For Sharks Executive Vice President and General Manager Doug Wilson, in some ways this summer has been like any other, looking for ways to improve his hockey team. It’s just that this year there are more than normal expectations to not only do it, but to do it quickly.
The big bomb that some want right away may not have occurred, but there have still been plenty of adjustments taking place.
“We’ve already made some changes,” said Wilson. “There are seven or eight players (notably Mike Grier, Marcel Goc, Travis Moen) that already won’t be coming back, so we’ve made a level of changes there.”
Plus there could still be more to come.
“Are we pursuing some discussions that may lead so some trades, absolutely,” noted Wilson. “I share this with everybody, I think this is a society of instant gratification. ‘Let’s make all these changes right now.’ That’s not really how it works. It’s been busy with a lot of phone calls. We’re entering into another phase of our team building time.”
The 2010-11 season is a major reason why Wilson has stayed away from the free agent market as a quick fix for 2009-10. With the salary cap expected to take a dramatic drop, a wrong signing could have lingering effects.
“We’ve rarely gone into the free-agent market, which is a time when you usually overpay not only in dollars, but in giving long term in contracts,” said Wilson. “When you’re in a cap system, especially in a tough economy like we’re in now where the cap may go down, you have to be a little careful of that.”
Wilson traditionally has made his most eye-popping fixes (see Thornton and Boyle) in the trade market, so the fact that free agents haven’t been dancing into San Jose is not a surprise.
“Change takes place in many ways, and change does have to happen,” said Wilson. “We didn’t get the results we wanted even though there were a lot of good things that happened during the regular season. We have the capability of playing at a certain level, but the bottom line is it didn’t get done in the playoffs. The reality is that our players have to get better. Sometimes you have to go get other players, and sometimes your own players have to grow. It’s not what you say anymore, it’s what you do on the ice. We’re in a phase right now that we continue to look at ways to make this hockey team better, and if some of our players are uncomfortable, then so be it.”
Those demanding the quick time frame will simply have to understand that change will take place on the hockey schedule, for a move in July just to make a transaction can be worse than riding the current ship.
“Our biggest moves that we’ve made in the past, whether it be Joe Thornton
or Danny Boyle, have come in the trade form,” said Wilson. “I think you’re probably going to see that’s where we’re going to spend most of our time and energy. It’s a long time from training camp. It’s a long time from the trade deadline, which is in early March. We will do what’s needed for this hockey team, but we’re not going to do it just for the sake of saying, ‘look we made change.’ We’re going to get the right people under the right contracts to get us to where we want to get to.”
Due to the fact the outside world knows the Sharks want to find the fix to get to the final level, they have been rumored in just about every trade scenario that comes out. There actually might have been a little smoke to some of the rumors.
“It is tampering to talk about a player on another hockey team,” cautioned Wilson when specifics are raised. “There are people that we looked at. We’ve looked at certain players that we’ve wanted to add. We want the right players, on the right contracts, that play the right way. Some of the players we looked at actually moved in trade, they did not move in the free-agent market. So, we’re constantly looking at that, we’ll make some more adjustments to this team.”
Wilson still believes there is some internal growth to be had for many in the system and that will be part of the equation.
“You step up, you look in the mirror and you say, ‘What could I have done better to make the result different,’” said Wilson. “And there is no sugar coating it. That’s where some of our best players have to take full responsibility. They have to say, ‘There is a way that we have to find during a game, no matter what the other team does, to find a way to win.’ So there is some growth that has to take place there, or maybe change, but there’s also another level of players that can’t be allowed to stay beneath the radar.”
Wilson loved the emergence of Joe Pavelski
, Ryane Clowe
and Milan Michalek last year, but he is pushing them as much as he is Thornton, Marleau, Boyle and Nabokov.
“Our second line was a heck of a line all year, but didn’t accomplish anything in that series,” said Wilson. “You also need third and fourth line people to chip in and find a way. In the playoffs it’s that compete thing. I don’t think we had one or two players play, in the entire group, up to 75 percent of there capabilities.”
To promote the internal growth, Wilson was poignant in his postseason meetings.
“I’ve had a lot of talks with players, and they say, ‘Well, we’re going to come back and be committed,’” said Wilson. “Talk is cheap. It’s time for actions and the players that get the opportunity to come back and show us that they were pissed off, they have to get it done. That’s why I keep using the term ‘hockey rat.’ I want people who forget about all the excuses, forget about all the other outside influences. Does it really upset you that we didn’t get to where we wanted to get to? Are you going to do what it takes? And when the puck is dropped, I don’t want to hear any more talking, I just want to see playing.”
The potential for change within the Sharks even reaches to the question of who will wear the captain’s “C” in 2009-10.
“Even the people that are going to come back are going to have to change and grow,” said Wilson. “The leadership of this team is going to have to change and grow. In a playoff series where you’re playing against the same team, it’s sometimes just finding a way. It can be one little thing in a game that makes a difference. We’ve got a group of guys that I know it really upset, and it bothered them, and it still eats at them. And do I think they’re going to come back? Yeah, I do.”
Wilson is simply looking to find that right balance of talent and heart as both are mandated to capture the ultimate goal.
“The teams that win aren’t always the most talented teams,” said Wilson. “You have to have a certain level of talent to compete in this league at the high level. But you’ve got to be willing to block the shot, take a hit, make that little play, take a stick in the face, draw a penalty, and it’s a different type of hockey in the playoffs. And it’s funny you see teams that win it one year and then don’t make the playoffs the next year. They haven’t changed that much, but the willingness to take the punishment and the battle to get there, that might have flickered a little bit. With this group, the majority of them I think they really, really do care and it has really bothered them. With us, there is nothing that can be said other than coming back into camp, whoever may be coming back here, and getting it done on the ice without all the talking, and without all the yapping.”
For some players, they will simply have to find a way to grab those ugly goals that are in the difficult spots on the ice.
“Ninety percent of the goals are scored within four to five feet of the net and there is some beauty in the ugliness of it all,” said Wilson. “It’s finding a way. It’s a guy that plays at both ends of the rink. Does the little thing that most people don’t notice. He could care less about the stats, he cares about his teammates respect. And when he goes off the ice at the end of the game he can look in the mirror and say, ‘I left it all out there.’ You know, Joe Pavelski
is that type of player, Torrey Mitchell
is that type of player, Dan Boyle
is that type of player. A lot of our players have it in them. I don’t want to hear about, well, ‘this is what I’m going to do.’ If it’s in you, show it.”
Wilson is confident that when the timing is right, he’ll be able to assert the necessary alterations to the Sharks and turn the recent regular season success into playoff heaven.
“We’re a team that has a lot of good players, so your payroll is going to be a certain level,” said Wilson. “We have flexibility to do some things and make some changes, just like when we did with Thornton and Boyle. The bigger issue that I think people are keeping an eye on is 2010. So if you get painted in a corner and you take on contracts of term, and you can’t get out from underneath them, you’re in trouble. That’s one of the things that I think has frozen a little bit of the free-agent market, and certainly some of the trade discussions, but that’ll loosen up as we go forward.”
Some Sharks players have already moved on. Others might. Others will have to change. For Wilson, that is fine as long as his team moves in the right direction.