Stability in net: Todd McLellan panicked where Darryl Sutter didn’t

by Apr 29, 2:55 PM
Kirby Lee / USA TODAY Sports

There’s a lot to be said for stability, at work, in your relationships, and in your life in general. Few things sit heavier in the gut than uncertainty, which is why a phrase like “You’re my rock” is a compliment and not a knock on your intellect. Whichever hat you’re wearing - husband, wife, boss, co-worker, whatever - you can help make people’s lives easier by being reliable. And, to that affect, a hockey coach can make the lives of his players easier by allowing them to operate within a set, stable framework.

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When Darryl Sutter sat back in his office chair while fans filed out of the Staples Center after Game 3, he had some decisions to make, which he likely mulled over with his assistant coaches: what has to change? The Kings had been outscored 17-8 through three games, and they were in a 3-0 hole.

Eight goals through three games wasn’t actually that bad for the Kings, who scored at a 2.42 goals-per-game rate in the regular season. Seventeen against, however, was a far cry from their league-leading 2.05 goals-against per-game.

So, goaltending, right? That’s the obvious fix, the big red button on the desk.

It’s likely it was at least considered: Are we taking out Quick and starting Jones?

It’s not unheard of for coaches to do this, because something has to change, right? Whether its Corey Schneider going in for Roberto Luongo, or Frederik Anderson going in for Jonas Hiller, we see it fairly often, despite that fact that it’s never as simple as just swapping out one player for another.

Coaching in the playoffs isn’t easy, partly because it’s so easy to overreact to small sample sizes. If even the NHL recognizes that games are worth more in the post-season (suspension-wise), you can imagine how game-by-game issues get blown up inside the dressing room.

Giving up goals is a problem? Get the goalie outta there and put in someone who can stop the damn thing.

Not only does this make it look like you’re doing something - hey guys, we’re not just sitting over here waiting to get beat, we’re making moves! - it puts the onus squarely on your goaltender. By taking him out, you’re saying he’s been bad, that’s why this has gone wrong.  You’re deflecting the problem from yourself, the decision-maker, and it’s a cop-out.

As the coach, you chose to start playoffs with what you believe to be your best lineup. You most certainly started with the guy you believed to be the better goaltender. And you should be well aware that no matter how great your goaltender is overall, over a random sample of games, they all have blow-ups. Tuukka Rask, Henrik Lundqvist, Carey Price...they’ve all been pulled at some point.

Darryl Sutter made the easy decision to stick with Jonathan Quick (career regular season .915 save percentage, with a Stanley Cup in his trophy case), which shows confidence and provides the type of stability that allows players to thrive. They don’t need to waste a second of brain-power on their goaltending situation.

As good goalies will do, Quick has responded by giving up only four goals in the past three games. There are highs and lows; when you bail after the lows, you miss out on the highs.

Contrast this to when the San Jose Sharks faced a similar situation with their goaltender Antti Niemi (career regular season .916 save percentage, with a Stanley Cup in his trophy case), and Todd McLellan made a mess of it. He took a shot at his starter’s confidence by sitting him on the bench, he put in an untested rookie who gave up four, and now he’s got a decision to make going into Game 5. He didn’t trust that if given four games to win one with the roster they used to pile up 111 regular season points, they’d be able to get it done without a fix. He didn’t provide the stability they needed.

McLellan denied his starter the chance to prove he could bounce back for the team, and aimed the hot spotlight on their crease.

The San Jose Sharks are an excellent hockey team - probably the better of the two, actually - so McLellan’s goal should’ve been stability. Instead, he created an issue where there’d didn’t need to be one. Whether it’s the team’s past inability to get over the hump that made their coach hit the panic button heading into LA, or he was just playing a “hunch,” he made things more difficult on his team.

Some of the best coaches in hockey history were dealt great rosters, and they succeeded by staying the hell out of the way. While Alex Stalock wasn’t solely to blame for the Sharks Game 6 loss, Todd McLellan didn’t do his team any favors by putting him in.

With Game 7 looming, now it’s on everyone’s mind...what comes next?

Feature photo courtesy of Kirby Lee / USA TODAY Sports