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Making sense of Doug Wilson's rebuild plan

With Wilson confirmed to remain the team's GM, it's time to make sense of his rebuild plan. And it might be less disastrous than you believe.

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No, I couldn't think up a more recent meme to reference. Also, it was really hard to make the hand match Wilson's tan.
No, I couldn't think up a more recent meme to reference. Also, it was really hard to make the hand match Wilson's tan.

Every time the Sharks come up in the news for anything nowadays, the overwhelming response from the general public is "Fire DW." And you know what? I'm tired of it.

You're frustrated, I know. We're clearly frustrated here at FTF, too. Wilson tore apart a team that had 111 points and made them into a lottery team. That's just a fact. But you know who built that 111 point team? Doug Wilson.  I don't believe the reaction to one playoff series turned him into into an idiot that just wants to see the team burn after being a damn good general manager for many years.

Maybe I already lost you. Doug Wilson was a damn good GM. Up until this season, he assembled quality rosters year after year that were built to get the team deep into the playoffs. Obviously the team never made it to a Stanley Cup Final. But how much of that is actually on him? A general manager for a contending team gets paid to put together the best possible roster on paper. The Sharks' problems have never been on paper until this season.

I'm not saying the team has been perfectly built over the years. Honestly, every team since Rob Blake retired has been missing a top-4 defenseman. Goaltending was average at best. But in the salary cap era, there's going to be a flaw or two in every team - even Stanley Cup winning teams. You just have to hope you can take better advantage of your opponent's fatal flaw than they can yours.

But let's get to the point: the 2014 Playoffs. You know what happened in the series.

The ultimate goal for the Sharks is the Stanley Cup. Despite having a team that was good enough on paper to win a Cup, they blew it in spectacular fashion. After blowing it in years past too. The Sharks couldn't have come back with the same exact team in 2014-15. They just couldn't.

In that time period during and right after the playoffs, look around the Western Conference and project the 14-15 season. The Ducks and Blues were on the rise. The Kings and Blackhawks showed no signs of slowing down (though they both did). The West had the potential to be an absolute gauntlet. Looking at probability alone, the same team would likely fall short, even a slightly improved team would need luck to fall in their favor to reach the Stanley Cup. And luck has never been on the Sharks side. And if they failed again? Fans would riot. They'd want heads to roll. That happened this year. But ownership would want heads to roll too.

Let's think about this practically. The team is only going to get so many more years out of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski and Brent Burns. But, if 2014-15 doesn't look promising, where do you go? A full scorched-earth rebuild?

"Do we as a franchise want to take a 7-year hiatus from the playoffs? No we don't. So what we've done is we've got probably 4-5 key players in key positions that are young players, that we're probably 2/3 of the way through that phase."

- Doug Wilson on Yahoo! SportsTalk Live 5/23/14

"I can understand when people say there are different types of rebuild. We're not going to finish last to try and draft people first or second. This is not something this franchise can do, because we already have some good players in key positions."

- Doug Wilson on Hannan re-signing conference call 6/10/14

"We said last summer it was going to be a transition, this was the year we were going to go through it. We stayed right to our word."

- Doug Wilson at McLellan "parting ways" press conference 4/20/15

Agree with a rebuild idea or not, we can at least confirm that there is a clear message being put out here.

The team still has at least a 4 year window on Pavelski, Burns, Vlasic, Couture, and Braun. Hertl and Nieto just had outstanding rookie years. There's too much talent at too many different positions to be as awful as the Oilers or Sabres.

Also, the team has prospects for the first time in a while. After years of trading top picks away as currency to get rentals like Brian Campbell or core players like Burns and Boyle, the organization kept 3 first rounders and 4 second rounders since 2012. Some of those players could make an impact soon. Some of them already did. And by not trading away the 2015 draft picks for rentals, those are even more assets the team is holding onto.

So, where does that leave the Sharks organization? Let's aim for 2015-16 and 2016-2017.

Tomorrow Team

"I’ve had a lot of calls, a lot of people at the GM meetings (last week in new York), they know where we’re going," Wilson said. "We now become a tomorrow team. When you spell that out, it does create a response."

- Doug Wilson to Kevin Kurz 6/17/14

While in my scenario the "tomorrow team" label does translate to "not this year, but the next couple years", I think the overabundant use of "rebuild" instead of refresh, reset, restock or whatever other "re" you could say was to manipulate other general managers. If the Sharks say they're rebuilding, teams will start calling the Sharks asking to set up deals instead of the other way around. Maybe multiple teams ask about Brad Stuart, and the price gets driven up more than if he was getting shopped around by the Sharks as if he were damaged goods (which he was).

This, I admit, may just grasping at straws. But, undeniably, if the team writes off 14-15 as a development year and doesn't bring in anyone major, it allows opportunities for youngsters to test the water with the big club rather than getting thrown into the fire in 15-16 as a rookie on a hopefully established playoff team.

