FTF Interviews Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson: Part Two

Up in Penticton at the Young Stars tournament I had an opportunity to sit down with Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson to discuss the game of hockey and the upcoming 2011-2012 season. Spread out over two days, the interview covered a myriad of topics including management philosophy, scouting, trades, player evaluation, statistics, and contract negotiations. Divided into three parts, the interviews with Doug Wilson will run on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday this week on Fear The Fin. For part one, please click here. Today's material covers advanced statistics and positions of importance on NHL teams.

Special thanks to Doug Wilson, Scott Emmert, Tom Holy, and Ryan Stenn for the opportunity. Enjoy.

You spoke about how centers and defenseman are commodities that everyone in the NHL is looking to acquire. What do you think is more important from a general philosophy, a number one center or a number one defenseman?

It depends on what you already have within your organization--

If you’re building from square one.

From square one? Supply and demand will tell you there are very few defenseman, and maybe I’m biased because I’m an old defenseman [laughs], but the amount of ice time, how they can impact a game, that is key. Supply and demand just illustrates to you that they’re not out there. A lot of the best ones are getting older or retired, Rob Blake who we had a few years ago, Scott Niedermayer, Nicklas Lidstrom

Chris Pronger.

You’re always searching for those. It’s a very difficult position to play. And that’s why with Brent, at 26 years old and 17 goals and his ability to play in different situations, that’s why he was so attractive. Those are the things right now that I think every team is looking for.

How much value do you place on even strength scoring, on an individual and team-wide level?

I think it’s very important, whether it be 5 on 5, or cases where it’s 4 on 4 or even 3 on 3. That really is an indicator of the people you’re lining up against within those situations. If you have to rely on your power play, hot goaltending, or penalty killing, at some point that is going to come back to haunt you.

Do you think maybe that is, the power play for example, where that can be a game situation that fluctuates widely over a ten game period, or even a seven game series.

Yes, because ultimately you’re trying to win against the best teams, and within those teams, the discipline they usually have at special teams is very good. You’re trying to be better in every significant category, and 5 on 5 strength is where the majority of the game is played at.

Last year Joe Pavelski really struggled at the beginning of the year, but if you looked at his underlying numbers, he was playing well. His CORSI numbers, he was putting the pucks to the net and either second or third on the team in shots. He and his linemates were doing a lot of things right but the boxscore numbers weren’t there. Really it was a case of shooting percentage. Is that something you look at in a player, where you feel that all of that is going to balance out over an extended period of time, or does it get to the point where a player just has to eventually put the puck in the net?

As long as the player is continuing to get the shots and they’re quality shots, because there is a difference between a shot on net and a scoring opportunity, and the player is continuing to get those opportunities, you can see a player who for him things just aren’t going in. But if they continue to shoot and stay with what has historically been their performance and their game, usually it comes back to a longer period of time where they will get back to that level.

In terms of advanced metrics, there is information out there indicating the organization is very involved with certain Bay Area firms. This seems to be a related situation, where you’re looking at the ROI of a certain pick in the first round versus the second. For example, in a hypothetical situation, a 28th pick in a draft could bring a return similar to a 10th pick in the second in terms of the likelihood a player will play 200 plus games at the NHL level.

We explore and will research any type of analytical approach, and then add some things to it. Tim Burke, who runs our scouting, has done a truly amazing job when you go back and look at the number of players we’ve drafted that have either been used in deals or who have been mid to late round picks who have become very good hockey players. The drafting and developing is the foundation of what we do.

Now I’m not about to go into all the details on what we do [laughs], and I’m not saying we’re smarter than anybody because other teams are pursuing similar things. But we work hard, and I’m proud of our group to always look at ways to get better and gather more information. When you’re drafting later than many teams, you max out what you’re doing. I’m very proud of our scouting staff, and when you rank them on what they’re doing, they rank very highly.

In terms of advanced statistics, if I can try and get this out of you—

Good luck [laughs].

[laughs] In a general sense, is that something that you look at when analyzing trades as well, not necessarily just at the Draft?

Everything that we do. Everything is connected.

Certainly when you are trading that is part of the equation and you just don’t throw in "things." Most of the teams we deal with work very hard at understanding what their needs are, what our needs are, and it’s a matchmaking process. Some people say making trades is difficult in this business, but we’ve been involved in fairly big trades. Those take more time and more work, but you can still make deals. You have to have a lot of your work done in advance.

For example, our deals with Minnesota. People say "why did we do so many?" Well, it makes sense. They are a growing team, they’re trying to replenish and build, we’re trying to win today. In many ways, several of the deals were related anyhow and it just so happened how they came out in the timing.

You learn by listening in this business. You need to understand what the other team is trying to do. Factors change if there’s injuries or performance of course, but you need to have all your work done so you can have an educated conversation and be open and respectful and operate in confidence. Those are the rules we operate by.

Establishing those relationships, for example with Minnesota and then Jim Rutherford of Carolina where you made trades two years in a row for Niclas Wallin and Ian White, is that something you like to do because the two different needs mesh well?

People will always evaluate "who won the deal." To me, a successful deal is that it works for both teams. I think we’ve done deals with about 28 teams over the last 8 years, everyone except Detroit. People know that we’re open to listen, and we don’t say no. We will explore anything. I try and keep in contact with all of the GM’s on a regular basis and do deals that satisfy both teams needs.

To go back to the advanced statistics—

You keep pushing. I like that [laughs].

For example, things likes CORSI, Goals Versus Threshold, other TOI based metrics. For someone trying to analyze the game from outside an organization, is that a good way to go or is there other things you prefer?

There’s a lot, and there’s a few additional approaches we take as well—

Situational metrics.

A combination. I’ll give you a basic example. As you’re looking at how the game and rules were changing, and how the environment was changing [following the lockout], organizations are building their teams a little bit differently. Certain players can be effective under the new rules where they couldn’t have been in the past. For example, defensemen. A lot of defensemen had trouble in the transition under the new rules. And you’d say, "These big, physical guys can’t play under these new rules." Not true.

Big, physical guys who play a certain way can succeed. Douglas Murray, classic example. Other guys who weren’t physical, but were clutching and holding—you’d do research into the type of penalties certain players were taking and see that a big physical guy who closes quickly and has a high hockey IQ can still be very effective under these new rules.

As we would explore how different players play, how they thought the game, we found there were opportunities for players who could compete in this League. That is just a basic example of how things change, to get ahead of the curve, where the analytics come into play.

Which is important in a salary cap world.

Right, you can’t afford to make mistakes.

Especially long-term mistakes.

Right, not every team in this League has the luxury of making long-term mistakes.

Going forward into the new CBA, do you think the issue of different organization’s, their differing abilities to make long-term mistakes, is that going to play a factor in the negotiations.

I can’t comment on the CBA.

Can you comment on whether or not you are maybe concerned about—

All I can say is that you look at our actions over the last eight years. No front-end loaded contracts, never bought a player out. We are very cognizant of the fact of having discipline to make decisions on what we think is best for our organization to position us now as well as the future.

So you feel that the Sharks have abided by—

We do what we feel is right for our organization. We have taken this approach, and this is the approach that we believe in for our organization.

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