Doug Wilson wasn’t really worried. Last March, the Sharks were en route to qualifying for the playoffs for the ninth straight season. They had a mix of cornerstone players they acquired in different ways: Joe Thornton (trade), Patrick Marleau (draft), and Antti Niemi (free agency).
But Wilson and his hockey operations colleagues recognized a movement. Successful teams played with size, pace, and skill. Clubs deficient in any of the areas would shrivel.
The San Jose general manager wanted in on the first group.
In a nine-day span in March and April, the Sharks shipped out Douglas Murray, Michal Handzus, and Ryane Clowe. They got back four 2013 draft picks: a pair of second-rounders, a third-rounder, and a fourth-rounder. The moves were part of what Wilson calls the organization’s reset/refresh program.
The Sharks said goodbye to three older, slower players on expiring contracts. They allowed younger, faster, and quicker players such as Tomas Hertl, Matt Nieto, and Jason Demers to compete for the job openings.
The result of the on-the-fly makeover is a ferocious club that could push for the Stanley Cup. In October, when they visited TD Garden, the Sharks skated the Bruins out of the rink but lost, 2-1. But several days later, the Boston coaches were still buzzing about the Sharks’ cutthroat approach.
The Sharks fit in well with their high-flying Silicon Valley neighbors. They are young, smart, skilled, and successful, with some wise veterans leading the charge.
But part of the credit also goes to their partners on the East Coast: Tim Burke, their director of scouting, and Roy Sommer, coach of their AHL team in Worcester.
Burke is a Melrose man. He was a three-sport standout at Melrose High. He was a glue guy for Charlie Holt at the University of New Hampshire.
Now, Burke is better known as being one of hockey’s best evaluators. Once the Sharks pick the players Burke recommends, they are turned over to Sommer for development.
Burke’s track record is filled with hits. With Burke calling the shots, the Sharks picked Marleau second overall in 1997, Marc-Edouard Vlasic in the second round in 2005, Logan Couture ninth overall in 2007 (one slot after the Bruins drafted Zach Hamill, a flat-out bust), and Hertl with the 17th pick in 2012. Marleau and Vlasic played for Canada in the Sochi Olympics. Couture was under consideration before suffering a hand injury. Hertl was in the Calder Trophy mix before he hurt his knee.
But Burke’s strength is seeing something in players that other scouts overlook. In 2003, 204 names were called before the Sharks picked Joe Pavelski in the seventh round. Where other teams saw flotsam and jetsam, the Sharks identified Justin Braun (seventh round, 2007), John McCarthy (seventh round, 2006), Demers (seventh round, 2008), Tommy Wingels (sixth round, 2008), and Freddie Hamilton (fifth round, 2010) as future NHLers.
Burke and his colleagues also spotted assets in Matt Irwin, Andrew Desjardins, and Bracken Kearns. None of the three was drafted.
The Sharks were right. Pavelski is the team’s leading scorer. Wingels is one of nine Sharks with 10 or more goals. Braun and Demers play regular blue-line shifts. The others have been role players for coach Todd McLellan. Of the Sharks’ 10 leading scorers, five spent time developing in Worcester under Sommer and assistant coach David Cunniff.
“The best compliment for a player is a hockey rat,” Wilson said. “They love to play the game, compete, and find a way. When we looked at the style of play we wanted to play, we had to have guys like that. All our players — Pavelski, Couture, Vlasic, Wingels, Hertl — go through the list, they love to play the game. They think it at a very high level. We put that as a priority on how we want to play and the type of players we want. We have a very good group of young players who are very low-maintenance and have a very high IQ on how to play the game.”
Drafting and developing players is the best way to build a roster. It’s cheap. Players are under team control. They develop in the organization together.
When necessary, those draft picks can be traded for assets. The Sharks weren’t keen on trading Charlie Coyle, their 2010 first-rounder, to Minnesota. But the Weymouth native helped the Sharks land Brent Burns, the defenseman who’s now a frenetic forward.
In turn, Wilson doesn’t have to overpay on the free market. Unlike other GMs (see Nonis, Dave) last July, Wilson didn’t do a thing. He didn’t have to. He already had built his team.
“We don’t believe in churning and burning players,” Wilson said. “They take a couple years to develop, then they get an opportunity to play for us. Whether it be the coaches here or our development people, especially our coaches in Worcester, they understand how important it is to grow our own players.”
