San Jose Sharks general manager Doug Wilson has an exceptional case for the Hockey Hall of Fame. It became even more apparent how foolish his exclusion is following the selection of the most recent class.
I’ll note two individuals with quality resumes who were selected to enter the Hockey Hall of Fame. Jim Rutherford enters for his work as an executive, first with the Hartford Whalers/Carolina Hurricanes franchise and currently with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Sergei Zubov had a long a productive career as a defenseman playing mostly for the Dallas Stars, but also for the New York Rangers and the Penguins.
Doug Wilson and the Hockey Hall of Fame
One can make cogent arguments that Wilson has been a better executive than Rutherford and was a better defenseman than Zubov. In short, not only is Wilson qualified for the Hall of Fame, but he is qualified in two major areas – a true rarity which merits far greater respect than it has gotten.
I’ll start with this. I am not arguing against either Rutherford or Zubov and their selection. This about making reasonable comparisons.
The Merits of Jim Rutherford
We’ll begin with Rutherford. Many cited his top credentials as his three Stanley Cup championships. One in Carolina, two with Pittsburgh.
Rutherford did good and important work with the Penguins enabling them to win back-to-back championships. But the high-end talent was not acquired on Rutherford’s watch; that occurred under his predecessors. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Marc-Andre Fleury and a handful of other soon-to-be important players were part of the Pens organization prior to Rutherford’s 2014 arrival. With elite talent in the prime of their careers, the Penguins had plenty to work with. They made the playoffs eight seasons in a row before Rutherford’s arrival. In Rutherford’s five seasons in Pittsburgh, the Pens have made the playoffs each time and won nine playoff series.
Rutherford deserves credit for taking a very good, very talented team and helping them become a great team. This is no small task. But to borrow a metaphor from baseball, Rutherford started with the Pens when they’d already reached third base.
At Carolina and Hartford
Rutherford began his executive work with the Hartford Whalers in 1994. He stuck with the struggling franchise as it moved to Carolina. In all, Rutherford spent 20 years as a team executive. Fourteen times, his teams failed to make the playoffs. They earned a playoff berth six times and won nine playoff series including a Stanley Cup in 2006. Credit Rutherford with building the team. Unlike in Pittsburgh, he didn’t start on third base here. He had to work his way from the bottom to the top with a franchise which wasn’t in great shape when he joined.
Comparing Rutherford and Wilson
In sum, Rutherford’s teams have made the playoffs 11 times, winning 18 playoff series in his 25 seasons.
Wilson took over the Sharks in 2003. His teams have made the playoffs 14 times in 15 seasons, winning 16 playoffs series.
Unlike Rutherford, who inherited exceptional talent in Pittsburgh, Wilson had no such advantage in San Jose. Though the team was not a basket case upon Wilson’s arrival, the top-end talent was limited. Further, the Sharks drafts in the four years prior to Wilson’s arrival proved underwhelming. Those drafts yielded only four bonafide NHL players (Christian Ehrhoff, Ryane Clowe, Douglas Murray, and Marcel Goc) who combined to never to earn even a single All-Star Game appearance.
Wilson would turn the Sharks into a perennial contender without the opportunity to get elite talent through high draft picks. In Wilson’s tenure, the Sharks have never had a top-five draft selection. Rutherford selected in the top five on five occasions with Carolina and Hartford. In Pittsburgh, he inherited three players selected either first or second in their draft class.
Doug Wilson’s Trades
Wilson acquired talent in other ways, notably by trade. On this front, he’s been stellar, acquiring and then retaining, among others: Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson, Dan Boyle, Martin Jones, and Joe Thornton. He is the only NHL executive to have traded for a player who subsequently won a Norris Trophy (Burns) and another who won the Hart Trophy (Thornton).