Hertl and Nieto were almost guaranteed to get a lot of reps in the top six, even if they struggled - and they did. A few rookies could also get a lot of playing time in the bottom six, which Tierney and Goodrow did. The same thing goes on defense. There were a lot of maybes on defense in San Jose's prospect pool. But Mirco Mueller and Matt Tennyson at least got extended looks. Mueller looked out of place, and probably would have been better served in juniors, but worst case scenario, he's with the Barracuda next season with a chip on his shoulder trying to get back on the big squad.

If that's the plan, how do the rest of those offseason moves look:

Boyle, Havlat, Burns

If this is the plan, what does the team do with the roster in the meantime? Well, Dan Boyle wants a multi-year deal, will be 39 when the 15-16 season starts and has a history with concussions. Unfortunately, he has to go, rebuild or not.

Martin Havlat needs to go while we still have a compliance buyout. The coaching staff only put him into one playoff game despite having a solid postseason track record and a hat-trick the week before the playoffs started. Injuries tore him apart. Literally. The Kings exploited injury risks to build their cup team: Justin Williams and Willie Mitchell were hits, Simon Gagne was a miss. Of course, luck wasn't on the Sharks side here either.

Brent Burns is possibly the best power forward in the league. However, with Boyle needing to go, the best offensive defenseman on the team is Jason Demers, who has a career high of 34 points. That's not going to cut it. Maybe the team can sign Matt Niskanen, but maybe he wants to stay east. Burns is already an All-Star defenseman on the roster.

"When you take a look at that type of dynamic on the back end, guys that move the puck up, shoot the puck on the power play, it creates a tough matchup. And, the size and physicality that he brings. … To me, our commitment and our need is him back as a defenseman."

- Doug Wilson on conference call 5/15/14

And as dominant as Brent Burns was as a forward during the season, he looked worn down by the time the playoffs rolled around. He only had three points in the series, and two of them were in game one. As terrible a stat as plus/minus is, he was minus in every playoff game against L.A. despite playing on a line with Joe Thornton. If he's back on defense, the team can keep his 55-60 points in the lineup and hopefully keep his body from wearing down by not having 82 games of forecheking like a wild animal. Unfortunately for this year's Sharks, defensively, he was ranked somewhere between "an adventure" and "a tire fire."

"You don't mind, if you have the right people around him."

- Doug Wilson on conference call 5/15/14

That was the problem with Burns in 14-15. If you had someone to cover his ass when he blew it, you could really use a defenseman who could dominate stretches of play like he did offensively. Especially if the other two pairs could hold their own. Going forward to 2015-16, I think Burns stays at defense. And if the rest of the blueline is shored up it may even be a decent move.

The other downside, of course, is that it starts a domino effect, leaving Pavelski on Thornton's wing instead of as third line center. On the other hand, it's arguable Pavelski doesn't enjoy being third line center anymore as he seems to get defensive whenever he's asked about playing there. And if you're Wilson, you need to keep Pavelski happy.

Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau

I'm not going to say that Doug Wilson never considered trading Thornton and/or Marleau. Post-playoffs, it crossed all of our minds once or twice. Although the rest of the core probably has at least 4 years left in them, Thornton and Marleau do not. They were just re-signed to 3 year deals, and despite still being in phenomenal shape, likely won't be worth much by 2017.

"When you enter into this type of phase, no options should be off the table," Wilson said. "You explore everything."

- Doug Wilson on conference call 5/15/14

First of all, this is a great thing to say to take off some heat when you've got thousands of Sharks fans foaming at the mouth. That being said, they were just given new contracts with no-movement clauses, so you can't just scapegoat them and move on.

"The integrity of building that type of contract with those types of players, they would have to come to me. I’ve been very transparent on where this team is at, and where it’s going. They have a clause that’s in their contract, and I at no point have ever asked either one of them."

- Doug Wilson on Yahoo! SportsTalk Live 3/2/15

If a team approached Wilson with an offer that blew him away, maybe he would have asked them. Or maybe they'd want to leave if they didn't think they could afford a year where they purposely weren't going 100% for the Stanley Cup.

The captaincy issue with Joe is the biggest mistake Wilson made. I don't think it was necessarily bad to take the 'C' away from Joe. While it is speculation, I would have to imagine Jumbo made a sarcastic, possibly disrespectful comment to either Wilson, McLellan or a young player. Whatever the case, emotions were running high everywhere. But by the time Wilson was asked about it, maybe he (incorrectly) thought that enough time had passed that they had cooled off.

And in full context, does that quote even seem that bad?

"Joe Thornton, I’m a huge fan of Joe Thornton. I’ve known him since I was 18 in the world juniors. Joe Thornton loves this game. He’s one of the greatest players that ever played. He cares about the game so much. The reason we took the ‘C’ off him — and he was notified. Look, he and Todd had a meeting. I trust them both but sometimes what’s said and what’s heard might be whatever. There’s emotions involved. They both care about it.

"Joe Thornton, and I sat him down and I said, Joe, I have such great respect for you. He carries the weight of the team on his shoulders. And he’s got such a big heart that when stress comes on him, he lashes out at people and it kind of impacts them."

