McLaren, Sharks 'starting to click'

Kyle McLaren spent much of the first six years of his NHL career, proving to Boston Bruins fans and maybe even himself, that he wasn't Raymond Bourque.

Now, on the eve of his first return to the town where Bourque is revered and where McLaren established himself as a top-notch young defenseman, McLaren is trying to impart what he learned from that same legend in the hopes of forging a new identity for himself and the rest of his colleagues along the San Jose Sharks' blue line.

"I think people were saying right off the bat, after I got drafted, 'He's the next Ray Bourque,' " McLaren told ESPN.com this week. "You didn't hear it from me."

That's not to say McLaren didn't try to soak up whatever his Hall of Fame-bound teammate said or did.

"If I didn't learn anything from my six years playing with him, I'd be foolish," he said. "I just sat back and just listened.

"I learned from probably one of the best captains ever on and off the ice. It made me a better player and a better family guy."

Now, it's up to him to share that kind of knowledge with a group of defensemen that have high hopes after a disappointing 2002-03 season and a rocky start to the current campaign.

"It's the least I could do out of respect for Ray," said McLaren, who sees Bourque several times during the offseason and regularly takes part in charity golf outings sponsored by Bourque.

McLaren, the ninth pick overall in 1995, lists Providence, R.I., as his hometown.

He returns to Boston having played 417 games with the big "B" on his chest and with the same bittersweet feelings that many former Boston stars experience. Unable to come to terms with the ever frugal Bruins a year ago, McLaren, just 26, held out and was finally traded to San Jose on January 23. He has no regrets, he said, even though the Bruins are off to a solid start and one of the players for whom he was traded, young defenseman Jeff Jillson, has been impressive.

"I stand by my decision 100 percent," he said. "I'm very happy where I am. I'm happy to return to Boston a member of the San Jose Sharks. I needed a fresh start."

McLaren played 33 games for the Sharks during the last half of last season, a period of tremendous upheaval in San Jose, a team whose hallmark had been its stability. New ownership led to the dismissal of the old coach (Darryl Sutter) and the old general manager (Dean Lombardi), the trading of the old guard (Owen Nolan, Bryan Marchment) and the departure of the old sniper (Teemu Selanne). In the wake of those seminal changes, a team that was an annual Stanley Cup dark horse darling has suddenly become an afterthought.

All of which is fine with general manager Doug Wilson, who's been with the team since 1998 as the director of pro development.

"I think expectations were too high last year and I think they're too low this year," Wilson said this week. "A lot of people look at what we don't have instead of what we do have."

Wilson likens the Sharks' situation to that of the Ottawa Senators when they traded Alexei Yashin, the team's first marquee star. Players like Marian Hossa, Martin Havlat and others filled the void, and the Senators are now one of the top two or three teams in the league and the popular pick to win the Stanley Cup.

The Sharks don't boast the same caliber of talent, at least not yet, but the dynamics are similar.

"There were a lot of followers," before Nolan, Marchment and Selanne left, McLaren said. "Now you can see a transition to our team."

If the Sharks are to rebound from last season, when they fell to last in the Pacific Division after six straight seasons of improvement (they were only the second NHL team to accomplish that feat after the New York Islanders), McLaren will be a key part of that renaissance.

At 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, McLaren gives the Sharks what other Western Conference powers have always had -- a physical defensive force. Derian Hatcher, Chris Pronger and Rob Blake have all been central figures in their respective teams' rise to elite status. The problem for McLaren, said coach Ron Wilson, is that he must learn to play the more up-tempo, puck-possession hockey favored in the Western Conference and leave behind the static, grinding, hammering hockey favored in the Eastern Conference.

"It's starting to kind of click in for him," Wilson said.

Both player and coach admit the adjustment hasn't been entirely smooth. Early this season McLaren was a minus-7 and, in the absence of Brad Stuart, the team's top defenseman, was perhaps trying to accomplish too much. Off the ice, he was dealing with a move into a new house with his wife and two girls, ages 9 and 3, after spending months living out of a hotel.

"I'm content with the way Kyle's played," Wilson said. "He can play better. He knows what's expected.

"We've got some young guys he's going to be great with. Kyle's kind of a natural leader."

McLaren may never approach Blake-like or even Pronger-like offensive numbers, but he said he's more comfortable with the faster-paced game that Wilson is encouraging his young team to play. Still, Wilson makes no bones about where McLaren's strengths lie and the vital role he plays on this team.

"He's that unknown back there," Wilson said. "That missile. He can really pile-drive some guys."

And if there's one sure antidote to the speed that teams like Detroit, Vancouver and Colorado bring to the party it's a healthy dose of fear.

As for his return to Boston, McLaren is glad it's a brief visit. His prime concern, he said, is finding his way to the right dressing room.

"I don't think I've ever sat in that other locker room," he said. "That'll be the strange part of it, sitting on the other bench."

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.