San Jose Sharks, 2003-present
Pacific Division Titles, 2003-2004, 2007-2011
President’s Trophy, 2008-2009
Playoff Appearances: 2004, 2006-2013
San Jose Sharks GM Doug Wilson is another stalwart presence in the NHL managerial ranks. He is approaching his tenth anniversary as the Sharks GM and has taken the team farther and higher than any other GM in the team’s 22 year history. His illustrious reign as GM of the Sharks is merely one facet in a brilliant, multi-faceted hockey career.
According to my rating system (not counting this present season) Doug Wilson is the fourth best general manager in the NHL today in terms of career value and is fifth best in terms of Average Season Rating. (These rankings will change once this present season is over. Barring a Sharks Stanley Cup win, I expect Wilson’s value and ASR rankings to decline slightly.
To evaluate how Wilson stands amongst his peers in terms of accomplishment my rating system has formed the following conclusions: he was the sixth best GM of the 2000s (between Brian Burke and Bobby Clarke) and (not counting this present season) he is presently tied for fifth with George McPhee for the 2010s.
Doug Wilson is the third best NHL general manager of the 21st century although it is highly likely that he will be supplanted by Dan Bylsma for that role after this present season has been completed.
He was a living legend as a player when he was a blue-liner for the Ottawa 67s. His point production totals in three seasons would later earn him induction in the Ottawa Sports Hall of Fame.
He was a first round draft pick (the sixth pick overall) in the 1977 Amateur draft. Two teams vied for his rights: Chicago in the NHL and the Indianapolis Racers in the WHA. Wilson opted for the Blackhawks and never looked back. He became an impact player immediately, anchoring the blue-line corps with other Hawks defencemen like Darryl Sutter and Dale Tallon (future GMs in their own right); learning managerial intensity at the knee of Bob Pulford and Mike Keenan (and you cannot find two more intense hockey men than those two).
Wilson won the Norris Trophy in 1982 but despite his efforts he, along with his Hawks teammates were doomed to suffer during the Pulford era of playing for a decent hockey team that refused to reach for the stars.
In 1991 Wilson was plucked in the expansion draft by the San Jose Sharks and became their first team captain until he hung up his skates for good in 1993. Wilson served as President of the NHLPA from 1993 to 1997; leading the union through the 1994-1995 lock-out; standing firm against a salary-cap until compromising with the owners to allow a salary-cap and two-way contracts for rookies.
In 1997 he returned to the Sharks when he was hired to become their director of pro player development (serving under GM Dean Lombardi). During that time period the Sharks were slowly improving; slowly shedding their expansion franchise sheen.
In 2003 the bottom fell out when the Sharks finished last in the Pacific Division. Dean Lombardi was out and Doug Wilson became the GM.
Doug Wilson’s early amateur drafts yielded solid results: Joe Pavelski, Matt Carle, Steve Bernier, Milan Michalek, Torrey Mitchell, Devin Setoguchi, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Logan Couture, and Jason Demers were all selected by Wilson but, interestingly, all save for Pavelski, Couture, Demers, and Vlasic were traded away by Wilson. Even more significantly, Wilson’s recent drafts have not yielded any immediate results at all.
His biggest trade came in 2005 when he sent three players to Boston to get sharp-shooter Joe Thornton. Other key acquisitions have been Martin Havlat and Dan Boyle.
To lead these men, Doug Wilson retained Ron Wilson as head coach and, when Wilson failed to reach the Stanley Cup finals, Todd McLellan who led the team to three straight divisional titles and the 2009 President’s trophy; in the process becoming one of the finest head coaches in the game today; ranking among the top 50 according to my rating system. Wilson’s reign as GM is the greatest phase in the history of the San Jose Sharks.
Wilson has a preference for veterans. He coaxed Jeremy Roenick out of retirement in 2007 and signed free agent Rob Blake in 2009. He added Michal Handzus in 2011 and Scott Gomez in 2013.
His biggest free agent signing has to be the steal of goalie Antti Niemi fresh from his 2010 Stanley Cup triumph with Chicago. Niemi has bolstered San Jose in the net.
But there has been a downside too. After 2009 the Sharks have grown older and older and have not effectively replaced its old players with new ones. The Sharks have lost their primacy in the Pacific Division but during this present season struggled to remain in playoff competition until surging strongly at the end to salvage a playoff spot.
Another downside has been Wilson’s inability to manage the Sharks to the Stanley Cup finals. Since he took over the Sharks have earned eight playoff appearances without ever earning an invite to the big dance. (Three of Wilson’s playoff losses came during the conference finals).
2013 marks Doug Wilson’s 9th playoff appearance. If the Sharks fail to reach the finals again then Wilson will earn the dubious honor of being the fourth worst heartbreak GM in NHL history; and the second worst active heartbreak GM after Nashville’s David Poile.
The challenge which confronts Wilson (and Todd McLellan and the Sharks) today is whether they can overcome their age; recapture their youth; and strive for the ultimate prize? If they cannot then it becomes obvious that time is running out on the San Jose Sharks and, quite possibly, for Doug Wilson.
(My next column will feature former Chicago Blackhawks GM the late Tommy Ivan.)