When I talked to Doug Wilson Jr. on Monday, he was enjoying a last day at home.
The next day, the San Jose Sharks’ Director of Scouting hit the road, with the express purpose of scouting a potential 2020 Sharks first-round pick for the first time this year.
His excitement for this two-week jaunt was palpable, as was his enthusiasm for blossoming prospects like Jonathan Dahlen, John Leonard and Ryan Merkley. Wilson Jr. also offered encouraging updates on Dillon Hamaliuk, Artemi Kniazev and Jacob McGrew, among others.
In this far-ranging conversation, Wilson Jr. also discussed the possibility of Dahlen and Leonard coming to San Jose this season, why the Sharks didn’t lottery protect the 2020 first-round pick traded for Erik Karlsson and how San Jose ended up “paying the piper” this year.
Sheng Peng: From a scout’s perspective, can you talk about your excitement with adding a 2020 first-round pick?
Doug Wilson Jr.: As a scouting staff, we were really excited to get back into the first-round this year.
In the last six [first rounds of] drafts, we drafted three players and we traded for three players. You don’t really know which way it’s going to go. But the fact that we were able to acquire that currency is exciting for us.
I think right now, we have three picks, a first and two seconds, all could be in the top-50. That’s really exciting. Whatever we end up doing with the picks, whether we draft players or trade for them, this is going to be a huge off-season for us.
SP: A couple weeks ago, you told The Athletic, “It’s our responsibility as scouts to decide when they’re ready, and maybe we said it was a year or two early.” Can you explain that more, why you and your scouts might have been off about some of your guys?
DW: First-round guys, you don’t usually see [on a regular basis] for four years. Second-to-seventh round guys, you don’t see for five years.
With the success we had under Pete [DeBoer], at some point, you do have to pay the piper.
We traded three first-rounders, four or five second-rounders. I wouldn’t give up any of that because we went to the Stanley Cup Final and last year, the Vegas series, but if you’re going to trade two second-round picks for Roman Polak and Nick Spaling, trade a third for James Reimer, we did everything we possibly could to go to the Stanley Cup.
The big thing is, this year, we’re paying the piper. It happens.
What we forecast was trying to send a couple guys [like Joachim Blichfeld and Noah Gregor] back for their over-age seasons, trying to develop them a little bit quicker. And bring all these guys [like Lean Bergmann and Danil Yurtaykin] in. I was just more along the lines of saying that we were very hopeful that these guys could help.
But history is what it is. You don’t see first-rounders for four years, you don’t see second-to-seventh rounders for five years.
But right now, you’re kind of seeing Noah Gregor playing up top. You’re seeing Alexander True. [Joel] Kellman.
First-year expectations, I think these guys have all done really good jobs. It’s just...we didn’t really have any other options. We had traded a lot of our picks.
As for the kids, they’re doing everything we had expected out of them. Gregor was what, a fourth-rounder? Dylan Gambrell, a second-rounder. Truesy was an AHL free agent.
Our AHL team doesn’t have a single first-rounder on the team. I don’t think it even has a second-rounder on the team. We’re the youngest team in the AHL and without any first-round picks, it’s been tough.
Hopefully, these guys can help us for next year when we’re trying to make the playoffs and go for the Cup.
SP: It’s a good point. Just because an Alexander True didn’t help as much this year as hoped for, he could conceivably next season.
DW: In our history, we haven’t had a year where we’ve been able to give NHL games to these young players. We’ve gone out and got Dainius Zubrus, Nick Spaling, James Reimer for Stanley Cup depth. This season, all these guys are getting games, that way we really know who can help us next year going into training camp, get back into the playoffs.
SP: One burning question — before we started talking about some of your more exciting long-term prospects — why didn’t the Sharks lottery protect the 2020 first-round pick that was sent to Ottawa for Erik Karlsson?
DW: It’s a fair question. Ottawa had a similar scenario themselves, the year prior, with the Matt Duchene trade. They weren’t as interested in making the trade if the pick was protected.
We obviously asked them to protect the pick, but it would’ve come at a cost.
The other thing is, the draft year when we traded for Erik Karlsson was 2019. We had already traded that pick for Evander Kane. So we had to push our first-round pick out to 2020.
They’re trading the best defenseman in the NHL and they’re not even getting a first-round pick in that exact draft year. To try to protect a first-rounder two years out, when you’re trading for Erik Karlsson?
We asked many times to do it.
