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Rise From The Ashes: The Doug Wilson Years

Doug Wilson just entered his 15th season as Sharks General Manager. At Fear The Fin, we’re taking a second to step back and reflect on it, while also looking at what comes next.

NHL: Stanley Cup Final-Media Day Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

It’s March 18, 2003, and the San Jose Sharks, only one year removed from a division championship, languish at the cellar of the Pacific Division. President Greg Jamison decides he’s had enough and makes arguably the most consequential decision in franchise history, canning the savvy Dean Lombardi and embarking on a search for a new identity for the team. The Sharks, claim Jamison, need someone who could re-tool the team’s identity and build them up from scratch into a legitimate, year-in year-out contender.

7 weeks later, Jamison finds his man in ex-captain Doug Wilson, a man who garners plenty of respect around the league, but has little in the way of experience. For a franchise in a non-traditional hockey market, this is as big of a move as it gets. Season ticket renewals have already plummeted for the following season, and a prolonged period of mediocrity might threaten the stability and viability of the franchise.

The Sharks had just two winning seasons in the 13 years before his hire. They’ve only had one losing season in the 14 since.

When Doug Wilson was hired, it was fair to say that the task facing the fresh-faced GM was nothing short of gargantuan. The team had been gutted at the deadline, with franchise icon Owen Nolan getting shipped out along with Markus Ragnarsson, Bryan Marchment, and a host of other players. The payroll was high, the talent level was questionable, and the rest of the conference was stacked, with Detroit’s dynasty complementing the dangerous Anaheim Ducks, the high-octane Colorado Avalanche (hey, remember when that was a thing?), and the dynamic Dallas Stars. A normal GM would have taken a couple of years to rebuild the team in his own image, ship out dead weight, acquire prospects, and then make a run for the championship.

The only counter to this is that Doug Wilson has never been a normal GM.

From the very start, it was clear that Wilson did not intend to play by the orthodoxy governing much of the league. Looking at the roster, he saw the undervalued promise of the core of Patrick Marleau, Evgeni Nabokov, Jonathan Cheechoo, Brad Stuart, Jim Fahey, and Marco Sturm and decided that the roster didn’t need an overhaul; all it needed was reinforcements. In came Nils Ekman, Tom Preissing, and Christian Ehrhoff, and the Sharks catapulted to the top of the Pacific Division, toppling the Avalanche in the second round of the playoffs and only falling to Jarome Iginla’s Calgary Flames in the Conference Finals.

Suddenly, fan interest began to surge again. Analysts around the NHL sat up and took notice. Maybe there was something to this team, after all. And maybe this general manager could see something that nobody else did.

It’s November 29, 2005. San Jose languishes in last place in the Pacific Division and 14th in the conference, dragged down by a 10-game losing streak. Every red flag raised about the team in the year before seems to be true, and no easy fix seems to be in store.

24 hours later, Joe Thornton is on the roster at the expense of Marco Sturm, Brad Stuart, and Wayne Primeau, and Doug Wilson has simultaneously swung arguably the most jaw-dropping trade since Wayne Gretzky got sent to Los Angeles, and the most lopsided deal since the United States bought the entire Midwest from France for $15 Million.

It’s difficult to capture in words just how big of an impact the Thornton trade had on the League. Boston fans were incensed, calling for the general manager’s head on a pike. NHL observers were flabbergasted, unable to comprehend the fact that a bona-fide superstar had been traded to an under-the-radar Pacific team. Sharks fans were dumbstruck, not knowing exactly what to think now that the full force of the League’s attention was focused squarely on them for the first time in franchise history. And General Managers were stunned, railing that they’d have offered far more for the NHL’s biggest superstar if Mike O’Connell had merely asked.

Of course, the key distinction is in the last phrase. If Mike O’Connell had merely asked.

“Some men see things as they were and ask why. I dream of things that never were and ask why not.”

The Robert F. Kennedy quote could easily be applied to Wilson’s management strategy. Never afraid to shoot for the moon, the Thornton trade was among the first signs of a pattern of thought that would typify the Sharks to this day. And it was that Wilson, who became famous in GM circles as the league’s biggest tire-kicker, was always ahead of the curve. He was always experimenting with things other managers either scoffed at or never dared to dream of pulling off. It would have been called unrealistic, except for the fact that he succeeded at it, often beyond anyone’s wildest expectations.

