Coaches like Todd McLellan work for this day. They earn it, the same way a hockey player earns his right to become an unrestricted free agent, and be the one in control of the decision on July 1.
McLellan has done things the right way, and with much patience: Six years with Swift Current in the Western Hockey League; five hard years in the minors, where he won a Calder Cup with Minnesota’s farm club; hothousing in Detroit under GM Ken Holland and head coach Mike Babcock, where methods used by the great Scotty Bowman were handed down.
Then, finally, that first National Hockey League head coaching job in San Jose where, for seven seasons, McLellan’s Sharks made the playoffs every year but this one.
On Monday it was announced that McLellan and the Sharks would tear up the final year of his contract and mutually part ways, a classic case of illness and fatigue. They were sick and tired of each other.
Now, he walks out into an NHL coaching market that has never been more fascinating, a well-trained, well-respected and unilaterally liked disciple of that Western Canadian Clare Drake school of coaching who is qualified for anything.
“Where I go from here, I am somewhat control. I’m comfortable with my career as a coach so far — I don’t have any regrets here in San Jose,” he said on a conference call with reporters Monday. “(He’ll) look at the teams that are available … if they are interested in Todd McLellan, and I’ll look at the people in the organization. I’ll look at if they have the right people in the right spots, then look at the team and figure out if there’s a chance to have success.
“Every one of the 30 teams is at a different place. Some are trying to rebuild, some are trying to establish a playoff presence, and some are going for it all. I’ll be open to anything, really.”
Just as when players become free agents on July 1, there will be a pecking order for hiring coaches. Mike Babcock is at the top of that order if he chooses to be. Ken Hitchcock, who is coaching out the final year on his deal in St. Louis, will come next for some GMs.
Others will seed Hitchcock somewhere lower among a group that includes McLellan, Dan Bylsma, Peter DeBoer, Randy Carlyle, Ted Nolan and John Tortorella. Possible additions to the Unemployed Coaches Club include Claude Julien, Dave Tippett, Bruce Boudreau and Mike Johnston.
There are open head coaching posts in Toronto, Edmonton, Philadelphia, Buffalo, San Jose, New Jersey. Among the clubs listed as “T.B.A.” are Pittsburgh, Arizona, St. Louis and Boston.
“My mind is in a lot of different places right now. A new adventure is something I’ll be looking forward to,” said McLellan, who jets to Europe as head coach of Team Canada at the upcoming world championships. There, his roster will have a smattering of players from several of the teams mentioned above, but perhaps most notably Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle — and possibly Connor McDavid — from the Oilers.
Does being McDavid’s first pro coach intrigue McLellan?
“I would like to coach a great group of hockey players next year,” said McLellan, whose son Tyson plays on a USHL team with Oiler GM Craig MacTavish’ boy Sean. “But the one thing that I’ve learned is, you can have the best player and not have the best team. It's about the team; it’s about the group. The culture of the organization.
“Connor is going to be a very exciting player to coach ... but the bigger story if the group as a whole.”
In Toronto, Brendan Shanahan became close with McLellan when the latter was an assistant in Detroit, as the former’s playing days wound down. “I had a very good relationship with Brendan,” McLellan said. “Had a good relationship with everyone in Detroit.”
In the end, this is a poignant moment in the career of one of this generation’s better coaches. We doubt that McLellan would want any say in personnel, as it is believed Babcock may ask for, and he’ll be at the rink every morning by 7 watching film, and figuring out how to win. He’s a worker. A Saskatchewan-born hockey man, through and through.
The only question is, where does he want to apply that experience? The project in Toronto is the most raw, still needing to divest before the true building starts. Buffalo is a long ways away, but closer to success today than the Leafs. Philadelphia is closer yet, and an excellent opportunity.
In a St. Louis situation, McLellan would be a closer. I see him as more of a builder than that.
It is Edmonton that is both a raw piece of clay, but about three good players — a goalie and two defencemen — away from contending for the playoffs. There is still much culture changing to be done in Edmonton, but we sense McLellan is more predisposed to a situation that would include some early losses than Babcock would be.
Then there is McDavid, a game-changer for any prospective coach.
Todd McLellan will be the one choosing his team, not the other way around.
Here’s betting his choice is the Edmonton Oilers.