Breaking down Doug Wilson's thoughts during the offseason

via www.sportsnet.ca

With the offseason winding down, and the eternal promise of training camp beginning once again, here's a few selected quotes from Doug Wilson that highlight how his thought process (in respect to player acquisition) changed from June to September.

If you don't want to hear about the blueline (this is my last bit on it until the season previews begin), or how the Niemi signing doesn't fit in with what Wilson stated for three months, then just carry on your merry way and come back tonight for the rookie game against Edmonton at 7:30 PM.

Without further ado, let's roll.

Goaltending

"We’re always looking for the right fit and right structure of a contract," said Wilson, who repeated that the Sharks are looking to build a goaltending tandem next season with the new guy sharing the role with a goalie already in the system such as Thomas Greiss or Alex Stalock.

>> Working The Corners, June 30th

Right before free agency was set to begin, Wilson clearly states to Mr. Pollak that the Sharks are looking to obtain a goaltender who will split time with either Thomas Greiss or Alex Stalock. The obvious conclusion is that the organization had identified a position outside of goaltending (forwards, defenseman) as something that required upgrading once that first goaltender was signed.

"It happened pretty quick," Sharks acquistion Antero Niittymaki said over conference call. "It was the first phone call I got and that was pretty much it. I signed because when you get to be on one of the best teams in the league, you can't really pass that up."

Niittymaki is a thirty year old goaltender who posted a .909 SV% last season for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Many will remember his brilliant run during the 2006 Olympics in Torino, Italy, where he put the Finnish National Team on his back and led them to a silver medal.

"Once we made the decision on Nabokov we went into researching the style of play, the type of goalies that were having success in this League," Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson said. "Antero certainly jumped out at us for a number of reasons. He was the MVP of the playoffs when [his team] won the Calder Cup in 04-05, and we really liked his performance in the Olympics in 2006. We've liked him ever since that point."

>> Fear The Fin, July 1st

Speaking to members of the media, myself included, following the signing on July 1st, it was clear that the Sharks had highlighted Niittymaki as their guy before free agency had begun. The fact that Niittymaki received his first phone call from San Jose, as well as the biggest payday for a goaltender on July 1st, indicates that the Sharks clearly felt he was the man to take over the vacancy left by Evgeni Nabokov.

"We've got three young goalies who are very well-thought of, not only by us but by other teams. Competition is a good thing. Antero is coming in here and we have high expectations for him, but Thomas Greiss just isn't going to just go away-- neither is Alex Stalock. And that's a good thing for all of us."

>> Doug Wilson speaking to CSN-CA, July 1st

Heh.

Again, never say never, but though the Sharks continue to be cited in some circles as a logical place for Blackhawk castoff Antti Niemi to land, sources insist that won’t be happening, that an all-Finnish goalie tandem of Niemi and Antero Niittymaki is not part of the plan.

"We made our move on our goaltender," has been general manager Doug Wilson’s standard response when the question comes up.

>> Working the Corners, August 25th

In late August, Wilson and the Sharks continue to hammer home the point they made before free agency-- they wanted one goaltender, had identified and signed that goaltender, and would be approaching any future negotiations (trade or otherwise) with that mindset.

And, yes, I’m fully aware that I wrote one week ago that Niemi was not part of the plan here, that the Sharks did not see the goalie who eliminated them from the playoffs last year on their roster next year.

Stuff happens. What kind of stuff, I hope to find out.

>> Working The Corners, September 1st

Sharks beat writer David Pollak is forced to backtrack on what he has been reporting all summer, and Fear The Fin is forced to do the same. So what exactly was this "stuff" that happened during the offseason that changed how Wilson felt about his goaltending situation?

"We liked our goaltending as of yesterday. We like it even more today," General Manager Doug Wilson said in explaining the decision to go after Niemi once the Chicago Blackhawks let him walk away.

"When a player like this becomes available and he wants to come to your team — especially on a contract we feel fits our salary structure and you don’t have to give up anything to get him — you just have to make it happen."

>> Working The Corners, September 2nd

The Blackhawks officially walked away from Niemi on August 2nd, a full month before the Sharks signed him to a one-year $2.0MM contract. August is a notoriously slow period of time during the NHL offseason, where teams begin to play hardball with free agents and assess their pipeline for the upcoming year-- it's no surprise that negotiations could have taken this long, especially when you consider a guy like Eric Belanger took up until yesterday to sign for absolute peanuts.