Wilson was constantly thinking outside the box and confounding every GM, fan, and analyst in the NHL. Sometimes, it was through using methods like the oft-frowned upon offer-sheet on Niklas Hjalmarsson to compound Chicago’s cap crunch, which let him swipe future Vezina finalist Antti Niemi in the resulting chaos. Other times, it was by going against the trend of acquiring deadline veterans and instead trying “addition by subtraction,” which allowed the Sharks to get better and younger by dealing away declining veterans like Douglas Murray and Ryane Clowe at the 2013 deadline. Sometimes, it was through utilizing methods like the Sharks’ own analytics system in RinkNet at a time when most of the league derided advanced statistics. And then, of course, there were the trades.

The trades. They usually weren’t supposed to be possible. Superstars generally weren’t supposed to be available, and even if they were, San Jose wasn’t supposed to have the assets or cap space to get them. But you’ll never be able write a sentence about Doug Wilson without fitting in something about his knack for blockbuster deals, seldom matched by any other GM around the league.

Armed with an uncanny knack of exploiting opportunities people didn’t even know existed (thanks, in part, to his incessant tire-kicking), Wilson quickly built the Sharks into a team whose roster resembled a star-studded who’s-who encyclopedia, with an entire Team Canada forward unit materializing on one line. He had an intuitive understanding that went unrecognized by many: that the team obtaining the best player in the deal usually won, scraps and fringe pieces be damned.

Deals for Dany Heatley, Dan Boyle, and Brent Burns highlighted the successes of this approach while simultaneously preventing San Jose from being tied down to the Brad Richards-esque contracts that hamstrung organizations for over a decade. At the time, Wilson came in for some criticism for not pursuing free agents more heavily. Ten years down the line, when teams like Florida dealt prized prospect Lawson Crouse to the Coyotes just so that they could take Dave Bolland off their books, the merits of this approach became clear.

Yet for all the wheeling and dealing, for all the rental acquisitions like Bill Guerin and Brian Campbell, for all the “depth” additions like Adam Burish and Michal Handzus, San Jose was never quite able to get over the hump. While Wilson certainly couldn’t be blamed for Milan Michalek’s injury in 2006 or Joe Thornton’s separated shoulder in 2011, eleven straight years of falling short did reveal a common denominator: that the team was far too top-heavy and imbalanced to go on a deep run.

If Wilson’s trades were his best traits as a general manager, his depth and asset management were certainly his worst. Too many times, the Sharks iced plugs like John Scott on the fourth line at the expense of useful roster players like Chris Tierney. Too many times, prospects like Nick Bonino got dealt for rentals like Travis Moen. And too many times, draft picks were tossed away with little to show for them in return. Finally, after years of being among the most successful teams in the league and after an 11-year span of winning more playoff games than anyone except Pittsburgh and Detroit, the Sharks gave out, collapsing in historic fashion against the Kings in 2014.

That was the breaking point for Wilson’s patience. After years of watching a carefully-assembled team constantly be among the best in the NHL and yet still fall short, something snapped.

It’s difficult to imagine a playoff team in a more hopeless situation than San Jose after the infamous collapse. The team had their prospect pool depleted by Wilson’s constant rental dealings, and while he had quietly rebuilt it with quality depth draft picks and signings, there was no clear blue-chip talent on the team that could pick up the slack and reverse the trend of falling short. Joe Thornton was on the wrong side of 35, Patrick Marleau on the wrong side of 30, and Joe Pavelski approaching 29. The team was too good and too anchored by no-trade-clauses to tear apart, yet clearly not deep enough to withstand injuries and make a deep run. The West, as Jon Wold famously put it, was an absolute gauntlet, with Chicago, Anaheim, and Los Angeles looking set to dominate for years to come.

So Wilson went with the most bizarre approach possible.

He did nothing.

Well, that wasn’t entirely true. He did release Dan Boyle and sign John Scott and Tye McGinn. And he did move Brent Burns back to defense after one of the most dominant seasons by a power forward in recent Sharks history. The resulting season was one of chaos, disharmony, and bewilderment, with infighting plaguing the front office and the team culture deteriorating further.

Of the numerous mistakes Wilson made as general manager, this season probably contained the biggest ones. Season ticket renewals dropped sharply, fan enthusiasm decreased, performance dipped, and the year was, essentially, lost. Chants of “Fire Wilson” rang out around SAP Center, and a notorious public spat with Joe Thornton cast a shadow over the entire organization.

A season like that is enough to get most general managers fired. But most general managers don’t have the track record of Doug Wilson, and so Hasso Plattner decided to give it one more shot.

What followed was arguably the most stunning rebound in recent hockey history.

