SAN JOSE -– If there was one single moment that stood out in Doug Wilson’s half-hour conference call with the local media on Thursday, it was this:
“This is a team that’s accomplished quite a bit over the last decade, but regular season success has not gotten us to that ultimate playoff success that we all talk about,” Wilson said. “We haven’t gotten to that level. We’ve had [seven] 100-point seasons (since 2003-04), we’ve had three final four appearances, we’ve had 20 playoff rounds. That all sounds nice, and the players and coaches deserve credit for that, but we have not gotten to where we need to get to.
“And, I think to do that, you have to take one step backwards to be in a position to go two steps forward.”
In other words, Thursday’s announced moves of letting former number one defenseman Dan Boyle walk as a pending free agent, cutting ties with a hopeless Marty Havlat, and moving Brent Burns back to defense could be the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to what Wilson has planned over the coming months. Chatter – both internal and external – will surely increase leading up to the NHL Draft in Philadelphia on June 27-28.
It could very well mean end of captain Joe Thornton’s tenure. Ditto Patrick Marleau. It would be hard to view the Sharks as a club drastically different than those “same old Sharks” that routinely have strong regular seasons only to eventually crash and burn on the road to the Stanley Cup, unless one or both of those players were wearing another sweater come October.
Wilson was asked about those players in particular; specifically, how much fault lies with the two veterans that signed nearly identical three-year contract extensions in January.
“First of all, there’s enough blame and responsibility for everybody. But, there has been some success and accomplishments the last few years, too. This most recent one is the one that resonates with us. When it comes to –- you’re talking about specific players -– any details or contracts or conversations I have with any players, [that] will remain in confidence. I’ll leave it at that.”
It’s believed that Thornton and Marleau each have no-trade clauses, but Wilson indicated he has options when it comes to his roster, even though he would not discuss individual contract clauses that may or may not exist. Dany Heatley was traded to Minnesota three years ago when it was believed he had a no-trade clause.
“We don't have that many restrictive contracts, and a lot of the details in those contracts have flexibility and windows to them. Do I feel like we are handcuffed from doing the things that we need to do going forward? Not any more than any other teams," Wilson said.
It seems fairly apparent that Wilson isn’t going to trade any of his younger assets or draft picks to make a quick fix. The moves that will be made will be for the long-term health of the franchise, which has qualified for the NHL playoffs for 10 straight seasons. And, hopefully, the regular season drop off won’t be dramatic while a new, younger leadership core develops its own identity.
That process started, Wilson said, prior to the 2013 trade deadline, when Douglas Murray and Ryane Clowe were shipped out and Raffi Torres was added, among other transactions.
“We try to reconstruct this team on the go while trying to win at the same time,” Wilson said. “Not the easiest thing to do, but we made those statements last year that we would not be trading our younger players or our first-round picks while we're going through this phase, and we stuck with it. Good or bad, we stuck with it.”
“The decisions we make will be purely hockey based. There's some players that want more. They're demanding more opportunity. We have some young players that are coming in. … We're going younger. That's part of it."
The Sharks do have several youthful cornerstones already in place. Part of the Wilson’s reasoning in retaining his coaching staff – including Larry Robinson, who is apparently not ready to retire – is that he believes the Sharks’ up-and-comers are on the right path.
“You can also clearly see the impact [the coaches] had in developing those key younger players that we believe in,” Wilson said. “If there was lack of development in [Joe] Pavelski and [Logan] Couture and [Tomas] Hertl and [Tommy] Wingels and [Matt] Nieto and [Justin] Braun and [Marc-Edouard] Vlasic, that would be an issue,” Wilson said. “We've turned this team over to that core of players.”
It’s a core that Wilson hopes can accomplish the playoff success that the current group, led by Thornton, Marleau and Boyle, has failed to achieve again and again and again. That includes this year’s miserable choke job against Los Angeles.
“I expect our young players to take this kick in the ass as probably one of the great extreme learning moments to say, you know what? That’s not happening again,” Wilson said of the historic defeat to Los Angeles.
Ultimately, Wilson’s actions over the next several weeks will reveal more of his inner monologue than any conference call would ever do. He already seems to have decided for himself why the message from the coaching staff didn’t get through when the team needed to find that extra gear to put away the Kings.
“It's a very good question. When the execution is not followed through there is responsibility for everybody, whether it is cultural, whether it is individual players. Whatever happened –- I have my opinions on it.
“Certainly, in talking with certain players and coaches, there is shared responsibility. When you see some of the changes that take place, I think going forward you'll see an answer.”