So we pushed it to 2020, but we couldn’t get it protected. That would’ve cost us another asset.
With trades, you just do the best you can at the time with all the information that you have.
I don’t remember when we made the trade, anybody upset about giving up the first.
I want to add too, when we traded for Erik Karlsson, every asset we gave them was a Sharks-drafted and developed player. Chris Tierney was a second-round pick. Rudy Balcers was a fifth-rounder. Dylan DeMelo was a sixth-round pick. Josh Norris was a first. And we gave up other picks too. Our depth took a hit. But we did draft and develop players internally that got us Erik Karlsson.
SP: Moving on, by all accounts, Ryan Merkley has had a great season and has improved much defensively. That said, there were some question marks on his resume this season, like the bizarre situation with Peterborough and not being invited to Team Canada’s selection camp. Are these unfair question marks dogging Ryan?
DW: I don’t have an issue with either of those situations. London is in first place right now. They wanted to go for it this season, so they traded for Ryan Merkley.
There were quite a few teams in on him. London got him; they’re in first place and he’s having a good season. It was a good move on their part.
Canada won gold at World Juniors. They went with the guys they wanted, good for them. While they won gold, Merks played well with London. I think it’s been a great year for him.
Overall, our last six first-round draft picks. Timo Meier went ninth, Josh Norris went 19th, Ryan Merkley went 21st. The other three picks, we traded 29th overall for Martin Jones, 29th overall for Evander Kane, and this year’s for Erik Karlsson.
As a scouting staff, we’re really happy with the value from those six picks. Merkley is a huge part of that.
SP: Has all this movement been tough on Ryan, especially all this happening in Canadian markets?
DW: No, I think it gets blown out of proportion unless you really know a ton about major junior. Akil Thomas scored the game-winning goal for Canada in World Juniors and he gets traded to Peterborough. The top players in that league get traded every single year to the teams that are loading up. So it’s not really a huge discussion point with any other player.
Chicoutimi, they traded for Raphael Lavoie, a couple guys. Every top player in major juniors gets traded to a team going for the Mem Cup. It’s really not a storyline.
SP: What’s the plan for Jonathan Dahlen next year? Is there a plan for him to come to training camp next year?
DW: We have a plan for him next season, but we’re still focused on this season. Timra is having a great year. He’s three points away with two games left of breaking the all-time single-season record for points in that league.
We’re tracking to see how long his playoff run goes. Hopefully, Timra does really well. Depending on when his season is over, we’ll probably bring him over this season. So we’re more focused on this season with Jonathan.
He will be eligible to come over whenever his Timra season is done. But they could be playing for a long time. We’re kind of in a holding pattern. We want them to go as long as they can, to win a championship. It’s a win-win. If Timra goes a long way, we won’t see him this year.
I just saw him and his mom and dad over there. They’re all very excited. He looks great. Parents are excited with Ulf being Sharks alum.
SP: You said you saw him live recently, what did you see from his game that could translate to higher level?
DW: He sees the game at a very high level. The last few years, we’ve really focused in on doing everything we can to find difference-makers through trades, the draft. We traded a good player for him in Linus Karlsson, but it was a risk we had to take because the kid’s skill level is very high-end.
He still has a lot of development to go, in regards to an NHL body, to get through 82 games.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that our top-six forwards are Logan Couture, first-round pick. Tomas Hertl, first-round pick. Evander Kane, first-round pick. Timo Meier, first-round pick. To get those star players, you have to draft them. We’ve traded a ton of picks recently, so we’ve had to come up with some other creative ways.
Trading Linus for Jonathan just gave us another chance at a potential top-six forward.
He’s very smart. What’s going to allow him to be successful is how he thinks the game, how he reads the play, his play-making and finishing ability.
He still has work to do in the defensive zone. He still has work to do with his body, physically. But again, we haven’t had the draft picks to go get tons of high-end talent. We’ve used European free agency to get some depth guys like [Radim] Simek, Melker [Karlsson], Marcus [Sorensen] and [Joonas] Donskoi. But you’re not going to get star players from European free agency. There’s one [Artemi] Panarin, right? The only way you can get these skill guys is to draft them.
SP: When you guys were deciding where he would play this year, was there some concern that he would be going to the second-tier Swedish league? Why did you guys opt for that instead of having him return to the Barracuda?
DW: Jonathan went through some things last year in Utica. When he came to us, he got a concussion in his seventh game with us. It was just a tough year for him.
