It’s been a redeeming 10 months for Doug Wilson, who has overseen a resurgent club that again looks like it could make some noise in the postseason.
After last season’s debacle that ended with chants of “Fire Wilson” resonating from an increasingly reduced SAP Center crowd, Wilson went out and upgraded his starting goalie in Martin Jones; added Paul Martin on defense as a partner for Brent Burns with generally positive results; and brought in Joel Ward, who has surpassed expectations offensively and fit in seamlessly in a locker room that needed a change of atmosphere.
In a couple under-the-radar yet shrewd moves he unearthed rookie Joonas Donskoi, who has come out of nowhere to become a key offensive cog, and signed free agent Dainius Zubrus for some veteran forward depth and leadership.
Pete DeBoer seems like the right choice as head coach, too. The 47-year-old has the respect of the veterans while forcing some of the team’s younger players to prove they belong in the NHL.
At 13-2-3 in their last 18, the Sharks are one of the hottest teams in the league thanks scoring from all four lines, solid goaltending from Jones, steady play from their blue line and outstanding special teams.
Wilson’s publicly stated plan of taking “one step backwards” in 2014-15 in order to take two steps forward this season looks like it’s coming together.
It is, however, still early, as anyone who’s watched the Sharks for the past decade can attest. And, the next 10 days leading up to the Feb. 29 trade deadline may be the most important of Wilson’s 13-year tenure as Sharks general manager.
After all, a first round playoff series loss to Anaheim, Los Angeles or anyone else would essentially nullify any positive feelings that Wilson has helped to generate since the Sharks missed the party for the first time under his watch last season.
The way the Sharks are constructed, this is a team that simply has to win now. Not only are they the seventh-oldest club in the NHL, so many of their key players are over the age of 30 in Joe Thornton (36), Patrick Marleau (36), Ward (35), Martin (34), Joe Pavelski (31) and Brent Burns (30).
It’s difficult to imagine the Sharks being a significantly better club next year, regardless of how this season unfolds. In terms of franchise mainstays, Thornton is still a beast, but Marleau already is in decline, and it’s looking more and more doubtful that he’ll be here next season even if he remains past the deadline.
Logan Couture, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Justin Braun, Burns, Pavelski, Ward and Martin have all likely peaked, too. Tomas Hertl has yet to prove he can play center, where he was supposed to be by now.
And there don’t appear to be any can’t-miss prospects in the pipeline, thanks to some traded picks and thin recent drafts classes. The jury is still very much out on former first-rounders Mirco Mueller and Nikolay Goldobin, as neither is exactly tearing it up in the AHL. According to hockeysfuture.com, the Sharks are ranked just 23rd in the NHL in terms of players in the system.
That’s a big part of the reason this upcoming deadline is so critical, as the club may still be one or two key injuries away from catastrophe. They don’t have a reliable backup goalie. Without one of their top four defenseman, they are 1-6-1. On offense, finding a winger that’s a more dangerous scorer than Matt Nieto or Tommy Wingels – who was hurt on Thursday night – would also come in handy. There don’t seem to be any players in the system who can fill those potential holes.
The pressure is on Wilson to do as much as he can to prepare the team for a long playoff run, and that means adding to the current group.
It’s not going to be easy, though. Wilson is already down his first round pick in 2016 (Jones trade) as well as his third rounder (Brenden Dillon trade). Does he dangle a prospect or another high round pick in the hopes of landing a rental player? That’s a decision he’s almost certainly weighing.
It could be a fascinating week and a half. It could be a dud. But it’s a significant moment in time for Wilson, who, for as much good as he’s done lately, probably needs his team to do something in the playoffs to keep his seat from getting scorching hot in the offseason. And it won’t be from the abundant California sun.