The regular season is done and we’re in that small lull in April when there’s no hockey to watch. Teams are gearing up for the playoffs and media are turning in their NHL Awards ballots. I felt like this was the perfect time to pay tribute to General Manager Doug Wilson, because right now, I cannot criticize him for another failed playoff run or laud him for finally bringing the Cup to San Jose. Instead, I can only praise him for the team he has built going into the postseason and the culture that he has developed in and around the team to make San Jose a place that players want to play and stay.
I realize this is not a popular opinion for some of our readers. The “Fire Doug Wilson” chants have been boisterous in our comments section at times. But I am hoping that this post will give both longtime and new Sharks fans a little perspective on just how lucky we are.
In his 16 years as the GM of the Sharks, Wilson has never won the NHL’s GM of the Year award, as voted on by all 31 general managers, five NHL executives and five members of the media. Admittedly, the award has only been around since 2010, six years after Wilson took over as GM, but if ever a body of work was deserving of an award, it’s Wilson’s.
Wilson has shaped the Sharks into one of the elite teams in the NHL. He has created a culture of winning, a culture of family and a culture of development that has made San Jose one of the premiere franchises in the league.
The Winning Culture
During his time with the Sharks, Wilson has created a consistent winner. Over the course of 15 seasons (there was no season in 2004-05 due to a lockout), San Jose has made it to the playoffs 14 times. In total, the Sharks have won five Pacific Division titles, one President’s Trophy (2008-09), made four appearances in the Western Conference Final and one appearance in the Stanley Cup Final. The only season the team missed the playoffs was in 2014-15. The very next season, the Sharks went all the way to the Cup Final.
Wilson has helped cultivate a culture of winning that has gained a reputation throughout the league. Top stars understand that if they give San Jose a shot, they have the opportunity to go deep into the playoffs year after year.
There is a reason that a player like John Tavares, who tested free agency last summer, sat down with Wilson and listened to his pitch. During his nine previous seasons in the league, Tavares knew nothing about San Jose or the Sharks except what he had heard secondhand. He had played in San Jose just six times in his career. Yet, when it came time to make a decision, San Jose was one of just six teams Tavares was willing to meet with. Teams with longer legacies like the Montreal Canadiens or a history of recent Stanley Cups like the Los Angeles Kings did not make that list.
But San Jose did.
The Family Culture
San Jose’s winning culture takes its roots in the locker room. Wilson has shaped a locker room that’s filled with acceptance. He has created a family that accepts misfits and outcasts for who they are and embraces them.
In the late evening hours of Feb. 26, 2018, just hours after the NHL trade deadline passed, a dark SUV pulled up to the terminal at San Jose International Airport. A scraggly bearded man hopped out of the car, smiled, and hugged the man waiting at the curb. To most, it was just another airport pickup. To Evander Kane, it meant the world.
That pick up, along with what happened in the weeks following, convinced Kane that San Jose was where he wanted to call home for the rest of his career. Instead of testing the 2018 free agent market where he was likely to make more money, Kane signed a seven-year deal with the Sharks.
What Wilson has created in that locker room is amazing. In the face of criticism that his core is too old and losing a step, he has stuck to his guns and quietly added youth around that age. He understands that these veterans offer more than what they can produce on the score sheet. He understands that they bring an invaluable culture to the locker room.
Thornton will be a Hall of Famer, but at 39 years old it would have been easy for Wilson to let him go. After all, at the start of the season Thornton was coming off not one, but two knee surgeries. No one knew what his game was going to be like when he was “healthy” or if he would ever be fully “healthy” again.
But Wilson understood that Thornton is a man who helps create cohesiveness in a locker room. Thornton is the guy who deflected a group of critical reporters after a young rookie who scored four goals in one game was accused of showboating. He is the man who stayed up late to make sure a new teammate was welcomed properly to his new home. Wilson understands that this is just as important as the number of goals he scores in a season.
That culture is relayed to each new man who steps through the doors at SAP Center and to each new class of rookies that find their way up from the Barracuda.
The Development Culture
All of this trickles down to the Barracuda, who Wilson smartly brought to San Jose in 2015. Moving the team across the country from Worcester, Massachusetts to the Bay Area was a big ask, but Wilson managed it and kept Roy Sommer, the winningest coach in AHL history, in the fold.
Keeping Sommer was essential to maintaining the development pipeline to the Sharks. With more than 700 wins under his belt, Sommer is in a class of his own among AHL coaches. He has a history of developing players. He helped guide homegrown talent like Pavelski and Logan Couture into the solid NHL players they are today.
Moving the affiliate to San Jose gave the Sharks’ development team a chance to watch prospects on a daily basis and it gave prospects a taste of the NHL before they even made it to the big show. Barracuda players now practice in the same building as the likes of Thornton, Pavelski and Couture. They have the opportunity to receive insight from NHL veterans like Evgeni Nabokov, Mike Ricci and Bryan Marchment.
Now when a player on the Sharks is injured, the team can simply walk across the hall to call up a replacement. The move has made San Jose more competitive on both professional levels.
This season, Calgary Flames defenseman Mark Giordano will be awarded the Norris Trophy. It’s an award that he has earned through his play and his leadership and I think that’s wonderful. But do not kid yourself into thinking that many of those votes Giordano receives this season are because of what he has done in the last six or seven months. Those seasons that he almost made it, but was injured short of the finish line come into play. Giordano absolutely deserves this award, but it is because of his body of work, not a single season.
By that same token, Doug Wilson deserves to be named GM of the Year not just because of what he has done in the last 12 months to build a Stanley Cup contender, but also because of his body of work.
These last 12 months are just a highlight of what Wilson has done in his tenure with the Sharks. He traded for and then signed 27-year-old Evander Kane in the off-season and Kane returned the favor by scoring 30 goals this season. Wilson signed Tomas Hertl to a four-year extension in July and Hertl scored 35 goals.
In September, Wilson made the biggest move of all, trading assets for defenseman Erik Karlsson. Everyone agreed that what Wilson gave up (Chris Tierney, Dylan DeMelo, Josh Norris, Rudolfs Balcers and a conditional pick) was worth far less than what he received in return. Ottawa once again missed the playoffs this season and the Sharks are considered one of the top contenders for the Cup. As added insurance, Wilson added Gustav Nyquist at the trade deadline, a top-six forward at the trade deadline.
Whether the Sharks go deep into the playoffs is yet to be seen. The NHL’s postseason is a different animal and powerhouses are just as likely to fall as they are to win. But Wilson has shaped a contender that’s been fun to watch and gives fans hope that this will finally be the year their team hoists the Stanley Cup. There’s something to be said for that.
Shark fans often lament the might-have-beens and the should-have-beens. They’ll look back at draft picks that were missed or the failed first-rounders and point their fingers at Wilson, shouting for his head. The truth is it could be a lot worse for Sharks fans. We could be like the fans in Edmonton, crying over the wasted youth of generational player Connor McDavid who has had just one taste of the playoffs over four NHL seasons. We could be like the fans in Ottawa, who wonder what direction their team is headed in. Or we could be like the fans of the Buffalo Sabres, who keep hearing promises of the postseason, but haven’t seen action in the middle of April since 2011.
Win or lose this summer, Sharks fans need to remember that their team is special and it’s because there’s a guy like Doug Wilson at the helm.