The Sharks’ reward is a first-round date with Los Angeles. Both are Cup contenders. One will go golfing early. But that’s California hockey, where San Jose, LA, and Anaheim were built smartly and play hard, tough hockey.
Those guys in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, and Ontario should pay attention.
Linden among latest to assume top post
Vancouver kicked off its rebuild on Tuesday by hiring former Canuck Trevor Linden to serve as team president. Of Linden’s 1,382 career games, 1,140 were with the Canucks.
Linden’s hire follows the model the Bruins began on June 16, 2010, when Cam Neely rose from vice president to president. Neely is the personification of the Bruins’ brand from a business perspective, while also serving as a powerful voice in hockey operations. Other former stars positioned above the GMs on their organizations’ mastheads are Brendan Shanahan (Toronto), Joe Sakic (Colorado), Luc Robitaille (Los Angeles), and Kevin Lowe (Edmonton). Pat LaFontaine also was part of this group as Buffalo’s former president before his split with the franchise.
Linden’s most important order of business is to hire a GM to replace Mike Gillis, who made a mess of his goaltending situation. Gillis jettisoned an ace in Cory Schneider. He finally traded Roberto Luongo to Florida. The Canucks’ next GM will have two unproven puck-stoppers in Eddie Lack and Jacob Markstrom.
But Gillis was just as culpable in the amateur scouting department’s failure to identify future NHLers. The Canucks had far too many misses. The most recent player the Canucks drafted who’s still a regular is Alexander Edler. Vancouver picked the defenseman in the third round in 2004, four years before Gillis was hired.
“I have a profile of not only a manager but what I want the team to look like,” Linden said during his introductory news conference. “Whether it’s an assistant general manager, I definitely have a specific profile. As we speak, we’re working on a plan to put that in motion. One of those things is gaining permission. To speak to certain people will be a challenge. That’s what will affect the timing.”
Linden wants a GM by the draft. That may not happen. This is not a good time to be hiring.
Bruins assistant GM Jim Benning is a candidate. Benning, a finalist for the GM job in Buffalo, is strong in player personnel. As an Oregon resident during the offseason, Benning knows the Pacific Northwest market. But Benning is thick in preparation for the playoffs, the NHL combine in May, and the June draft.
Other candidates include Michael Futa, the Kings’ director of amateur scouting. Like the Bruins, the Kings are busy with the playoffs. The Canucks may not be able to gain permission to interview preferred candidates. Linden would be wise not to rush. He’s got to get this hire right.
Oates needed to have his goaltender’s back
For someone who could be seeking employment soon, Capitals coach Adam Oates did not win over any future bosses by airing his dirty laundry on Tuesday. Prior to Washington’s game against St. Louis, Oates said that ex-Blues goalie Jaroslav Halak did not want to play against his former team. Halak sat while Braden Holtby was in goal for the Capitals’ 4-1 win.
“We know the feelings when you go into your old stomping ground, and it’s not always easy and you’re not always comfortable, at least the first time,” Oates told the Washington Post. “We talked to [Halak] and he just wasn’t 100 percent comfortable. Unfortunately, this time of year and where we’re at, we can’t afford that, and Holts has played great lately. We feel really good about that and Holts is playing.”
Oates painted Halak as a chicken. Indirectly, Oates also sent a shot at George McPhee. The Washington GM gave up significant assets in Michal Neuvirth and Rostislav Klesla for Halak, whom McPhee believed could help the Capitals in a playoff push. McPhee now looks foolish for acquiring a goalie perceived as being too fragile to play against ex-teammates.
In turn, after being shanked by his coach, Halak shouldn’t feel any loyalty to the organization. Halak may very well not have had the chops to play in such situations, which is disappointing. But not as disappointing as a coach who makes this all public.
“Jaro never at any time said he didn’t want to start against St. Louis,” Allan Walsh, Halak’s agent, said in a statement. “A private conversation between a player and coach should stay private and not be discussed with the media. I am bewildered that a coach would break that trust, especially when those comments the coach publicly attributed to Jaro are not accurate. It’s the coach who makes the decision on who plays in the games, not the players.”