We’ve known Jonathan, we’ve seen him grow up. We just felt really comfortable that if he went somewhere and he was happy and had a really good season, we could get him back to be the Jonathan that we always remember, that second-round pick, being a high-end skill guy.
That’s where the risk was, but we just felt that we had done enough homework on the kid. Niklas Sundstrom knows the family very well, knows Ulf.
It’s a long-term project for us, it always was.
We weren’t really too concerned where he played this year. We just wanted him to get back to being Jonathan. It looks like that’s what’s happening right now.
SP: Where has John Leonard’s game grown the most from last year?
DW: John’s a great kid, sixth-round pick, late bloomer. Leading the NCAA in goals.
He roomed with Mario Ferraro last season. His physio is just unbelievable. His body has completely changed. You’ve seen Mario’s body, John looks very similar to that. When we drafted him, he was much skinnier. He was just not pro-ready, not a pro body.
You’ll be shocked when you see him, when he eventually comes, just his physique. He’s preparing himself to be a pro.
82 games in the NHL is going to be hard, so I’m not sure when he’s going to be ready for that stuff.
He’s got top-six forward upside.
SP: Of course, Leonard is looking for another Frozen Four run with UMass, but if things don’t work out, like Jonathan, will he be brought to San Jose?
DW: He’ll be eligible to join us at the end of this season as well. It’s really up to the coaching staff where the guys go. But depending on their playoff runs, we’re hoping to have both of them join us.
SP: Artemi Kniazev appears to be having a solid season on a good Chicoutimi squad. How much is he playing there and does he appear to be “on track”?
DW: He’s been playing really well. He’s playing a bunch of minutes, quarterbacking their power play.
The good thing about him, he has a pro mentality, he’s been a captain on the Russian national team. He’s been a leader on other teams.
Really, really good skater; he’s a few years away.
Between Merkley, Ferraro, Kniazev and Hatakka, who played in the World Juniors this year, we’re pretty excited about the young D coming up.
SP: Speaking of your other second-round pick, what are your thoughts on Dillon Hamaliuk’s season? Statistically, it hasn’t been a great leap forward.
DW: Dillon started off really well. Unfortunately, in November, he got mono. He was out for a month and a half. Then he came back a little too early, he came back around Christmas.
He still wasn’t the same, so he sat out a couple more games. He just finally got healthy about three weeks ago and he’s been on a tear. He was February Player of the Month for Kelowna. He’s got 10 points in his last seven games. With them hosting the Memorial Cup this year, I think he’s peaking at the right time.
SP: Have there been any flare-ups from Hamaliuk’s knee surgery last year?
DW: No, the knee was all taken care of. We had our doctors and Ray Tufts look at it.
Like Timo Meier in training camp a few years ago, he catches mono and he’s out for six weeks.
But right now, he’s 100 percent healthy, he’s over the mono, he’s over the knee injury.
SP: Looking at your goaltending, how has Zachary Emond responded to being the number-one in Rouyn-Noranda? It’s also a big year for Mike Robinson, who’s up for a contract.
DW: Emond last year went 24-1 on a Memorial Cup team. Anything he did this year was going to be a letdown, right? (laughs) They traded a lot of guys at the Deadline. They’re very young. But he’s been playing good. We’re happy with Zach.
Mike can earn a contract this year or next year. He’s a senior next year.
He’s a starter at University of New Hampshire. They’re having a good season.
They’re tracking as good, solid prospects. Goalies, you never know. (laughs)
Do we even have a drafted goalie [in the AHL or NHL]? Aaron Dell, [Josef] Korenar, Martin Jones, Zach Sawchenko, [Andrew] Shortridge. None of our goalies were drafted, so who knows? (laughs)
But I love [goaltending coach Evgeni Nabokov]. To give him like five goalies who were all undrafted, I’d love to draft a goalie that Nabby can work with, similar to Emond and Robinson. He hasn’t been able to work with a Sharks-drafted goalie in San Jose for a while.
I can’t say enough about Nabby.
SP: Finally, how is Jake McGrew’s rehab coming along?
DW: He’s back on the ice right now. He wanted to come back and play for Spokane at the end of the season here, but coming off the knee injury, we made a decision together on hey, focus on turning pro next season.
I feel bad for him. He started off this season, eight points in six games, leader on that team, had a really good training camp with us.
Even without the knee injury, he’d need a couple more years in development. But really good kid, and he’s healthy now.