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. Today's material covers the Sharks offseason and how the organization prepares itself when pursuing trades.
Special thanks to Doug Wilson, Scott Emmert, Tom Holy, and Ryan Stenn for the opportunity. Enjoy.
Run us through this offseason that you’ve had and how you went about building the team. You had a very active offseason.
We first go back and revisit every year for analysis. There were a lot of good things. The last couple of years have been very good years for us, going to the final four obviously. But we’re not satisfied with that. We explored the areas we wanted to address to make our hockey team better. We think every team is looking for a top four defenseman, a puck mover with size. Brent Burns is one of the players we’ve identified two years ago. And when that came together--
Was that interest based off a specific situation you saw Burns in?
Not necessarily. You take a look at this business and there aren’t enough good players to go around at specific positions, whether it be defenseman or center. Adding a guy like that who is in the age group and our familiarity with him—Todd coached him when he first turned pro—seeing how he plays the game, how he would fit with our group, adding that type of piece is something we’ve been looking at doing for awhile. They rarely become available, and when they do, you jump to do it. He’s a guy that can help us in all areas, not only the offensive side but in defending, his size, how he competes. Not even focusing on a specific player like Burns, but that defensive position was a general priority we wanted to address.
The other priority we wanted to address was our penalty killing. Taking a look at it, we were 24th in the League. That’s unacceptable. The penalty kill is an important part of this game.
Especially when in years past the team has consistently been one of the better units.
We’ve been very high. So you can say we explore systemically how you are playing, and you take a look at the personnel. Several of the players we added, Burns, Colin White, Michal Handzus, Marty Havlat, Jim Vandermeer, Andrew Murray, they are all very capable of being quality penalty killers. You look at our team, we have some young players who are evolving up and are going to compete in training camp, in many different areas. We look at our goaltending, we look at our defense, we look at our center position, and we feel that all these attributes put us in position to be one of the top teams to compete every year. But you always have to do an honest analysis and look at where we can help our team.
The one thing we looked at last year is in January we were 12th in the Western Conference. You take a look at the performance of our team in the first half of the year and the last 37 games of the year, and it was completely different. Not just the plus minus, but the goals for and goals against and all those categories, and there is a lot to be pleased about but we needed to get better this offseason. We’ve got some veteran guys, but we always believe in building opportunities for young players.
The third and fourth line specifically is where the bulk of that competition will take place.
It is, but I’ll tell you this—you look back a year ago, two young names. Logan Couture, arguably our best player in all three zones. He came in and said "I’m going to make this team." Andrew Desjardins, who has basically come from nowhere, has worked his tail off to earn equity. He played in the Vancouver series. So whoever is going to help us win games is going to play.
Of course the reality is there are some key players on our team who will play regardless and that’s the way it is, but we want internal competition to push us. You want to be patient and believe in your players but at some point you need to move. Where we were at in mid-January was unacceptable, the way we played down the stretch after that probably took its toll on us, the margin for error that we had to compete to get into the playoffs.
So you wish you would have been more aggressive—
Not aggressive. We are always aggressive.
Pulled the trigger earlier.
Made some trades, yes. You could say we aggressively believed in our people. Which is good, but sometimes—we knew it was a good group. We knew they cared. We knew they could play up to a certain level. But sometimes you’ve got to say, "You know what? They need a change, they need something." Sometimes, and yes last year we had some suspensions and had some injuries and all that, but we couldn’t wait any longer. We always say, "Look in the mirror first". We would have done something a month earlier.
A month earlier than January or a month earlier than Ian White?
Oh, not with Ian White--
So you’re talking about Eager and Wellwood--
Yeah, and we brought up guys we sent some guys down to the minors. We just think our group could have used a "jolt". It’s a tough balance, because there were injuries, there were things we were going through, but still, we were getting to that point where 12th in the Western Conference with this team was not acceptable. Now to go down the stretch and play the way we did, to expect that at this time of the year is unrealistic.
You mean for that to be a year to year thing.
Going into this season, and I know that you’ve said in the past your ultimate goal is to put the best team on the ice before the postseason, but how do you feel this team is compared to others you’ve put on the ice before the regular season?
We’re very excited about this group because of how we’ve grown and what we’ve accomplished over the past couple years, so yes. Where we are at in their journey, the time they’ve spent together, I think it’s the best team--
In terms of ability or chemistry?
A measure of both of those things. We’re integrating some new players, eight or nine players aren’t back from last year, but we’re integrating players who we know personally. But if the Western Conference is as tough as it was last year, 97 points to get in the playoffs, it could be more of the same this year. There really are no easy games in the West. And that’s good. It forces us to get better. Our main focus was to look at last year where we needed to get off to a better start and focus on that, deal with the present every day. You learn and grow and evolve as a group, but the complete disparity between the first half and the second half was an issue.
Our team is in great shape. We have an elite level of fitness, our trainers do a great job. But you have to execute. So, not necessarily the urgency, but the importance of playing up to our capabilities right out of the gate is the main focus on this one.
Even with all of the roster overhaul this summer, expect Doug Wilson and the Sharks staff to be active in pursuing upgrades throughout the season.
You talked about always being prepared when it comes to your team making deals in this League. How important is the ghost roster in that process?
It’s not really a ghost roster. We look at 29 different teams and pride ourselves in looking at them with the same scrutiny we would look at with our own team. The reason we do that is so when we make the call to a different team, we have done the homework to view their organization in an educated light. Where they are at, where their depth charts are, where their prospects are, where their reserve list is, what their draft grid is and picks coming this year, what their cap number can be.