That the Oilers would trade Ales Hemsky was a given. The skilled forward, an unrestricted free agent at season’s end, had scored only nine goals and 17 assists in 55 games. On March 5, the Oilers wheeled Hemsky to Ottawa for a 2014 fifth-rounder and a third-round pick in 2015. In Ottawa, Hemsky has proven three things: He’s a good player; he’ll get interest on the open market (currently on a two-year, $10 million deal, per www.capgeek.com) if he doesn’t re-up with the Senators; and the Oilers didn’t use him correctly. Through 18 games with the Senators, Hemsky had scored four goals and 12 assists. Most recently, Hemsky was playing with Milan Michalek and Jason Spezza. Hemsky closed out his Oilers career with Jordan Eberle and Sam Gagner. But for most of the season, the Oilers didn’t deploy Hemsky enough in offensive situations. According to www.extraskater.com, Hemsky started only 27.8 percent of his even-strength shifts in the offensive zone. In comparison, Nail Yakupov stood at 40.1 percent. With the Senators, 36.6 of Hemsky’s shifts began in the offensive zone. Good coaches put players in the best position to succeed. Paul MacLean did that with Hemsky.
It is a long shot, but it’s possible that Anaheim could turn to a 20-year-old goalie to start the playoffs. John Gibson, the second goalie picked in the 2011 draft, made his second straight start on Wednesday — against San Jose, no less. Gibson stopped 36 of 38 shots in Anaheim’s 5-2 win. In his NHL debut on Monday, Gibson turned back 18 shots to blank Vancouver. Gibson (20 years, 297 days) became the youngest goalie to record a shutout in his first game since Buffalo’s Daren Puppa (20 years, 223 days) turned the trick on Nov. 1, 1985. Anaheim promoted Gibson from Norfolk, its AHL affiliate, to replace regular backup Frederik Andersen, who was injured April 4. Jonas Hiller has been Anaheim’s workhorse all season, but he hasn’t played as well in the last month (0-2-1 in his last three starts) as he did when he was a key to the Ducks’ 18 wins in 19 games. Gibson is the real deal. Because he projects to be an ace, the Ducks traded Viktor Fasth to Edmonton on March 4 for a pair of picks. Gibson’s time may come sooner than expected.
Dallas coach Lindy Ruff made an aggressive move against Columbus on Wednesday. The Stars trailed the Blue Jackets, 3-0, in the third period when they went on the power play with 13:10 remaining in regulation. Approximately halfway through the power play, Ruff pulledTim Thomas to make it a six-on-four situation. Trevor Daley scored on the power play to make it 3-1. Far too many coaches wait until it’s too late to pull the goalie. They seem to be frightened of giving up an empty-netter and losing by several goals. But it’s not easy for a defending team to gain puck possession when outnumbered, to say nothing of scoring. “It was a really good move,” Thomas told the Dallas Morning News. “It’s thinking outside the box. At that time, what other chance did we have to get back into the game? Being 3-1 with 10 minutes left certainly gave us a chance all the way through the end.” The Blue Jackets held on to win, 3-1.
Two goalies from the 2012 draft are taking different paths to the NHL. Jon Gillies, picked in the third round by Calgary, will return to Providence College for his junior year. The native of South Portland, Maine, played for Team USA in the last two World Junior Championships. As a sophomore, he helped backstop Providence to the NCAA Tournament, where it lost to Union. Brian Burke, Calgary’s president of hockey operations, is a Providence alum. He would be the last person to convince Gillies to leave school before he was ready. In contrast, Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg’s fifth-round pick, signed his entry-level contract April 5. Five days earlier, Hellebuyck and his UMass-Lowell teammates lost to BC in the NCAA Tournament. Hellebuyck will most likely start 2014-15 in the AHL. Both Gillies and Hellebuyck are 20 years old. One is a student, the other is a professional. They are proof that there is no right or wrong path to the NHL.
Alexander Khokhlachev, the Bruins’ second-round pick in 2011, was the AHL’s second-leading rookie scorer heading into the final weekend of regular-season play. In 61 games, the Providence forward had 21 goals and 36 assists for 57 points, three off Curtis McKenzie’s 22-38—60 pace. But Khokhlachev was not named to the AHL’s All-Rookie Team. McKenzie (Texas), Ryan Strome (Bridgeport), and Teemu Pulkkinen (Grand Rapids) were the forwards . . . It took until Game No. 80 for the Red Wings to qualify for the playoffs for the 23d straight season. Amid the real chance of missing the playoffs, coach Mike Babcock’s hair remained a picture-perfect helmet of glory. Most of Babcock’s peers, whose follicles have paid for the business they’ve chosen, are envious of his styling, genes, or good luck.