One of Doug Wilson's many influences was the late Bill Walsh. Early in his career as San Jose Sharks general manager, Wilson would meet Walsh at his favorite ice cream place in Palo Alto, California, and they'd talk about how the legendary coach once ran the San Francisco 49ers.
Wilson applied Walsh's lessons Monday. The Sharks re-signed restricted free agent forward Timo Meier to a four-year contract and said goodbye to unrestricted free agent forward Joe Pavelski, their captain and one of their greatest players, who signed a three-year, $21 million contract with the Dallas Stars.
"It's probably the least favorite part of my job, but it is a reality," Wilson said. "You have to make those decisions. And Bill was kind of enough to share his process through that."
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Walsh, who won three Super Bowls with the 49ers in the 1980s and died July 30, 2007, shared his process with the Harvard Business Review in 1993.
"Any good coach or manager has got to be responsible for phasing his people through the organization," Walsh said. "It may be the most emotionally difficult part of the job. When you do it, you often end up as the most unpopular person in the organization. Yet it is part of the role that the leader must play."
Video: Pavelski discusses new beginning with Stars
Walsh said an "arc of utilization" described most athletes' careers. He believed it was better to part with a player too early than too late and the roster had to be turned over to younger players continually.
"A player may be a superstar this year, but with minor injuries nicking at him and starting to add up, he won't be a superstar three years from now," Walsh said. "And then in the next phase, you have to begin thinking about replacing him."
Walsh also believed one of the most important attributes of an organization was how it treated its people. He said some coaches were too sentimental, worried about breaking up the family, while others were too tough and lost the loyalty of the people around them.
"I have spent many sleepless nights trying to figure out how I was going to phase out certain players for whom I had strong feelings, but that was my job," Walsh said. "I wasn't hired to do anything but win."
Wilson has turned over the Sharks' roster continually with help from his scouting staff, a big reason why San Jose has had sustained success, leading the NHL in regular-season wins (681) and Stanley Cup Playoff appearances (14) since he became GM on May 13, 2003.
Two years ago, the Sharks declined to give forward Patrick Marleau the term he wanted as a UFA, even though Marleau was their all-time leader in games (1,493), goals (508) and points (1,082) and second in assists (574). Marleau, who was about to turn 38 on Sept. 15, instead signed a three-year contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Marleau had the same number of goals (27) and one more assist (20) for Toronto in 2017-18 than he had for San Jose in 2016-17. Last season, he had 37 points (16 goals, 21 assists). The Maple Leafs traded him to the Carolina Hurricanes on June 22, and he was bought out Thursday.
This time, the Sharks declined to give Pavelski the term he wanted as a UFA, even though Pavelski ranked fourth in games (963), second in goals (355), third in assists (406) and third in points (761) in San Jose history. Pavelski tied his NHL career high with 38 goals last season, but his shooting percentage was an NHL career-high 20.2 percent, he sustained multiple injuries and he turns 35 on July 11, all reasons to fear a decline.
"We thought a three-year deal was really fair, and teams that were kind of only looking at two really didn't get a whole lot of interest there, after we heard that," Pavelski told NHL Network. "So three years was the starting point, and then we went from there."
The Sharks had to put aside emotion and consider how Pavelski would look three years from now, and they have waves of younger players, like Meier, who learned a lot from Pavelski and will help fill the void he left. Meier, who turns 23 on Oct. 8, scored 21 goals in 2017-18 and 30 last season.
"I think when you have a player like that leaving, it's a chance for young players to step up, take a bigger role," Meier said. "And that's my mindset, to come in to the next season and hopefully get a spot on the first power play, get some more playing time. … I want to take full advantage of that opportunity and have to prepare the best I can for that in the summer."
After the Stars announced the Pavelski signing Monday, Wilson released a statement thanking Pavelski and his family for all they had done in San Jose. In a media conference call later, Wilson repeated the same sentiments. He sounded downbeat.
"It's emotional," Wilson said. "You have a heart, you have a head, and you understand these decisions have to get made. So you have mixed emotions. Very excited for Timo. Very excited for the opportunities that are coming for the rest of the team. But you love what Joe Pavelski and (his wife) Sarah have brought to this organization for so many years. It's a reality of this business and this system. That part doesn't make it any easier. And you always want to treat people with the respect they deserve, and that's what we try to do as an organization."
Walsh couldn't have said it better himself.
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