on balance he worked well with his players and got a lot out of them. If the Sharks stopped hearing his message, it was not because they doubted its value. Rather, too many messages were coming from too many sources.

Perhaps the disconnect was that management, coaching, and players did not agree on what this team was. Doug Wilson, San Jose's embattled GM, said it was time for a rebuild, then said he still expected the team to make the playoffs. He said he wanted a younger, faster team, then he signed John Scott. The coach was saying that the team lacked an understanding of their identity, a month and a half into the season. The players said they could beat anyone… and then too often failed to do so.

The team’s collapse was not inevitable, but it did not happen suddenly or in February.

“There’s often some pain,” Wilson said of how he had expected his rebuild of the Sharks to go. Whether or not that was spelled out last summer, it seems to have been the only message that got through to every level of the organization. Pain is not much of a message. How to avoid or minimize that pain needs to be explained or the result will be paralysis.

On locker cleanout day, McLellan was asked if he felt his message had gotten through to the team this season. He responded that: “The messaging is organizational-wide. I have to make sure that I have support throughout the whole organization and that everybody believes in the message and not just the players.”

We will probably never know all the specifics of the disagreements between McLellan and the front office, but it is pretty clear that management, coaches and players were not all pulling in the same direction.

McLellan should not be held responsible for a failure to correct the team’s problems this season, last season, or in seasons before that. He played a part, but he did not create all of the problems he could not solve. It was McLellan’s idea to have Brent Burns play as a forward while coming back from injury. It appeared to be Wilson’s decision to have him move back to defense. Whether he thought it was a good idea or not, McLellan used Burns on the blue line, though it left the team short on scoring up front.

McLellan showed a tendency to give ice time in a way that was not always based on merit. Veterans tended to squeeze out the younger players, a pattern not unique to the Sharks. Maybe this was the way to go, as there is little time to train rookies during a playoff run. McLellan’s Sharks were always in a playoff run so the logic is sound. Still, players like Nic Wallin, Kent Huskins, Colin White, and Scott Hannan were not doing such a bang up job that a younger candidate did not deserve a good long look.

If McLellan ends up in Philly, he will have to adjust his philosophy and integrate youth into the lineup, since one of Hextall's priorities is development in the minors and there are a half-dozen players who could be ready within one or two years to make the NHL.

McLellan perhaps gave players too much credit for being self-motivated, the flip side of knowing that veterans and stars are unlikely to respond well to bludgeoning, verbal or other. He often said that the team needed to find motivation from within. This is true, but frustrating to watch when they can’t find it.

In his first job as NHL head coach, McLellan oversaw a franchise-record streak of playoff appearances and some unlikely victories alongside some unlikely defeats. Even if his players could not give their best this season, they all kicked themselves for failing. If any of them held some grudge against their coach, they did an excellent job of hiding it as they sang his praises. (Ed. note, that stands in stark contrast to the end of the Berube era here despite earlier public support)

Will a new coach fix what ails the Sharks? Logan Couture did not seem to think so. After the season ended, and before the coaching change was announced, he was asked if it was time for a change:
I’ve never been the type of person to say a coach needs to get… to change. I think that’s a cop out most of the time, when you blame a coaching staff or a coach. They don’t go out on the ice and play the game. Maybe it’s the players that need to… something needs to happen, maybe that’s what needs to happen. I mean, because we’re supposed to go out there and win hockey games. Like I said, a lot of guys didn’t have good years. A lot of guys weren’t consistent and that’s why we didn’t win.
What Couture said is true: even if the Sharks players were united to start this season, they were pretty much in a shambles at the end. Couture probably does not give coaches enough credit if he thinks they can’t fix those problems, if he doesn’t think that is the coaching job description.

Would a different coach have prevented this unraveling? Would better locker room leadership have fixed it? Would more faith and consistency from management have avoided it? We won't find out. There are no do-overs.

Would McLellan fix what ails the Flyers? Not all of it, that is not in the job description. Balancing what the players want with what the team needs is the primary motivation. Todd McLellan can do that, and with an organization like the Orange and Black which stresses harmony in decision making through the ranks, it seems he'll get a better shake.


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