But if San Jose wanted Niemi immediately, they certainly didn't show it. After all, according to the aforementioned WTC posting on August 25th, Wilson stated that, "We made our move on our goaltender." That was twenty three days after Niemi had become an unrestricted free agent. And only a week before they ended up signing Niemi.

So what exactly did change in that three month span? And more specifically, what changed in that week where an adamant refusal of interest turned into something that "you just have to make happen"?

For that, we turn to the blueline.

Defense

With the retirement of Rob Blake, the Sharks are also keeping a close eye on available defensemen.

"Obviously we always create opportunities for our own guys and we’ve got a group of guys who are excited about competing for spots," Wilson said, referring to Worcester defensemen such as Derek Joslin, Mike Moore and Nick Petrecki. "But you are also looking for veteran contracts that do fit."

>> Working The Corners, June 30th

Although Pollak may be infering a bit here considering the tidal wave of individuals banging the drum on obtaining a top three defenseman (myself definitely included), Wilson admits that the Sharks could be looking for a veteran defenseman who could come in and make an impact on the team-- as long as the price is right.

"Free agent frenzy-- they call it that for a reason. We're also exploring the trade discussions, and that's probably where we will spend most of our attention during the next while. It's a long way before the season starts," Wilson said.

>> Fear The Fin, July 1st

Wilson was of course referring to the question of whether or not a forward/defenseman would be signed in the coming weeks-- at that point, he had stated Thomas Greiss "wouldn't be going anywhere," as well as the fact that they would be pursuing a tandem with a goalie already in the system. He mentions that the trade route is the area San Jose would pursue the most in obtaining said player, setting off a firestorm of potential deals and speculation on various outlets across the internet.

(responding to a question on what position on the team he will be addressing in the coming months)

"You take a look at a couple veteran guys who aren't here. Nabber obviously, Rob Blake, and then Manny Malhotra. In Manny's case, we're very happy for him to get the contract that he did, but now you have Logan Couture who has grown and evolved in the playoffs. We addressed our goaltender situation, so you could say that we could be looking for a defenseman.

But at the same point, Jason Demers is ready to grab more ice time and guys like Derek Joslin, Nick Petrecki, Mike Moore, and Matty Irwin will be here in a week and a half and they wanna show us what they can do. But we’re always looking to add, and we have that ability."

>> Doug Wilson speaking to CSN-CA, July 1st

Again, similar stuff to what we've seen before-- if the Sharks are going to acquire a player, it's going to be a defenseman. They've made their move on the goaltender. Not much opportunity to steer around that one.

If we view that quote in the context of what Fear The Fin had been writing about during the nine months, one could interpret it as a proverbial green light that the Sharks would be on the hunt for a blueliner. Taken on its own merits however, it’s far from concrete.

Then Hjalmarsson happened.

"We like this player and feel he would fit now and in the future," Sharks GM Doug Wilson said this morning.  "He’s a Top Three defenseman on a team that just won the Stanley Cup."

The Sharks have had their eye on Hjalmarsson for a while, but got a close look at him during the Western Conference finals when he was paired with Brian Campbell.

>> Working The Corners, July 9th

The extension of an offer sheet to Niklas Hjalmarsson indicated to many that San Jose was intently looking for a replacement for the recently retired Rob Blake. Wilson states that Hjalmarsson is a top three defenseman, and when that is placed into context with his comments eight days earlier ("You could say that we're looking for a defenseman"), as well as the fact that Rob Blake was vacating a top three role, it rings pretty loudly that the blueline was going to be a priority going forward.

Hjalmarsson's agent Kevin Epps admitted as much in a conversation following the signing:

 

"The case here is (the Sharks say) we need a player to fill Rob Blake’s shoes and we had this amount of money to add him to the core group. Let’s do it. I think it was thought through a lot more than sometimes the other ones are."

>> Working The Corners, July 9th

Sharks go to Hjalmarsson and his agent saying they need a player to come in and replace Rob Blake. Makes perfect sense, and fits in with everything that had been said up to this point in the year.

