It is safe to say the 2019-20 San Jose Sharks season turned out differently than their management imagined. And while Sharks hockey has an organization chart, the responsible hockey management is essentially one person, general manager Doug Wilson. Rarely seen or heard from owner Hasso Plattner decided long ago he trusted Wilson to run the hockey side of the business and that is how it is.
Up Now: The Management
Up Next: The Summary
Doug Wilson’s Offseason
For Wilson, the San Jose Sharks 2019-20 season began in earnest last June. An injury-riddled Sharks squad managed 10 wins in the Stanley Cup playoffs before bowing out in late May. Once the playoffs ended, the new season began for Wilson.
The team’s roster in 2018-19 was the best in team history. It was both outstanding and unsustainable beyond that one season. It was up to Wilson to reshape the roster for this season.
The unsustainable part was due to extremely limited cap space. Wilson was able to retain his best player, defenceman Erik Karlsson. But Karlsson didn’t come cheap, he is now the league’s highest paid defenceman. He also retained young power forward Timo Meier. Both Meier and Karlsson received $5million raises.
To accommodate the raises for Karlsson and Meier, it meant the Sharks needed to jettison most everyone else needing a new contract, and even one who didn’t. Joe Pavelski, Gustav Nyquist and Joonas Donskoi all left for greener pastures in free agency, while Justin Braun was traded (combined cap space, over $20million).
Even with the departures, there was little cap room. Wilson had to fill the remaining roster voids with players who commanded minimal cap space. He succeeded in getting Kevin Labanc to take a lowball salary offer. And yet, he still had minimal cap space. He faced two choices: fill the remaining roster spots with aging veterans/cast-offs from other teams or to tap into the team’s AHL pool and hope some of the youth delivered. Wilson largely chose the latter, but kept the former as a back-up plan.
2019-20 San Jose Sharks Roster Make-Up
The Sharks were designed to win from the blue line. The roster featured three defencemen with elite resumes and three others who’d proven good complimentary fits in 2018-19. At their best in 2018-19, this was a formidable group. For about a quarter of the season (prior to Karlsson’s injury), the defencemen-led Sharks were arguably the top team in the league.
Up front, the Sharks featured power forwards, the sort who can drag defenders behind the net to create scoring chances and draw penalties. But the lower lines and the right-wing, in particular, were vulnerable.
The Sharks netminding was another area of concern, but Wilson had left himself no room to maneuver. Neither netminder was tradable, neither was worth buying out.
For the season to work, the team needed a bounceback season from their netminding duo, “hold your own” contributions from the younger players filling the roster holes and solid seasons from the team’s top players. The Sharks would get none of these.
Veterans, Youth and Plan B
Low-end defenceman Dalton Prout was Wilson’s lone off-season signing for a veteran player expected to play on a regular basis. The oft-inured Prout would play one game, get injured, and miss the remainder of the season. The youth approach was used to fill the rest of the roster holes.
As the season got underway, the general manager conveyed optimism about the season. In 2015, he went with a similar plan and the team’s youth delivered. This season, they didn’t.
Five opening game starters were part of this youth movement and expectations were modest, at least for the opening month. But only one of the youth, Mario Ferraro, became a line-up regular. The Sharks stumbled early, losing their first four games. So Wilson went to plan B: bringing in veterans. It started with signing Patrick Marleau to shore up the questionable forward depth (he’d later add Stefan Noeson off waivers).
November and December
Plan B helped and the Sharks seemingly regain their footing. Even if they weren’t good, at least they were no longer so bad. After a poor October, the team posted a strong record in November. But the November record reflected a beneficial schedule and good fortune more than good play.
A review of the underlying numbers suggested the team was merely average. November featured 15 games, 11 at home, 14(!) in California – and the lone out-of-state road game was in nearby Arizona. The opposition was modest. Ten of the 15 games came against opponents in the bottom half of their division and none of the games came against league’s top six teams. Of the team’s 11 November wins, five came in overtime or shootout.
For a team accustomed to long road trips and tough schedules, November was about as easy as it gets. The team’s record peaked at 15-12-1 on November 30.
Come December, the schedule toughened and the team hit the road. And the team promptly melted down. In the first 10 days in December, five consecutive (mostly blowout) losses, led to Wilson’s next major move. He fired head coach Peter DeBoer and promoted Bob Boughner to the position of interim head coach. Interim being an important word.
Bad to Worse
For the Sharks, things steadily went from bad to worse. Though the team played better under Boughner, they coughed up several games late in the final period. Still, the Sharks maintained a glimmer of hope, right up until Logan Couture went down with a broken ankle. Shortly thereafter, the Sharks floundered on a three-game mid-January road trip. The team was, for all intents and purposes, done with any shot at the postseason.
Trade Deadline Moves
Wilson found himself in the rare position as a trade deadline seller. He traded three players, but the trades were a bit disconcerting.
Wilson got solid value for Marleau. But the other two players traded were part of the longer-term solution, not part of the problem. Barclay Goodrow was having his best career season, was the team’s most improved player and had another season under a favourable contract. Brenden Dillon was the team’s most reliable defenceman. Each of the Sharks top right-handed defencemen played their best hockey when paired with Dillon. In return for the three players, the Sharks likely (depending on conditional clauses) netted a draft pick in each of the first three rounds.
‘All In’ Reverberations
I was among the few skeptics this season when I previewed the team’s vulnerabilities. The reality of the 2019-20 San Jose Sharks season was considerably worse than I expected. The gap between stated expectations and reality was enormous. To a considerable extent, the failure of this season’s team rests with the “all in” approach taken in the prior season. The Sharks had an elite roster in 2018-19. But a potential problem with an “all in” season is it can leave the cupboard rather bare for the next season.
