SAN JOSE- In his first five seasons as head coach of the San Jose Sharks, Todd McLellan has earned plenty of praise for his coaching style. Much like San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy, McLellan’s strong suit as the captain of the ship is how he manages his team and gets them focused. Plus, it’s not like McLellan hasn’t made some brilliant lineup calls.
But while moving Brent Burns to forward in the middle of last season turned out to be genius, it also probably saved McLellan’s job. The head coach certainly was on the hot seat if San Jose were to have missed the playoffs or had fizzled out in round one like the season prior. Fortunately for McLellan, the move paid off and the Sharks have been playing solid hockey ever since (for the most part).
However, over the years, McLellan has made a number of personnel decisions that make even the casual fan scratch their head. It was brutally obvious in his first couple of seasons that McLellan overworked goaltender Evgeni Nabokov. No goaltender since Martin Brodeur has won the Stanley Cup playing 70 or more regular season games. Yet Nabokov played 62 in 2008-09 and 71 in 2009-10 under McLellan, despite the fact Nabokov’s best postseason performances with San Jose came in seasons where he started 49 times and 58 times in the regular season while at a much younger age.
Furthermore, last season McLellan decided to play a handful of games with his two slowest moving defenseman in Douglas Murray and Brad Stuart as a defense pair. You could not have picked two worse partners for each other out of the Sharks blue-line. Two stay at home physical defenseman, both left-handed, both with limited puck moving ability (Murray severely so) and together they flat out stunk up the ice.
So far the 2013-14 season is no exception when it comes to McLellan making outsiders scratch their heads at lineup calls.
This season, the biggest head scratching move has been to sit young defenseman Matt Irwin for three straight games. Sure enough, the soon to be 26-year-old defenseman probably earned himself a spot in the press box for one game to send a message his play needs to improve.
But three in a row? This is a second year defenseman who meshed tremendously well with Dan Boyle last season and earned himself a two-year contract extension last April. He is an integral part of the future of San Jose’s defense corps, so how exactly does sitting him three in a row make him better?
Without Irwin, the Sharks went 0-1-2. Not to mention, McLellan put Brad Stuart in the vacated spot alongside Boyle and those two downright struggled for the majority of those three games.
Irwin finally came back into the lineup Sunday night in Winnipeg. However, despite being back with Boyle, who scored twice in the contest, Irwin finished a minus-2 and Boyle was a minus-3.
Could McLellan have possibly expected his young defenseman to be up to speed after being out of game action for three straight?
Furthermore, given the early suspension to Stuart, the injury to Dan Boyle, and most recently the healthy scratching of Irwin, the Sharks have played only one, count them, one game with their top-six talented defenseman in the lineup!
While McLellan can’t do anything about injuries or suspensions, what he can do is give his top-6 defense a chance to mesh together over a handful of games. The only game this season in which the Sharks played with their expected season opening pairs: Boyle-Irwin, Marc-Edouard Vlasic-Justin Braun, Stuart-Jason Demers, was in that 9-2 drubbing of the New York Rangers.
Instead, Scott Hannan,—who should be the teams seventh defenseman on the depth chart— has played in a staggering 16 of the Sharks 17 games thus far.
How incredibly bizarre is it that the very first game Boyle returns from his injury, his usual defense partner is a healthy scratch for the first time all season?
Irwin was struggling, maybe he deserved a game up in the press box, but wouldn’t you want your veteran defenseman coming back from injury to have his normal partner with him? And wouldn’t you want to keep Stuart, a $3.6M dollar defenseman a chance to start getting comfortable with Demers instead of scratching him? (Again, we don’t know if Stuart was 100% a healthy scratch but certainly odd he came out of the lineup and not Hannan).
Wouldn’t you want to give your top-six defenders a chance to all play together and get some continuity going, which they haven’t been able to do all season?
Don’t get me wrong, McLellan is great with the media and has made a lot of smart decisions as head coach. Some of them however, have been down right puzzling.
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