And while Chicago eventually matched the Sharks offer, keeping him in a Blackhawks uniform, it wasn't the only player San Jose expressed interest in this offseason. They were connected to both Kaberle

The San Jose Sharks are looking for help. But Kaberle, 32, who carries a $4.25-million hit, wants to stay in the East. That hasn't stopped talk of Sharks GM Doug Wilson offering prospect D Derek Joslin and a first-round pick. Bieksa and his $3.75-million hit might make more sense.

>> The Toronto Sun, August 14th

and Willie Mitchell

Yes, the Sharks were interested in Willie Mitchell, the veteran defenseman who signed a two-year, $7 million deal today with the Los Angeles Kings after missing most of last season with concussion-related problems.

But the problem wasn’t money — it was term.  The Sharks, who reportedly brought Mitchell to San Jose last week, weren’t ready to make the multi-year commitment that Mitchell was seeking. Neither were at least two other teams in the hunt. But the Kings were and now that’s where the 33-year-old will be playing.

>> Working The Corners, August 15th

all throughout the offseason. Kevin Bieksa of the Vancouver Canucks got some face time as well, but once Sami Salo went down with yet another injury, talks began to die down.

It's pretty clear to me that Doug Wilson was pursuing a defenseman throughout the offseason, or at least actively looking to see if the price was right for one of these guys. Which makes quotes like these sound like an attempt to save some form of face before training camp begins with nary an upgrade in site:

Kent Huskins and Nick Wallin have both won Stanley Cups for a reason. Both have had to bounce back from injuries, Kent two years ago. Nick Wallin unfortunately got hurt in the last regular season game of the year when he hurt his ankle. These guys are veterans, they have won Stanley Cups in this league. They are big players who know how to play the game.

>> Doug Wilson on KNBR 680, via Sharkspage

Doug Wilson's a smart guy, one who has put his team in position to win ever since the NHL lockout. For the most part he's iced a strong roster that has been considered one of the West's best from the get go, and this year will be no exception.

But after reading through everything that was said this offseason, there's no doubt in my mind that he failed to acquire the top three blueliner this team is going to need in order to legitimately compete for a Stanley Cup come spring. It was something that I believed he set out to do via trade, but with the market dried up, there was no opportunity for him to do so.

In essence, Wilson rolled the dice on an opposing team falling into a trap where they had to move an impact player, something that he capitalized on in years before when acquiring Joe Thornton, Dan Boyle, and Dany Heatley. This offseason? No such opportunity, or at least one that hasn't legitimately materialized yet.

With the amount of cap space he had this offseason, the Sharks could have afforded to pursue a defenseman much more intently during July 1st-- signing Wallin took up $2.5MM in cap space for a player that would never have come close to commanding that much on the open market and Niemi broke the bank for a net loss of $1.5MM (Greiss' cap hit is $0.55MM). With the $1.67MM currently available to the team, that's $5.67MM available to go after a top tier defenseman and keep your roster intact considering you wouldn't give up anything in a trade.

Granted, there's many things we're unaware of as we sit on the sidelines. It's possible Wilson couldn't attract a big fish due to San Jose not being a place where players want to sign during free agency. But with quotes such as, "Free agent frenzy-- they call it that for a reason" being bandied about on July 1st, mere moments after signing Antero Niittymaki in the morning, you have to wonder how intently he actually pursued those free agent negotiations.

Summary

The overall quality of the blueline stinks, and Doug Wilson knows it. He never intended to sign another goaltender (Niemi), and was essentially forced into it by the lack of impact defenseman available on the trade table. I don't think he legitimately expects Wallin or Huskins to fill Rob Blake's shoes. At least I hope not.

He's working to find an answer for the blueline. He's going to keep trying to find a trade that is suitable for the team, and by waiting it out until later in the season, he's hoping that he's going to be able to bank enough cap space to get a guy without giving up a major roster player. Something that will be difficult to do considering the bidding wars that will take place in respect to these top guys, but something he believes he will be able to get done nonetheless.

It's a necessary component for the team to legitimately compete for a Stanley Cup. This much is clear.

Whether or not he eventually delivers is something that is going to keep me on pins and needles all season long.

Hell, at least it's going to be interesting.

 

Go Sharks.

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