Famous last words from Doug Wilson?
“I’m also excited to have an Erik Karlsson be 100 percent, coming in the prime of his career, to play the way he’s going to be.”
On the day the NHL officially announced the end of the 2019-20 regular season — and the conclusion of the San Jose Sharks’ difficult campaign — the San Jose general manager spoke on a Zoom conference call, looking forward to next year, whenever that comes.
At the heart of Wilson’s optimism is the league’s highest-paid defenseman, fresh off a disappointing Year One of his eight-year contract.
“He’s a driving force for us,” Wilson said. “He’s going to have all the time now to get healthy, to get that elite-level fitness that great players have. This extra time for him will be very beneficial.”
On the other hand, Karlsson is also about to turn 30 on May 31 and is three seasons removed from his last Norris Trophy finalist finish in 2017. That’s not to mention ankle surgery in June 2017 and groin surgery in May 2019 which have, at times, chipped away at Karlsson’s superior skating chops.
Wilson is putting his own job on the line, counting on Karlsson to once again challenge for the title of best defenseman in the world.
Can Karlsson do it? For what it’s worth, since the Norris Trophy was first awarded in 1954, 46 percent of its winners (30 of 65) and 41 percent of its finalists (79 of 195) have been 30 or older.
Karlsson can look no further than his own blueline for a model of aging gracefully. 35-year-old Brent Burns has three 30-plus Norris finalist finishes to his credit, taking home the honor in his age-31 campaign.
But unlike Karlsson, Burns isn’t being asked to bounce back at 30. Instead, Wilson is hoping that the 35-year-old can turn back time, also blaming injury, in part, for the blueliner’s sub-standard campaign: “He had a couple things that were dinged up.”
Since 1954, however, just 14 percent of Norris Trophy winners (9 of 65) and 11 percent of its finalists (22 of 195) have been 35 or older.
It’s a tall order for Karlsson and Burns to fill, but considering San Jose’s salary cap limitations — Wilson noted that the cap is not expected to rise — the team will need its biggest moneymakers to pay off next season.
“A lot of our best players have to have their best years,” Wilson acknowledged.
It’ll help if they can get some help up front. However, it won’t be Jonathan Dahlen coming to the rescue. The 22-year-old, second in the Allsvenskan in scoring last year, will be returning to Timrå IK next season instead of coming to North America to compete for an NHL job.
“We supported it. We think he’ll go and take another step,” Wilson said. “He’s going to spend next year in Sweden, we’ll probably see him at the end of the year next year.”
By signing with Timrå IK, Dahlen will also be remaining in the second-tier Swedish league, which appears to be a questionable decision, on the surface, for the former blue-chip prospect.
Regardless, Wilson is committed to Dahlen, whenever the impending RFA is ready to return to North America: “We think he’s a guy who can be very important for us. He will be our property going forward.”
Wilson did share good news about Tomas Hertl’s health. The All-Star centerman, whose season was cut short by a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee, seems to be on track for a full recovery: “He’s doing extremely well. He’s been through this before. His work ethic has been phenomenal.”
So who else might help Karlsson and Burns?
Wilson offered up John Leonard. “Led all of college hockey in scoring.”
How about Marcus Sorensen? “Two years ago, he scored 17 goals. You’ll like to see him to get back to that level.”
Or will be 41-year-old UFA Joe Thornton? “Not too many days go by where we don’t talk. There’s nobody who loves this game, organization and team more than Jumbo. He knows how we feel about him.”
Wilson also mentioned Noah Gregor, Joel Kellman and Alexander True, among others, as possibly providing quality minutes up front.
As for Martin Jones, Wilson noted: “He needs to put the work in this summer to get his explosiveness back.”
In a lot of ways, the Sharks might be running back the band that failed to qualify for a 24-team playoff. This includes interim head coach Bob Boughner, who hasn’t been confirmed for the permanent role, but has “inroads” for the job, according to Wilson: “Take a look at some of the coaches around the league that have been very successful in their second coaching opportunity, whether it be Bruce Cassidy or Mike Sullivan or Craig Berube. There’s a learning experience or journey that guys like that went through.”
That said, a lot can change from now to next season. For example, San Jose has three picks in the top-60 of the 2020 Draft that can be parlayed into NHL-ready talent. And perhaps most importantly, they have a GM who’s proven the naysayers wrong before: “I want this team to do the same things they did in 2003. People said, well, this team is not going to be able to do this. Well, they did. ‘15.
“We did not meet our expectations this year. But I do know this. We got some really good players that care a lot. Every year is a different year, a different team.”