SAN JOSE -- It was, quite possibly, a make-or-break year for general manager Doug Wilson, who took the brunt of the criticism from the fan base for a number of different reasons after the Sharks 10-year playoff run ended last season. Another playoff-free spring amid mounting attendance problems might have spelled the end.
Instead, Wilson had perhaps his best 12 months of his front office career, overseeing the organization’s resurgence and first-ever trip to the Stanley Cup Final. Nearly every move he made worked out.
Consider: Martin Jones looks like the next franchise goalie. Paul Martin and Joel Ward provided depth and experience on the blue line and at forward, respectively. Free agent rookie Joonas Donskoi could be a future 25-goal, 50-point scorer. Dainius Zubrus and Nick Spaling were upgrades over young players not yet ready for the NHL. Roman Polak struggled in the Final, but was an important piece down the stretch and in the first three rounds in a heavy Western Conference.
All of the key cogs are locked up or under team control for at least another season, too.
Wilson, of course, infamously dubbed the Sharks as a “tomorrow team” after the playoff collapse to the Kings in 2014. “The rebuild is committed to,” he said that June. What happened over those following 12 months wasn’t a rebuild so much as it was a dysfunctional mess, with the general manager, head coach Todd McLellan, and franchise center Joe Thornton and other players all trading barbs – either publicly or privately – as the team finished in 12th of 14th place in the Western Conference.
Did Wilson ever imagine that it could turn around so quickly?
"I don't think there was any doubt that we were going to bounce back because of the players in this room, and the character,” he said on Monday, the day after the Sharks lost to the Penguins. “You're a product of experiential learning. I don't think anybody in life that I know that's successful hasn't skinned their knees, built a little scar tissue, and built off of it.
“This group showed what they're made of. We had some people come in that certainly enhanced and added to it, both players and coaching staff, throughout the organization.”
That includes coach Pete DeBoer, who was maybe the best acquisition Wilson made last summer. Although it took about three months for the Sharks to truly adapt to DeBoer’s preferred style, while dealing with the significant loss of Logan Couture, DeBoer gained the respect of the veteran players while making young players earn their playing time.
DeBoer also clearly had a hand in shaping the Sharks’ roster, something that McLellan was never afforded. Nearly all of the moves the Sharks made after DeBoer’s hiring can be traced back to DeBoer or a member of his staff in some way, shape or form.
It’s not difficult to imagine DeBoer and McLellan at the World Championship last spring, as part of Team Canada’s coaching staff, having discussions about Wilson’s managerial style. Saying Wilson and McLellan weren’t on the same page at the end of last season is an understatement, as McLellan was frustrated with the tremendous deficiency of depth that Wilson and the front office had saddled him with for years.
To Wilson’s credit, though, indications are he changed his modus operandi after he hired DeBoer, and the organization was better off because of it. DeBoer himself was quick to credit Wilson and team owner Hasso Plattner for all being on that proverbial same page.
“It starts with your ownership, right? Hasso has been fantastic,” DeBoer said. “It’s: ‘what do you need?’ There’s no questions asked.
“Doug and his staff I thought had a great list as far as acquisitions go to help us. That was supplemented by some of the information [from] talking to the coaches about some guys that we’ve had before. It worked well.”
For the record, Plattner, during his rare public appearances, always backed Wilson, including on Jan. 19 at the Sharks’ 25th anniversary celebration. Although, he did quantify his support then by telling the media with a chuckle that if he was unhappy with Wilson, he “would tell him that. Not you, but him.”
He stood by Wilson as the general manager stumbled his way through last season’s unpleasantness, and this year supported him financially, too, as the Sharks decided to load up.
“Doug asked me for basically the right to go for it, and he went, he found reinforcements,” Plattner told CSN after Sunday’s loss. “There’s nothing to complain about, except to be sorry that we just didn’t make it.”
The dynamic brings hope for next season and beyond, as the Sharks have reestablished themselves among the NHL’s elite. The coach and the general manager have a solid working relationship, and the owner is there to open his wallet.
That brief rebuild, or whatever you want to call it, may simply go down as an unpleasant blip on the radar that fortunately didn’t end up being an incoming missile.
“Where we came from, the terrible loss against the Kings, then not making the playoffs, to reaching the Stanley Cup Final – we can all be very proud of this team,” Plattner said.