San Jose Sharks: How Doug Wilson Can Avoid Repeating Last Offseason's Mistakes
During the summer of 2011, San Jose Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson was arguably the most active executive in the NHL. He replaced eight regulars in his team's lineup after falling short of Stanley Cup aspirations once again.
Unfortunately, not all change is good change, and the 2011-12 season for the Sharks was a strong reminder of that. The team was worse offensively, less consistent defensively and ultimately not as good as it had been during the previous season. The Sharks finished with 43 wins, 96 points and one playoff win—all team lows since the lockout.
This summer—after an even more disappointing season—Doug Wilson will be tempted to bring even more change to San Jose. However, he should look no further than last summer for a cautionary tale on how an offseason of change can lead to a season of new problems.
As no one has inside knowledge of specific trades that are on the table besides a few NHL executives, no one can tell Doug Wilson specifically what to do. Instead, looking at last offseason as a sort of anti-blueprint, we can examine what principles Wilson needs to follow this offseason in order to steer his franchise back in the right direction.
Counter "Win-Now" Moves with "Win-Later" Moves
The Sharks are still too loaded with talent to go into all-out rebuild mode. Despite a seventh place finish in 2011-12, they are a couple good moves away from being Stanley Cup contenders again. That being said, the team cannot be certain it will get there next year and as a result must prepare for the distant future as well as the immediate future.
The Philadelphia Flyers did this last offseason. They made win-now moves, signing Ilya Bryzgalov and Jaromir Jagr. However, they didn't go all-out, trading star forwards Mike Richards and Jeff Carter for top prospects. The result was a team that remained a Cup Contender this year that looks like an even better team moving forward.
Last offseason, the Sharks moved some quality young forwards for Brent Burns. While this was a solid "win-now" move, they could have countered that by trading Dany Heatley for some good young players rather than Martin Havlat. If Doug Wilson does bring in a Rick Nash this summer, he should counter that by moving an over-30 star—a player who was not involved in the Nash deal of course—for some young talent.
Don't Gut One Part of Team, Even If It Means Strengthening Another
After consecutive Conference Finals losses to teams with better blue lines and top-six speed, Doug Wilson knew the Sharks needed defensive help. He targeted the best defenseman on the trade block—Brent Burns—and he landed him. However, the trade cost Devin Setoguchi, one of San Jose's speediest, most explosive wingers.
Wilson, knowing that he needed to regain that top-six speed, moved the slow Dany Heatley for the speedy Martin Havlat. However, San Jose lost a sniper and a net-front presence in this trade. San Jose needed to improve its defense, and Wilson shouldn't be faulted for that. They then needed forward speed, so Wilson did what was necessary. However, the Sharks cannot afford to get stuck in that same loop this offseason.
If Dan Boyle can net the Sharks a young forward, then the team is back to where it was with Setoguchi and without Burns. If Patrick Marleau gives the team Rick Nash, then they regain Heatley's size and lose Marleau's speed. Lateral moves like this will not strengthen the team significantly; San Jose should either make trades that bring holistic improvement or not make any trades at all.
Be on Receiving End of Package Deal
This is the third straight slide where I'm going to talk about the Brent Burns trade. I promise it will stop soon.
Last offseason, Doug Wilson knew that without Rob Blake and with an aging Dan Boyle, the team needed to find their No. 1 defenseman of the future. They also needed immediate help in their top four. So Wilson killed two birds with one stone, trading for Brent Burns. Of course, those two birds actually required three stones to kill, as the Sharks traded Devin Setoguchi, Charlie Coyle and Zack Phillips.
Had Brent Burns been a bust, San Jose would have been screwed. It would be down three guys who could be top-six forwards for years and have little to show for it.
Think about the trade that St. Louis and Colorado pulled off during the 2010-11 season. The Avalanche wanted a future franchise defenseman, so it went after the Blues' Erik Johnson. St. Louis asked for potential star winger Chris Stewart in return, but it also made Colorado throw in rookie defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk.