- Doug Wilson at season ticket holder's Q&A 3/12/15

That reads like the truth, not an insult, not scapegoating. Just the truth. And the response to it from Jumbo did prove he's not above lashing out. But they're both adults, and they both want to win. They can get over it.

I honestly believe that Doug Wilson knows Thornton and Marleau are both good players who can help the team more in the very near-future than whatever return they could get.

"But Jonathan!" I hear you screaming to your computer screen:

"I want players that want to play here, not just live here."

- Doug Wilson to Tim Kawakami 6/1/14

Did you ever think that maybe, just maybe, that wasn't a slight to Marleau and Thornton, but to Brad Stuart? You know, the guy who wanted out of Detroit because he wanted to be near his family in the South Bay, the guy that Wilson actually did trade away! Hmm...

John Scott and the crappy veterans

If there's one move that doesn't make much sense on any level, using the lens of any plan, it's the Sharks signing John Scott.

Re-signing Hannan?

"He understands and accepts his role based on the needs of our team and will be a great mentor for many of the younger players on our roster."

- Doug Wilson on Hannan re-signing conference call 6/10/14

That doesn't sound like Wilson saying he's going to get top four minutes - sounds more like he's the seventh or eighth defenseman on this roster. You could do worse for your healthy scratch defenseman. Scott Hannan knows what to do in a game, he just can't really do it anymore. But maybe some of his fundamentals can be taught to the kids.

Re-signing Brown? At least he got people talking and blood pumping at times for the team in the playoffs, even if he's arguably the worst player in the league when it comes to advanced stats.

But adding Scott, one of the players that makes Brown's "worst player in the league" title arguable is redundant at best, right? Yeah, probably.

But it was just a one year deal. He can be gone before serious contention starts again. If the team may miss the playoffs, they could at least use a teammate that makes them laugh and is probably pretty used to being scratched, right? I mean there's no way Head Coach Todd McLellan would play him over a promising rookie, right? RIGHT!?

Todd McLellan

Wrong.

Todd McLellan is not a rebuilding coach. That's pretty obvious by now. I think that moment became crystal clear to everyone at the Stadium Series game when Chris Tierney was scratched for John Scott.

But that rift between Wilson's rebuilding plan and McLellan's plan seemed to rear up even at the beginning of the season. Back in January, James Mirtle of the Globe and Mail reported that Doug Wilson had to put Adam Burish on waivers to keep McLellan from plugging him into the lineup nightly over Tierney and Goodrow. It was a scene straight out of Moneyball.

If the team was really positioning itself to compete as soon as 2015-16, I think Wilson could have justified keeping McLellan around even if he wasn't fully on board with the rebuild plan. But from the sounds of it, McLellan wasn't exactly too keen on sticking around either. It at least sounded like he asked to leave before the organization decided whether or not they wanted him back.

Personally, if I had to choose between Wilson or McLellan returning, I'd rather it be Wilson. McLellan was a good coach, but I never thought he got more out of the team than Wilson built for him. It was usually just as expected, except for a few early playoff exits. And yes, I know Todd McLellan had never missed the playoffs as a coach until this year. But guess who never missed the playoffs as a general manager until this year? Doug Wilson.

This offseason

This summer, I think we'll find the moment of truth. I think we'll see the rebuild plan turn a major corner. Even before locking in a coach, Wilson seems to be hinting that the team is going to be a major buyer this offseason.

"Are we looking to upgrade this hockey team? The answer's yes."

"We have a lot of flexibility and ability to add some players going forward with how we're positioned pick-wise, not only this year but next year. Certainly cap-wise and those things."

"We have a lot of young players in our organization and system that are viewed as very valuable assets."

"Your position is to have the currency needed to add players. It's not always UFA - you explore that... but we're looking for players that fit for now and the future, for the next 4-5 years."

- Doug Wilson  at McLellan "parting ways" press conference 4/20/15

The team has restocked its high-end prospects since 2012 and has this year's picks and next year's picks to play with, not to mention a ton of cap space. I think Wilson tries to poach a RFA from a cap strapped team like L.A. or Chicago, or offers to be the helpful hand to trade for a different piece from one of those teams.

For example, a $3 million offer sheet to the Kings for Martin Jones would be practically impossible for the Kings to justify matching - they can't commit $9 million to a tandem of Quick and Jones. And it would give the Sharks that "25-year-old goalie" they were reportedly looking to acquire. Alternatively, the Kings are probably going to have to decide to pick between Justin Williams and Tyler Toffoli. Meanwhile, the Blackhawks will probably have to move Patrick Sharp and another piece.

And depending on the price, I could even see the team packaging a few young NHLers together for a NHL star in his prime to add to the core. Do you think Taylor Hall or Phil Kessel would look good in teal?

Maybe I'm wrong. And maybe this is the only way I've been able to keep myself from carving "It was 3-0" into the walls of my padded cell. But right now I truly do believe that, after a season specifically designated as a "rebuilding year," the 2015-16 and 2016-17 Sharks teams will be built to make deep playoff runs.

And if the Sharks aren't most of the way there after this season? Fire DW. And get my padded cell ready.