FTF Interviews Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson: Part Three
Up in Penticton at the Young Stars tournament I had an opportunity to sit down with Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson to discuss the game of hockey and the upcoming 2011-2012 season. Spread out over two days, the interview covered a myriad of topics including management philosophy, scouting, trades, player evaluation, statistics, and contract negotiations. For an archive of parts 1 and 2, please click here. Today's material covers the NHL rulebook, contract negotiations, free agency, player development, and drafting.
Special thanks to Doug Wilson, Scott Emmert, Tom Holy, and Ryan Stenn for the opportunity. Enjoy.
Last season when Joe Thornton was suspended, the organization was strong in their assertion that a two game suspension for that type of hit was not appropriate. Following that, have you been pleased with the discussions surrounding Rule 48, whether it be at GM meetings or otherwise?
You have the opportunity to air your thoughts, and as long as you have that forum, yes we do. We think our League is very proactive in trying to make this a good, safe environment for our players while continuing to keep what makes our game unique. The Thornton situation, we spoke at that time because it was—we felt the way we did because of the uniqueness of what occurred. We felt it was similar to another hit that took place between Willie Mitchell and Jonathan Toews.
We support the new rule, we support what we’re trying to accomplish in this League in order to make it a safe environment, but within that, there are situations that we took a position on. We felt that way, we spoke our mind, we supported our player, and once that decision is made, you have to move forward. Unfortunately their player was injured and is still injured today. We don’t like to see that happen.
Is there any rule in the NHL that you would like to add or change?
When we did this rules package [coming out of the lockout], you have to understand the impact of all the different rules and how they are connected. So when we wrote up the rules package it wasn’t just "one rule, one rule", it was how many of them would take place. The game has sped up. You eliminated the hooking and the holding and some things that took place. I was not a big supporter of the trapezoid—
Especially as a former defenseman.
Well even for anybody. I would like to see that removed. I think there’s been some injuries that have happened just outside of the trapezoid, where there is a hesitation. When you removed the holding [high in the zone] coupled with the ability to dump the puck in and keep the goalie in the net—in the past, if you didn’t dump the puck in properly and the goalie was able to play it, well, that was your fault. So penalizing the goaltenders to play the puck, when the puck lies just outside the trapezoid, the defenseman kind of hesitates and the goalie just kind of hesitates—we’ve seen some collisions take place there.
With the rule where if there’s any contact on an icing call, in that situation, a penalty can be called, a major penalty can be called, players have been suspended-- we’re always trying to stay ahead of the curve. But you have to be open to see how something truly plays out and we don’t often have enough GM meetings or times to revisit it quickly, along with the time to see how something truly plays out. I do think our group has always been able to have the discussion and say, "We are going to want to revisit this because here is what happened."
Would you be in support of more GM meetings throughout the year? Do you think that is feasible within the schedule?
I like the fact that our GM meetings are after the Deadline now, so your focus can be on the game and you’re not looking at 29 other guys and saying, "Where’s a deal that we can make here" [laughs]. So I like that, I like the fact that people can speak their minds in there, particularly newer GM’s that have played recently, several of them under these new rules. I think last year was a very open and healthy conversation where new ideas and new thoughts spurred discussion.
The Sharks have stayed fairly consistent with establishing a "bridge" contract for RFA’s. Players like Clowe, Pavelski, Setoguchi, and Couture are recent examples of that, where a 1-2 year deal follows the end of their ELC. How important of an internal policy is that for you?
We want to treat all the players well, and treat them all consistently as they come throughout the system. And we want them to earn their ice time, earn their equity, and you want compensation to match performance where it is within the system. The most important thing we do is make this a place where players want to play, and treat them well. That’s what we’ve tried to accomplish.
The fact that we’ve been fairly consistent in treating our players, especially under this system, we think that’s important. It applies to new players coming into this team as well. For example, Brent Burns. He gave us a fair contract, a team-building contract, that was a great testament to Brent as well as his teammates. He respected what several of his teammates had done formerly and that allows us to keep the group together. Brent is a player who could have been a UFA a year from now… well, you’ve seen some of the recent contracts. So players understand what we’re trying to do, and they make that commitment to their teammates.
Do you feel it is becoming easier for you to attract players due to the recent success of the club?
I work for a tremendous ownership group that allows us to do things the right way, whether it be the amazing plane that we have or the environment they create. Another thing is our fans, where we have a sold out building every night. Players want to come to a place and they want to win.
There is also something to be said of continuity. When we went and interviewed Todd, I think we sat down with 20 or 21 coaches, you knew that he was comfortable with high expectations. He comes from a great environment, worked for Jacques Lemaire in Minnesota, comes from the Detroit organization with Kenny Holland and Steve Yzerman. When we interviewed him, we knew this was the type of coach that would fit long-term for us. It took him a year to get to know the players, we got beat that first year, but since then we have seen a lot of growth. He wants players to succeed, he wants players to do well, and he and his staff work very hard to see players reach their potential.
Historically the Sharks haven’t been very active on July 1st, and I know in the past you’ve said—
I may argue with you on that one.
I would like to hear that [laughs].
Where’s Patty Marleau fit in that? Where’s Joe Thornton fit in that? They were free agents.
Fair enough, but in terms of outside acquisitions.
Well, emotions—what you try to do is dedicate your dollars. So when you dedicate the dollars and terms to people that you know, where they are it in their careers, that is a big part of free agency. When we make trades, whether it be Danny Boyle, Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley when we acquired him, Brent Burns, there is a definite UFA component to them. So you’re always looking at what could be out there, what are the odds and all those things, but sometimes with your own players you have to decide in the macro [UFA] pool where they fit, where they are in their careers. And so that’s why when you asked that initially, I feel that we’ve been very active.
