The Exit of Todd McLellan

Todd McLellan’s tenure in San Jose comes to an end. (Jason O. Watson-USA TODAY Sports)

When former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani spoke about police corruption and police officers protecting each other, he used a term that has often resonated with me. He called officers unwilling to root out the bad apples as having “misguided loyalty”. The officer’s loyalty belongs to the people of the city and to an honest system of justice above any loyalty to another officer.

The Challenge of Loyalty

Who (or what) should a person be most loyal too is a question everyone faces along the way.

Misguided loyalty played a major role in Todd McLellan’s final season in San Jose. Nothing highlighted the loyalty challenge more than the move of Brent Burns to defense. Most believe the call was made by General Manger Doug Wilson. Whether McLellan agreed with the move when it was initially made is surprisingly irrelevant.

The issue is not the initial decision, it is the lack of corrective action.  It became apparent that this was a poor decision and McLellan’s own actions, notably putting Burns on the bottom defensive pair, made it clear that he knew it was a poor decision.

In making his next choice, McLellan needed only to follow his own words regarding the players (at the 7 minute mark in this linked video), “we have to maximize each of the individuals potential”.

McLellan made his choice but he did not follow his own script. He chose not to fix the problem he knew he had. In essence, the choice required selecting between loyalty to management and loyalty to his players. Loyalty to management meant sticking with a decision he knew was hurting the team. Loyalty to his players meant making a change in order to give his players the best chance to win. He chose management. He chose poorly.

 The Unfortunate, Predictable Ending

Every game, the coach asks players to battle their hardest on behalf of the team. That involves making physical sacrifices. To do things like get into shooting lanes to block shots, to ‘take a hit to make a play’, and so forth. If the coach expects battle from the players, the players expect the coach to battle on behalf of the team. Even if that battle is against management. Not quite a month ago, I wrote an article entitled “The Demise of Todd McLellan in San Jose” and it covers much more about his situation. But the loyalty angle is the one that is most important and most defined this season.

Regarding the Burns situation and loyalty, I wrote at the time:

“McLellan stubbornly stayed with the plan when he should have been putting a stake in the ground for himself and his players, refusing to let THIS TEAM fail over a bad, but correctable decision. And as the coach fails to stand up for his players, the players inherently are less believing in the coach. That is exactly how you can lose the room, which appears to have happened. Once the room is lost, you almost always need to change the participants.”

There are many legitimate criticisms of McLellan’s coaching, but any fair assessment comes to the conclusion that he is a good hockey coach who, this year, was placed in a bad situation. He already has his next coaching assignment, to lead Team Canada in the upcoming World Championships. There, he will again coach Brent Burns. Again, McLellan stubbornly defends the management decision that was a key element in his exit from the Sharks. McLellan’s own recent words on Burns and defense: “The fact that Team Canada wants him to go over and play at the World Championships, in that position (defenseman), speaks volumes of his ability.” However, the Team Canada roster is not a ‘best of the best’ team. Top tier players are few and far between. More typical of the talent level are team members like David Savard, Jake Muzzin and Cody Eakin. ‘Speaking volumes’ is more like ‘faint praise’.

McLellan is a first class person. He will be fine. In life’s big picture, people are often forced into conflicting situations and conflicting loyalties. What McLellan faced was not uncommon.

A different hockey coach in a different city was faced with a similar situation this season. In Buffalo, management did whatever they could to undermine the team on the ice. They did this to secure one of the top two draft choices. McLellan’s run in San Jose was filled with wins and playoffs appearances. Ted Nolan’s run in Buffalo was filled with losses and talent getting traded away. Nolan was dismissed about a week ago, McLellan’s tenure ended today. So opposite, yet so similar.

They both fell victim to what countless employees everywhere have learned over the years: you must choose your loyalties wisely. Being loyal and accepting the boss’s bad decisions does not exempt a person from becoming the fall guy. In San Jose, McLellan chose to stay loyal to the boss. It was his biggest mistake.