SAN JOSE -– In the past 14 months, Sharks general manager Doug Wilson hasn’t exactly been media shy. Something had to change after his club experienced its lowest of lows in the 2014 playoffs, and he made that known on multiple occasions.
Those who have been paying attention know that the recently completed 2014-15 season wasn’t about trying to win the Stanley Cup -– it was about changing the culture of the dressing room, while concurrently providing younger players more of an opportunity.
It didn’t go very well. Only the dreadful Coyotes and Oilers finished with fewer points in the Western Conference than the 12th place Sharks, and there was an undercurrent of dysfunction flowing through the organization both on and off the ice.
Now that Wilson has changed head coaches and has survived the step backwards with his own job secure, the pressure is now squarely on the shoulders of the 12-year general manager, even though he pooh-poohed a suggestion on Friday that this is the biggest offseason of his tenure. Still, whether by design or not, Wilson turned up the temperature on himself and his staff in his annual pre-draft media availability at Sharks Ice.
"This is probably the most important part of the transition process that we've gone through the last year, is getting to this point,” Wilson said.
In other words, it’s time to make some tangible upgrades to the roster, and get the ship moving in the right direction again. The NHL Entry Draft commences at the end of the week on Friday and Saturday at the home of the Florida Panthers, and the Sharks could make headlines by the time it’s through.
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Agree with his approach or not, Wilson has stuck to the plan he laid out last summer. It was widely known that the Sharks were not going to trade their 2015 first round pick, or any other future assets for a rental player. The team was in sell mode at the March deadline, acquiring some extra draft picks (and center Ben Smith) for Andrew Desjardins, James Sheppard and Tyler Kennedy.
Including this week’s draft and the 2016 draft the Sharks have 17 picks in 14 rounds, and Wilson said there’s a “high percentage” they acquire at least one more pick before Friday. Along with first round picks this year and next, San Jose also has three in the second round (including Colorado’s second rounder in 2016 from the Brad Stuart trade). In 2017, the Sharks have an extra third, sixth and seventh round pick, and all seven of their own.
Wilson will almost assuredly use his first rounder this year, sitting ninth overall, although he left open the possibility of moving up or down as he’s done the last two years. The Sharks traded up to select Mirco Mueller in the first round in 2013, and last year moved down before choosing Nikolay Goldobin.
Those extra picks in Wilson’s pocket will likely be dangled for players that can help now. The general manager confirmed that he’s in the market for help on defense, specifically, and the team is also searching for a new goalie (although Wilson has not officially shut the door on Antti Niemi just yet).
“The picks next year and the following year are very important, too, because that's currency,” Wilson said. “When you talk about currency, it's assets to be used to maybe acquire some pieces.”
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There’s a real possibility that there could be a blockbuster in the works involving one of the team’s core players.
Would aging veterans Joe Thornton and/or Patrick Marleau prefer to relocate to a team that has a better chance of winning in the immediate future? Was Brent Burns shifted back to defense last season in order to increase his trade value? Is Logan Couture still happy here, after he was critical of the team’s “not great” culture? Is Justin Braun expendable after he struggled in the first year after signing a big contract extension? These are all fair questions.
There’s also free agency. Wilson indicated that market is pretty thin but the Sharks have plenty of cap space to play with, sitting approximately $16 million under the limit. They could add a player or two that way.
Wilson has hinted for months that the Sharks could be in a position to take advantage of a club that is up against the cap. Perhaps they are readying an offer sheet or two for a top restricted free agent.
There should be plenty of options, and Wilson will weigh them all leading up to the draft and in the weeks that follow.
"We're putting this team in a position to bounce back and be very competitive come September,” Wilson said. “Will we explore everything? Yeah, we will.”
“You have to give to get, no matter what. Even unrestricted free agency you are giving something –- cap space. There are other teams that are in position where they have to make decisions because cap space is of value. First round picks and second round picks have value. You’re going to have to give up something. Are we willing to do that? Sure we are.”
It’s an important moment in time for the Sharks organization. A large portion of the fan base believes Wilson is more to blame than the players or since-departed coach Todd McLellan for not getting the team over the playoff hump, while creating a rift between the GM's office and the dressing room. There were even some chants of “Fire Wilson” in the final few home games, and some seats at SAP Center were left vacant for the first time in years.
It’s difficult to imagine Wilson surviving another poor campaign. Rebounding and rejoining the playoff party next April is crucial, if not necessary.
"When we talked about going through this and positioning ourselves, it's actions instead of words,” Wilson said.
There have been plenty of words. Now is the time for action.