Having Doug Wilson as a general manager can take you down a rollercoaster ride of emotions. He can make your jaw drop with a move, like he did with the Thornton, Heatley, and Boyle trades, and can then simultaneously make you cringe in disbelief, like he did with the Travis Moen trade. And yet one thing has been a constant of the Wilson era, and that has been success. The methods and techniques may be debated, but the 2014-15 season was the outlier that broke a period of sustained excellence from a team entirely designed by him. So it shouldn’t have been a surprise to see San Jose rebound.

Armed with the hire of Peter DeBoer and doubling down on the decision to move Burns back to defense, Wilson proceeded to revamp much of the Sharks roster. Over the course of the season, he proceeded to flush the roster of enforcers and committed to depth instead. Out went John Scott and Mike Brown, and in came Joel Ward, Joonas Donskoi, Paul Martin, and Dainius Zubrus. Gone were the top-heavy teams of seasons past, replaced instead by a newfound commitment to depth. In came Martin Jones through a classic Wilson fleecing where Los Angeles, worried about a San Jose offer sheet, sent Jones to Boston, only for Boston to enrage Dean Lombardi by flipping him to San Jose for a first-round pick and Sean Kuraly. The moves were reflective of Wilson’s desire to improve the way in any way he could, and, as usual, came when almost everyone was predicting a full-on fire sale or rebuild.

It still shouldn’t have worked. The moves should have been too little, too late, and a rookie goalie, a forward-turned-defenseman, and a 37-year-old centerman should never have been able to guide a team to the Cup Finals. But that’s exactly what happened. Reinvigorated by DeBoer’s system and well-rested thanks to squad depth, Burns and Thornton played at MVP levels, Jones backed up a solid regular season with one of the greatest postseason performances in Sharks history, and San Jose reached the Stanley Cup Final for the first time. It was one of the rare cases in recent years of a team making the Cup Final a season after missing the playoffs entirely, and it came in large part due to the immense depth of the squad Wilson had built.

For all the on-ice success, however, there were plenty of off-ice events to cheer for as well. Wilson had taken that off year to help restock the bare prospect cupboard, adding Timo Meier, Jeremy Roy, Adam Helewka, Maxim Letunov, and Rudolf Balcers to a pool already featuring Danny O’Regan, Joakim Ryan, and Kevin Labanc. It was one of the most impressive jobs of “rebuilding on the fly” of late, especially given the immense amount of young talent in the prospect pool. Once again, the future held hope, an assertion that remained true despite a bruised and injured team’s first-round loss to McDavid’s Oilers in the following season.

Of course, nobody saw it coming, and nobody could believe that this was actually happening. But that’s always been characteristic of any Doug Wilson move.

The question then becomes: What now? Wilson, unafraid to make ruthless decisions to improve a team, let Marleau leave for the Maple Leafs, confident that Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc could fill the void created by his absence. Once again, San Jose finds itself at a crossroads. Despite the impressive retooling done, the team still lacks a real replacement for Joe Thornton, and Joe Pavelski isn’t getting any younger. Yet there is every indication that Wilson is acutely aware of this scenario.

To begin with, Wilson has almost completely overhauled the youth system in the organization, having learned from his frittering away prospects and picks of years past. Kevin Labanc was OHL scoring champion and showed a great deal of promise in the NHL. Timo Meier was a shot generation machine and tore up the QMJHL. Danny O’Regan was arguably the best player in college hockey, and Joakim Ryan and Tim Heed formed the best defensive pairing in the AHL last season. Tomas Hertl was one of the most dominant possession forwards in the NHL when healthy, and Donskoi spent the entire season injured after a promising rookie year.

With genuine blue-chip prospects in the system for once, it makes sense to gauge what the franchise currently has before making a big move. However, it’s also entirely possible that the right opportunity hasn’t presented itself yet. Wilson has never shied away from a big move, and the Sharks almost signed Steven Stamkos back in 2016. It’s entirely possible that Wilson is waiting for a chance to swing for John Tavares or Alex Galchenyuk instead of settling for another Logan Couture-ish player in Matt Duchene. The next acquisition the franchise needs to make would be a massive one that cements the core for the next decade, and Wilson’s mooted and actual moves show that he is highly mindful of the upcoming times without Joe Thornton.

It’s useless to predict the future, and the problem with it, as Bill Watterson so expertly said, is that it keeps turning into the present. But if there’s one man you’d say could singlehandedly change it overnight with one trade, it would probably be Doug Wilson.

Given his track record, you probably wouldn’t want to bet against it.