We appreciate when people call us and have that information already done. Doing deals is matchmaking process. And the more work you do the more do, the more prepared you are. Deals can come together quickly when you’ve done your homework. This summer, our trade partners had done their homework. So when it does come to that point, and we are ready to move on with the deal, you’ve already advanced the process [internally]. And you can get to it pretty quickly. But if you have to wait and say, "Now we have to do our research on where we’re at", you don’t want that.
Sometimes when those deals come together quickly you want to move quickly. Because we know in the back of our mind that we’ve done our homework. You don’t want to do deals on emotions. You want to have your work done.
Every once in awhile you’ll get surprised and a guy will throw a person into play that surprises you, but even then you can go back and say, "Wait, we’ve already talked about this, that’s a piece that would fit for us, here’s what he wants" and we can advance the discussions quickly. We like to think that our group is prepared for all those opportunities. Every day is a trade deadline. Every day can be an opportunity. And we think many teams we have discussions with operate the same way, even more so than in the past.
Is that something you’ve noticed since the Lockout, where teams are becoming more and more prepared?
It’s not saying they are more prepared, but there is always a change in management. Different teams have different approaches. But we are very open, teams will call us because we have a history of making trades. Like I mentioned, we’ve done deals with every team in this League except for Detroit I believe. We’re always open for business.
Because when it comes time to make a decision, you make a decision. That’s one thing we pride ourselves on, we make our decisions. We don’t think in this business you can be tentative. You can do your homework, but you have to make a decision.
In the past the blueline has been considered the team’s weakness. This offseason you’ve seemed to address that with Burns and White—what was it that changed this offseason in terms of being aggressive when acquiring those defenseman?
There’s two things that impact that. One is supply and demand, which we talked about. Two, is a team’s willingness to move those players. People forget that in the playoffs you need to be healthy, and last year a very important player in Jason Demers didn’t play in the Vancouver series. You’d like to have nine or ten NHL defenseman because you never know how its going to play out.
When you look at our defense and how it’s set up, we brought in Ian White who played very well for us. We liked Ian and we wish him the best in Detroit. Getting Brent Burns is something that we feel fits better for us both now and in the future. But you’re always looking at those things. Several of the players that we identified and talked with other teams about ended up not becoming available, and when Burns became available at the draft, we jumped on it very quickly. We’ve done our research on him, felt he would be a great fit for us, and that’s how the deals came together.
Related to being able to acquire players, the last two seasons the Sharks have been right at the salary cap. This year you guys have about 4 million dollars heading into the year, which translates to about 8 million at the deadline. I assume you will be "buyers". With the amount of space available this year, and all major decisions taken care of next year like Burns and Couture, would you be more inclined to acquire a non-UFA at the deadline? Because in the past it seems like the gameplan for a Cup contending team is normally to acquire UFA’s.
Well the gameplan is always to add people that make your team better. So there’s not necessarily a strict gameplan in that sense [UFA vs. non-UFA]—every scenario is unique and different.
In a perfect world, if we’re going to give up a lot of assets, we want that acquisition to go long term. We always focus on putting the best team out there today, but also with an eye for the future. With the way we’ve structured contracts heading into a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, and we’ll see where that leads us, we feel we are very well prepared with our team and where our players are at in their careers, and we feel that we can have a very strong transition with players such as Burns and Niemi that will be long-term pieces of our team.
Essentially, when you add a player, it depends on the cost of the acquisition. If the player was the right fit for us, for both now and in the next four years, absolutely. Part of it is based on who the player is that you acquire and what you have internally.
Amongst the forwards in the system, the loss of Coyle, while I assume he had to be included in the deal to get Brent Burns, that was a player when we spoke to you two years ago at the draft you were really excited about. At the Young Stars tournament you have six forwards here on tryout contracts. Are those tryouts in relation to the loss of Coyle, and maybe something deeper in a general organization depth sense.
We always look to replenish. Obviously you have to give to get. Would we have loved to get Brent Burns and not give up anything? Absolutely. We’re just not sure Minnesota would have obliged [laughs]. Charlie Coyle is a very good hockey player, a really great future. Devin Setoguchi, same thing.
We take a look at where our team is at, and we are a team who has some very young forwards, players who are key players. You talk about the center position, where Joe Thornton is coming into his prime, Patty Marleau will be playing for many more years, Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski. We had extra top six forwards who will be around which allowed us to do those things. We have many players who will be around here for a long time and we have a lot of picks coming up this year, actually extra picks.
Every year we go out and do that, refill the prospect pool whether it be at the draft or sign Junior free agents or college free agents. Every year we understand filling the pick line is crucial for competition and for players that you have, but also for the ability to have trade potentials.
Take a look at Detroit. They’ve probably moved more first round picks than anybody in recent years, and when you’re a team like us that has been fortunate to finish high in the standings and picking 27th or 28th-- not all first round picks are the same. If these are top five or lottery picks that’s a whole different animal, and then you also have to evaluate the value of that draft in a specific year--
For example, the draft next year is supposed to be strong depth-wise.
That could be a part of it, where getting a pick in a specific draft in lieu of a pick another year could be beneficial if a team isn’t comfortable where they are picking.
To read all three parts of our interview with Doug Wilson, please click here.