It’s no secret around the league that the San Jose Sharks, if they have any hope of contending for the Stanley Cup again, need to improve their defense. General Manager Doug Wilson was characteristically quiet on July 1, despite reportedly making an offer to Dan Hamhuis, and was shot down by the Chicago Blackhawks after signing Niklas Hjalmarsson to an offer sheet. With Rob Blake’s retirement this summer, there is a gaping hole somewhere in the Sharks’ top two defensive pairings, and the only conceivable way for Wilson to fill this gap is now through a trade.
Wilson has made his name around the league as a manager thanks to his blockbuster deals, hauling in Joe Thornton, Dan Boyle, and Dany Heatley in a trio of trades that look to be long-term successes for the Sharks. These players, along with Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski, make up the core of a team that should be competitive for several more seasons. In that regard, Wilson has done a fine job in shaping this Sharks squad.
But the story doesn’t end there. Wilson has struck out quite notably with several other trades—all of them, not coincidentally, near the trade deadline. Try to pick a single winner for the Sharks out of any of these deals:
2004: DW trades away Brad Boyes in a three-team deal for Curtis Brown, whose tenure was an unmitigated failure for the Sharks (no goals and two assists in 17 playoff games) before leaving as a free agent. Boyes, just 22 at the time, has had seasons of 43 and 33 goals, respectively, since then.
2007: DW trades a 1st round pick for Bill Guerin, who scores eight goals in 16 regular season games but zero in the playoffs, then leaves as a free agent.
2008: DW trades Steve Bernier and a 1st round pick for Brian Campbell. Maybe the most promising of Wilson’s deadline deals, it obviously didn’t pan out; Campbell was a weakness for the Sharks come playoff time and left as a free agent, as was expected when the deal was made.
2009: DW trades Nick Bonino, Timo Pielmeier, and a conditional pick to rival Anaheim for free agents-to-be Travis Moen and Kent Huskins. Huskins, injured at the time, doesn’t play a single game for the Sharks, though they re-sign him (at an overpayment) in the offseason. Moen is scoreless in six lifeless first round games against his former Anaheim teammates in the playoffs, then leaves as a free agent. Bonino, meanwhile, is one of the Ducks’ top prospects at forward now.
2010: DW trades a 2nd round pick (Buffalo’s) and 5th round pick to Carolina for Niclas Wallin. Wallin is injured for much of the playoffs and plays terribly when in the lineup. Wilson re-signs him, in a massive overpayment, to a one-year, $2.5 million contract in the offseason.
The picture is bleaker than it could have been. Wilson has had bad luck with several of these deals, notably on the injury front. Yet we also see a pattern developing since 2004, that of Wilson panicking come the trade deadline and overpaying for upgrades, some of them—such as Brown, Moen, Huskins, and Wallin—minor upgrades.
Wilson has also made these deals with a serious disregard for the farm system and the club’s future. The system is now nearly barren, featuring a handful of question marks on defense (Nick Petrecki, Mike Moore) and career minor leaguers at forward now that center Logan Couture has cracked the big club’s lineup. And while draft picks near the bottom of the first round and lower are always question marks, the number of picks that Wilson has dealt away has only served to lower the Sharks’ chances of finding another Joe Pavelski-type in the draft.
Considering the club’s current predicament on defense and the likely need to fill the hole through the trade market, Wilson would be wise, considering his history, to not wait long before striking. Wilson’s had a clear Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story when it comes to trades: He’s had the aforementioned difficulties making good deals at the trade deadline, but he’s been nearly flawless when making trades in the summer or early in the season (last September’s trade of Christian Ehrhoff and Brad Lukowich for lower-tier prospects notwithstanding, as that was a salary dump in order to make the Heatley deal).
The problem for Wilson is that right now, the two most notable defensemen on the trade market, Tomas Kaberle and Kevin Bieksa, won’t come cheaply. Toronto’s demands for Kaberle have been notoriously high, making it likely that Kaberle won’t be dealt at all. And Vancouver has positioned themselves as arguably the top team in the Western Conference, meaning that they’re unlikely to fix one of their top competitor’s weaknesses, barring an overpayment by the Sharks for Bieksa.
There’s still a chance that Wilson will take a flyer on Willie Mitchell, a UFA dealing with post-concussion syndrome, but even that signing will have to work essentially as a trade. Mitchell’s expected salary will be enough that the Sharks will likely have to deal away Ryane Clowe or Devin Setoguchi (unless some fool would be willing to take Torrey Mitchell and Huskins off the Sharks’ hands).
But at this point it might make the most sense for Wilson to exercise patience, plug Wallin or Jason Demers into the second pairing, and take a few lumps while waiting for another manager to grow impatient with his club. Patience is the key right now, not only for Sharks fans, but also for Doug Wilson—if he plans on making another successful non-deadline deal, that is.