SAN JOSE, Calif. - At 6 a.m. on the day after the Detroit Red Wings won the Stanley Cup, Sharks general manager Doug Wilson was awakened by an assistant coach with an agenda.
Todd McLellan had celebrated deep into the night after the Red Wings knocked off Pittsburgh. Yet, after one hour of sleep, he was on the phone in pursuit of his first NHL head coaching job in San Jose.
Wilson immediately appreciated McLellan's moxie, if not his timing - and a week later, Wilson introduced McLellan as the coach who can push the Sharks from good to great.
"He's the guy that fits for us, for now and in the future," Wilson said Thursday. "He understands the expectations, and he welcomes them. . . . Like-minded people kind of connect, and from our first conversation, I felt that we had similar beliefs and goals."
Wilson fired Ron Wilson a month ago after three straight second-round playoff disappointments.
McLellan smiled as he posed with a personalized No. 08 jersey at the Shark Tank, yet the 40-year-old Melville, Sask., native is well aware of the stark challenges accompanying it. Ron Wilson was dismissed despite four straight trips to the second round, including a Pacific Division title and the NHL's second-best record this past season.
McLellan's Red Wings were the only team with a better record, and they finally erased several playoff failures with their dominant Cup win. After three years as Mike Babcock's assistant with the perennial power, McLellan is eager to use what he learned in Detroit to overcome Team Teal's repeated post-season shortcomings.
"When it comes to the playoffs, there's an immense pressure that goes with higher expectations," said McLellan, an accomplished head coach in the AHL, IHL and junior hockey before joining the Red Wings in a plan to groom himself for a top NHL job. "Sometimes you have to experience that before you can get over the hump. This team is in a position to do that right away."
The Sharks hope they found just the right mix of veteran experience and youthful exuberance in McLellan, who became a hot property during the Wings' surge. His silver-flecked hair should belong to somebody older than 40, yet his scruffy facial hair would suit any 20-something rookie.
After McLellan's much-praised work with the Red Wings' power play, at least one other NHL team formally requested an interview for their vacancy. He instead remained firmly focused on San Jose, with Red Wings luminaries Scotty Bowman and Steve Yzerman also recommending McLellan to Wilson, their longtime friend.
Although Doug Wilson was extremely tightlipped while screening dozens of candidates in his first head-coaching search since inheriting Ron Wilson in 2003, he followed through on his hints about selecting a young coach with winning experience and fresh ideas for his first top job in the NHL. Anaheim's Randy Carlyle and Tampa Bay's John Tortorella are among the recent Cup-winning coaches with similar backgrounds, Wilson pointed out.
"I think the inexperience is an asset right now," said McLellan, who led the Houston Aeros to the AHL title in 2003. "There isn't a label attached to me, and when the players show up at training camp, they're going to have to be themselves."
Despite an NHL playing career that ended after five games with the Islanders and three reconstructive surgeries on his right shoulder, McLellan betrayed no qualms about asserting his authority in a locker-room where captain Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton are the best players, but perhaps not conventional leaders.
Apart from the psychological aspects of post-season success, McLellan will emphasize three Detroit specialties among his founding principles when training camp opens in September: speed through the centre of the ice, getting to the net and keeping opponents' goalies busy with plenty of shots.
"The Sharks had a real strong puck-possession game (in recent years), but it didn't always get to the net," McLellan said. "I want the opposing goaltender to earn his pay every night. We have the players here who can do that, and I'll try to give them ways to succeed."