Johnson has been a bust in Colorado, and Stewart has been a bust in St. Louis. However, the Blues have emerged as clear winners of the trade, as Kevin Shattenkirk has become an excellent player. The package deal was the key here; the Blues hedged its bets when moving Johnson, a high-quality player. Similarly, should San Jose trade an ultra-talented underachiever like Patrick Marleau, it would be wise to get multiple players in return.
Focus on Depth Players Early
This is the final time I'm going to mention the Brent Burns trade.
The first move Doug Wilson made last offseason (the Burns trade on draft day) was also the most major. The team made another major move (the Havlat trade) just over a week later. Later into the summer, Wilson decided to go about improving his forward depth. The problem was that it was too late. Many quality depth players had already been signed, re-signed, and traded. San Jose had already moved its most valuable trade chips.
As a result, the team ended up with less than desirable depth signings. Michal Handzus, Brad Winchester, Jim Vandermeer and Colin White hardly screamed "STANLEY CUP!" at anyone, and without a vastly improved core, the Sharks were a worse team in 2011-12.
By contrast, the Washington Capitals kept its core intact despite an undesirable finish to the 2010-11 season. Rather than messing with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, the Caps aggressively pursued Troy Brouwer, Roman Hamrlik, Joel Ward and Jeff Halpern. The improvement at the bottom trickled up through the top, and it's currently paying playoff dividends.
With a good number of fixture-type players locked up (Burns, Joe Thornton, Logan Couture, Antti Niemi), San Jose must not get caught up in bringing another core guy. Sure, if the right trade presents itself, Wilson should bite. But nothing would make the Sharks better than winning the race to the mid-level players this offseason...the guys that the Washington Capitals gobbled up last year.
Get Younger at All Costs
The San Jose Sharks are an old team. Dan Boyle, Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton—the team's three best players—are all at least 32. Michal Handzus, Douglas Murray, Martin Havlat and Ryane Clowe will all be on the wrong side of 30 by the start of next season.
It's pretty simple: The Sharks cannot get better without getting younger. They have as much talent on their roster as anyone. The Detroit Red Wings are another team stacked with talent. Yet both teams are on a steady decline. This is not due to a lack of talent; it's due to a lack of youth.
If the Sharks get older this offseason, they will suffer for it. They can't improve the current talent level on the roster (besides giving up MORE draft picks), so any attempt to do so would be a move in the wrong direction. If they get older, they will not win a Stanley Cup next season. It doesn't matter if they trade Logan Couture for Chris Pronger, Joe Pavelski for Jarome Iginla or 10 future first round picks for Nicklas Lidstrom. An old team will lose gas as the playoffs progress and will be even worse in each successive season.
So San Jose must get younger this offseason whatever that entails. Because really, it's all they can do.
Find Right Coaching Staff for Roster
Doug Wilson decided to move his roster in a more defensive direction last offseason and this past trading deadline. Players like Martin Havlat, Michal Handzus, Andrew Murray, Daniel Winnik, T.J. Galiardi and Dominic Moore were all brought in to make the Sharks better equipped to play the speed and defense-first style Wilson desired.
Todd McLellan, on the other hand, did not desire anything like this. He was brought in before the 2008 season to turn the Sharks into the Detroit Red Wings—a puck-possession team that relied on offensive zone time, pressure and strong net-front play. The current Sharks roster does not mesh with McLellan's style any longer, and a new coach is necessary if Wilson wants to use the talent and payroll on his team efficiently.
Doug Wilson can keep working and working to improve his team on paper. If he thinks that the team needs defense, he can pursue anybody from Ryan Suter to Brad Stuart. If he wants a top-six winger he can make a play for Alexander Semin or Zach Parise. If he wants a third line center, he can sign Jarret Stoll. Unfortunately, not every player works in every system, and these moves could and will fall flat without the right coaching staff in place.