Your question is an excellent question, but for us, it comes back to the dedication of dollars and making decisions on our players, looking at other players that could potentially end up here. And in this day and age, with supply and demand, you’ve seen particularly over the last couple of years not many top-tier players make it to UFA.
Is it partly related to the massive amount of dollars being thrown around?
Well, supply and demand drives it. So the one’s who do make it to UFA, the contracts they demand are…healthy [laughs]. In many ways, not just dollars but also in terms of structure.
No trade clauses, dollars in different years--
Front loading. And people are entitled to do what they do. But you just have to truly understand how we dedicate our dollars, how you do contracts, and not judging anyone else, but for example if we worked eight years to do contracts in a certain way and all of a sudden we bring in someone from the outside and treat them completely different, well that will have an impact too.
Director of Scouting Tim Burke and the Sharks scouting staff has been extremely influential in the team's success
Do you feel that certain positions develop at different rates? For example when defenseman hit the age of 28 they stop progressing at huge strides each season, while forwards those huge strides on a year to year basis seem to end earlier at around 25.
I think historically that is accurate. I will also say that environment and the individual player has a huge factor in that. If you’re playing with good players, and you’re playing in a role that is something that you’re ready to handle, a player can take those strides at a younger age. A lot of players learn by osmosis. A lot of our players learn by seeing, if you’re practicing every day with good players you are in an environment where skill development is important.
Especially in this League under these rules, you see that younger players are probably having the greatest impact they’ve had in this game. If you go back to some of the players who helped the Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks win the Cup recently, they had special young players who were big factors in their teams success. Whether that’s playing in international events earlier, players having the training, things that are available to them to fast track their evolution as a player.
Teams are also responsible for that. It is our responsibility to give players the tools they need to succeed, especially in their first 3-4 years of their career.
How important do you feel skating is in the modern NHL, especially with the rules changing following the lockout?
Your athletic ability is certainly a big component of how you play the game, but there are certain players who play very fast without skating at full speed all the time. Logan Couture is a classic example. The great players in this game think the game so well, where the puck is going, not where the puck is at, the play and the positioning. Players who have a very high hockey IQ play the game at a very high speed, not always just through foot speed.
A classic example of a guy who illustrates this is Igor Larianov. Igor just played at such a high level mentally that he was always at the right place that he didn’t always have to be skating at full speed. So yes, skating speed and foot speed are components you need to have, players like Marleau and Havlat are examples of that, but just as important is how you think the game.
Is that related to how you and your scouting staff have located players in the draft who the knock, or one of the primary knocks, against them, has been their skating ability? Guys like Pavelski and Couture and Coyle, who some scouts may have shied away from because of their skating. Is that something you feel you can teach within your organization?
Sure, I think you can always elevate a guys level of efficiency. But when people say that Logan Couture wasn’t a good skater, it really wasn’t based off anything. There was a perception, but if you test Logan, he’s a very good skater. Joe Pavelski is not a naturally great skater. But again, he plays the game so well between his ears that he’s always in the right place. I think people are always, not necessarily quick to judge, but they’ll take perceptions and those [perceptions] live longer than they truly should and they’re not always based on reality.
In the past you have shown a willingness to go after college free agents. Is there something specific about a player coming out of college that you like, whether it be physical maturity or time spent playing the game compared to a guy in Juniors?
Good question, but let me clarify. We don’t look at one area more than another, whether it be Brandon Mashinter who was a junior free agent or a college player. We are open to explore and don’t always say we’ll look "Here, here, here". We will look where the best players are and we approach each individual player is its own unique situation.
Compared to the rest of the League however, I know Brian Burke is another guy who has shown a history of this, it seems to me that you guys are one of the most active teams in that area.
A lot of that ties into where we’ve been drafting and how we’ve moved those picks which are late picks. We’re always looking to replenish our system, 10-12 players whether that be at the Draft or in Juniors or in college free agency. Some from international players.
Probably through the cycle there has been maybe more players that we have liked that are college free agents than other areas. We sit in our meetings and say "How can we get better" and we have six picks that year, late first round, not going to be a strong draft, and for our purposes, we say a second or third might be better.
People will say "They’re drafting players from here or here" but if it’s a quality organization certainly you are going to look there. If you’re acquiring a player through trade, if they have a good history of drafting and developing and bringing them up in structure that’s a good thing. You look at the coaches that have been there. We factor that in because whether it be college or NHL team—
Or a country like Germany where you have been active.
Right, there are certain things that you look at and you want to know the history and track that the player has come through. Who has either been involved in their development or coaching, that definitely has an impact.
And on the other side, players that may have not been in a healthy place, whatever it may be, you look at them and say okay, what do you see in this player? We’re going to assume that they may be completely untrained, and we look to see if there is something there that we can work with. So you do and try and factor in those things, because you can get bogged down entirely on analytics and say, "Geez none of this makes sense" but then you go in and see a player that has been on his third game in four nights, he’s got no support, and he’s trying to do too much. So his stats aren’t very good.
Take Danny Boyle. Terrific player, but sometimes he’ll go and try to do too much and he can get in the way of himself. Those types of players you like but you’ll also realize you have to work with them to put them in a good environment and make them realize that they don’t have to carry the day. All of a sudden that type of player can flourish.
So we try and include all of those things in that situation.
That concludes our three part interview with Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson. To read parts 1 and 2, please click here.
Thanks again to Scott Emmert, Tom Holy, and Ryan Stenn for all their hard work in making this happen. And most importantly, thank you dear reader for all of your support-- we couldn't have done it without you.