Though many comparisons come with caveats, at least one is essentially apples-to-apples: the drafts of Wilson and Rutherford where they both participated. I’ll stick to those from 2003-2013, years Rutherford drafted for Carolina (it is harder to quantify more recent drafts with only a few players having meaningful NHL careers to this point). The Sharks finished ahead of Carolina in the standings in all but one season, meaning Rutherford had the upper hand in the draft. But Wilson has gotten superior results. Thirteen of Wilson’s selections crossed the 500 game mark, Rutherford nine. Seventeen of Wilson’s picks crossed the 100 point mark, just 10 for Rutherford.
Rutherford’s top choices include forwards Eric Staal, Andrew Ladd and Jeff Skinner along with defenseman Jaccob Slavin. Wilson’s include forwards Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl with defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic. There’s a fair argument here on which general manager selected the better top-end players. But there is this: Rutherford’s four best picks are a cumulative minus-72, Wilson’s a plus-308.
Relative to Rutherford, there is a reasoned argument Wilson accomplished more with less. Wilson does not have the championships. However, Rutherford won two of his three championships where the top-end talent was in place on the day he arrived. Further, Wilson has done more, much more, in terms of icing highly competitive teams, season after season.
The Merits of Sergei Zubov
Sergei Zubov played 16 NHL seasons, posting 152 goals, 771 points and a plus-148 rating. He appeared in three All-Star games and was a second-team NHL All-Star once (a season-long honour, not to be confused with All-Star Game selections). Though he never won a Norris Trophy, he did finish in the top-five in balloting twice.
He was also a key participant on two Stanley Cup-winning teams, first with the New York Rangers and later with the Dallas Stars. While he did play a major role in each, he was not the top player on either team. With the Rangers, first-ballot Hall of Famers Mark Messier and Brian Leetch were the top players. In Dallas, he had five teammates who merited the Hall-of-Fame, two first-ballot entries, Brett Hull and Mike Modano, along with goalie Ed Belfour, Joe Nieuwendyk and Guy Carbonneau.
Comparing Sergei Zubov and Doug Wilson
Wilson also had a 16 season career, 14 with the Chicago Blackhawks before two seasons with the expansion San Jose Sharks. He finished with 237 goals, 827 points and a plus-77 rating. Wilson played in seven All-Star games, finished top five in Norris voting four times and won the award once. He was a first or second-team NHL All-Star three times.
The lone statistical area Zubov bested Doug Wilson is in career plus-minus, though this is misleading. Wilson had a career plus-minus of plus-145 (nearly identical to Zubov) in Chicago. He joined the Sharks for their inaugural season and played one additional season. In two seasons in San Jose, Wilson was a minus-66. Was this on Wilson? No. The Sharks were bad in an epic way and were outscored in the two seasons by a mind-boggling 336 goals.
When lining up Zubov and Wilson, Wilson comes out even or somewhat ahead in pretty much every statistical area. In terms of earning league-wide honours, Wilson comes out well ahead.
There are other cases that can be made for Doug Wilson. For example, he is 12th all-time in goals by defensemen. The 11 players ahead of him are all in the Hall of Fame and these were not close calls. Ten of the 11 entered in either their first or second year of eligibility.
There are only four individuals who’ve been an NHL GM for 1,000 games and played in 1,000 games. Three are in the Hall of Fame, Wilson is the lone exception.
Direct comparisons will always have caveats, and there are plenty to apply here. I won’t offer that Wilson is more or less deserving than Rutherford as an executive or Zubov as a player. But he is clearly at a similar level to each.
What I will offer is this, Wilson has delivered a Hall-of-Fame calibre career not once, but twice. That Wilson has done this is surely something the Hall-of-Fame voters need to honour.
The Hall of Fame insists on putting individuals into one of three categories. Rutherford is listed as a builder while Zubov is a player. The third category is for on-ice officials. The selection process, at least as I read it, may have a built-in a blind spot for the few individuals who excelled in multiple areas. The selection committee is made up of humans with brains and can figure out how to overcome this artificial hurdle.
Main Photo: PITTSBURGH, PA – MAY 29: General manager Doug Wilson of the San Jose Sharks addresses the media during the NHL Stanley Cup Final Media Day at Consol Energy Center on May 29, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)