The salary cap played a major role in all this. At times, Wilson probably had more cash in his wallet than salary cap space for the roster. It was that dicey.
With no salary cap space and a limited pipeline from the AHL, the Sharks were vulnerable. And instead of things falling into place, things fell apart. The Sharks veterans have had dry spells before, but nothing so persistent as this season.
In all, Wilson assembled a team that lacked chemistry, lacked lower-end talent and lacked a coach who could find the right solutions.
And oh yes, the team with the third-worst record in the league won’t even receive a lottery draft pick. That was traded to the Ottawa Senators for Karlsson.
The Management Analysis
Wilson did not have a good season. If one believes the buck stops at the top, the fiasco which was the 2019-20 San Jose Sharks belongs to Wilson. Perhaps this is fair. He hired the coaches, he set the roster. But there are too many other factors which impacted this season.
Wilson received criticism for allowing team captain and fan favourite Joe Pavelski to leave, for sticking with two flailing netminders, for overpaying Erik Karlsson and for not seeing the dysfunction ahead with this season’s team.
He was also criticized for past choices, including the lengthy extensions given to goalie Martin Jones, and defenders Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. And he was criticized for trading away high draft picks and the team’s better prospects to acquire some of the highly-priced talent.
Some, but not all, of these criticisms hold up.
General managers deal in timelines that cover years. Players and coaches are far more focused on the things immediately in front of them. So it helps to see Wilson’s work in the context of multiple seasons.
Doug Wilson’s Race Against Time
Wilson has been in a race against time. He has players with talent, but most of the top talents are in the declining phase of their careers now, or their decline is coming soon enough. He’s been in a race against time to get a Stanley Cup before the talent declines too much and the team simply isn’t competitive.
The longer-term deals to players like Burns and Vlasic will look really foolish if the team is still paying them years from now and there’s no Stanley Cup banner hanging from the rafters of the Shark Tank. Wilson made the longer-term deals for players like Burns, Vlasic and Karlsson to get a Stanley Cup. But the longer they go without one, the longer in the tooth they become and the less likely it becomes for the Sharks to hoist hockey’s top prize. These are talents that, if they all play well during the playoffs, can get you a Stanley Cup.
The thing is, Wilson already took his best shot last season. He pushed his chips into the center and came up short. If last season’s roster was the best in team history, this season’s roster reflected the law of averages.
The Big Decisions
Wilson made two big decisions in the off-season. First to retain Karlsson and second (as a consequence) to jettison four quality NHL players.
The jury is out on Karlsson since it is an eight-year deal and this was only year one. That said, it wasn’t an encouraging season. Further, the team traded Dillon, the player who was Karlsson’s best partner.
It should be noted that the departure people most focused on, Pavelski, may well have been a very good decision. Pavelski had an ideal situation in his new home but delivered a career-low by averaging under a half-point per game. Wilson may have let Pavleski go at just the right time, especially given his large three-year price tag.
Indeed, among the departed Sharks, the best one could say is some had solid seasons in their new home. The four players, Braun, Pavelski, Nyquist and Donskoi, combined for a tad over $20 million in terms of salary cap hit. Taken as a whole, they really weren’t worth it.
Whether Wilson’s choices work out in the seasons ahead is unclear. What is clear, they didn’t work out well this season. But given the talent he parted with, it wasn’t as bad as many think.
The Prospect Pool
The story which has gone mostly missing is the story of the Sharks pipeline. Over his term as Sharks GM, Wilson has done reasonably well drafting. Especially given he’s been picking late in rounds — when he hasn’t traded away higher picks for present value. But the past five drafts have been pretty dry, especially since he’s traded away most of the more promising prospects.
This season was a time to see the prospects and what they offered. One can view this two ways. Either the prospects simply weren’t good enough (or ready enough), or the Sharks left themselves too many voids and needed to pull too many players from their prospect pool. In either case, the consequence for this season is the same. Whether it is the same going forward is a different question.
Wilson’s strategy was legit and defensible. It just didn’t work. The Sharks took their best shot last season. But it ended with injuries to Pavelski, Hertl and Karlsson – and the team’s loss to the St. Louis Blues in the Western Conference Final.
Despite outward confidence for this season, there was no question the 2019-20 San Jose Sharks weren’t a “best shot” team. Wilson certainly understood this team might have a challenging start to the season. He counted on the veteran group to gel and get the Sharks into playoff contention. He counted on younger players to find sufficient chemistry with the veterans and at least tread water. Wilson has often said a team’s roster isn’t finished until the trade deadline and there’s little doubt, he’d have made a move if the 2019-20 San Jose Sharks proved capable of exceeding expectations.
But the veterans struggled, the younger players had limited feel for the NHL game (though some showed well in specific areas) and there was little chemistry. Particularly troubling, the team seemed to lose focus. You’d expect this from youngsters, but not from veterans. Including several veterans who’ve worn a letter as captain or assistant captain.
Wilson’s Unrelenting Competitor
In the end, Wilson rightly changed coaches, but this team was simply too flawed. Perhaps most troubling, the Sharks are now in no man’s land. The team has too much talent and too many large contracts to be a bottom-tier team. But not enough cap space and not enough AHL talent to move beyond a Stanley Cup pretender.
At the end of the 2019-20 San Jose Sharks season, there are plenty of questions regarding the team’s direction. Can several key veteran players return to form? Can any of the younger players rise above lower-tier contributors? Who will be the team’s coach? Did the Sharks fix their netminding issue? The San Jose Sharks 2019-20 season is technically still in progress. But for Doug Wilson, he’s in next season mode now. Time is an unrelenting competitor.