SAN JOSE, Calif. -- It seemed a simple question to ask San Jose coach Todd McLellan.
Given the inconsistency that has left the Sharks in the middle of the Western Conference pack, how would he characterize his team?
He paused before delivering a surprising response.
"A little indifferent," McLellan said Monday. "Not completely committed or engaged. Strong defensively. Special teams have been effective. Finding our way."
He insisted the team isn't missing anything.
"We have some really effective pieces in the locker room," McLellan said. "Whether you look at it from one, the leadership perspective, I think we're extremely strong that way. Two, the pieces that actually play and execute the on-ice stuff, we feel good about that.
"It's just putting it all together and for whatever reason we do it for long periods of time very good and then we fade off a little bit. We're trying to get that solved."
He might have hit on something when he mentioned those "really effective pieces." There's a difference between good pieces and a cohesive whole and the Sharks, dominant the last few seasons, lacked the emotional or strategic glue to prevail in the playoffs.
Their window of opportunity to win the Stanley Cup has been an illusion painted on a brick wall they annually hit. The only variation on their flop-in-the-second-round routine occurred last spring, when they reached the Western Conference final before being swept by the eventual champion Chicago Blackhawks.
General Manager Doug Wilson believes his team's time has not passed and that an infusion of homegrown youngsters such as rookie center Logan Couture will supplement headliners Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Dany Heatley, Joe Pavelski and Dan Boyle. Wilson wants to fill holes from within but is prepared to make a deal if need be, with defense his logical target after Willie Mitchell spurned the Sharks to sign with the Los Angeles Kings last summer.
"The majority of our players are either trending into the prime of their career or coming into the prime of their career," Wilson said, "and if you look at this window of the next three, four years of our guys being on top of their game and playing up to their capabilities in this league, you've got to be playing well and, knock wood, you've got to be healthy. The parity and difference between teams on a night-to-night basis I don't think has ever been this tight.
"I think that's a good thing. I think it forces you to get better."
The Sharks had to make some changes after losing Rob Blake to retirement and letting goaltender Evgeni Nabokov leave as a free agent. They signed goalie Antero Niittymaki from Tampa Bay for $4 million over two years and two months later added Cup winner Antti Niemi for one year at $2 million after the Blackhawks walked away from his arbitration award.
Niittymaki has been the better of the two and has gotten the bulk of the work.
"We've got two guys that are very competitive that have battled and challenged to get the starting opportunities in their past and I think that's really healthy," Wilson said.
Thornton has taken much of the blame for the Sharks' playoff failures, but a month ago Wilson gave him a three-year, $21 million extension through 2013-14.
"Go back historically. How old was Stevie Yzerman when he started winning?" Wilson said of the Hall of Fame center, who won his first Cup with Detroit at age 32, a year older than Thornton is now.
"And as great a player as Stevie was, you have to have players around him."
The Sharks have the players, but championship teams have no room for the uncaring or uncommitted. Learn that lesson and the Sharks might find a way to win. Ignore it and they'll run into that brick wall again.
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