In a recent, highly informal poll of some veteran NHL observers, I asked who the best GM is in the game today. Naturally, Brian Burke’s name came up quite often, as did Lou Lamoriello’s and Jim Rutherford’s.
One name that didn’t come up was Sharks GM Doug Wilson. And that, at least to me, was odd. Here’s a guy who, by the end of January, had compiled a 120-65-18 record since replacing Dean Lombardi in 2003. Here’s a guy who has drafted and developed some of the NHL’s top young talent, including Matt Carle, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Ryane Clowe, Joe Pavelski, Steve Bernier and Milan Michalek.
You’re telling me this guy isn’t one of the best in the business?
Â“Oh, Burkie and Jimmy deserve the respect,Â” said Wilson with a laugh in a phone interview. Â“They’ve earned it. But I think we’re on the cusp of a great time in this organization’s history and hopefully we’ll earn that respect through our playÂ…and through championships.Â”
To his credit Â– and indicative of the philosophy he has brought to the Sharks Â– Wilson is vehemently opposed to the notion that he alone has restored the fortunes of the franchise, which went into full-blown S.O.S. mode in 2002-03 when it won just 28 games and missed the playoffs for the first time since 1997.
Â“I feel uncomfortable with the Â‘I’ term,Â” said Wilson, a former star defenseman who had 237 goals and 827 points in 1,024 games for Chicago and San Jose during his 14-year NHL playing career.
Â“We conduct and see ourselves as a group here. The scouts, the coaches, the players Â– we really feel like we work together and share in the successes we’ve had.Â”
To Joe Will, San Jose’s director of hockey operations, Wilson is less about modesty than he is about understanding and appreciating those around him.
Â“Doug gives a lot of credit to everyone,Â” Will said. Â“He respects the players, the coaches, our business office. He respects the media, agents, other clubs.
Â“One of his real strengths is he empowers people. He’ll ask people, Â‘What do you need to succeed?’ as far as tools go, and then he’ll go out and get what they’ve asked for.
Â“He’s a challenger, a motivator. He has an unconditional belief in what you do. And it doesn’t stop at hockey. He lives his life with conviction and a balance that helps everyone he comes into contact with.Â”
Â‘good judge of character’
Patrick Marleau, who has seen the Sharks battle through good times and bad, also is impressed with Wilson’s performance.
Â“He’s done a great job so far,Â” said Marleau of Wilson, who was San Jose’s director of pro development from 1997-2003. Â“He brings in guys who are self-motivated and he’s a very good judge of character. He really tries to understand the person, not just the player.Â”
Wilson points to his first draft as GM as one of the crucial points in the team’s turnaround.
Â“The quality of players we drafted in 2003 allowed us to grow as a team,Â” Wilson said.
Â“It enabled us to do the (Joe) Thornton deal, because we had drafted Bernier and Michalek and Carle at that time. Having those players in our system allowed us to trade Brad Stuart and Marco Sturm.Â”
The Sharks’ young, skilled players have a willing and able teacher in Wilson, who stormed into the NHL at age 20 and won a Norris Trophy in his fifth season.
If you put in every effort, Marleau said, Wilson is in your corner.
Â“Every (player) in the organization knows that if he works hard, Doug will give them a shot,Â” Marleau said. Â“That’s why you see us with so many young players on the team in the last couple years.Â”
And Wilson also is quick praise to others.
Â“Anything I’ve learned is a credit to the people around me,Â” Wilson said. Â“From my brother Murray, who brought me around the Canadiens in their dynasty years, to (junior coaching legend) Brian Kilrea, to Bill O’Rourke, who I worked with for 10 years at Coca-Cola, to (late former NHLer) Keith Magnuson, I’ve had some great mentors to learn from.Â”
Now that the Sharks are regarded as Stanley Cup contenders, there are mounting pressures on the team.
And that’s just fine by Wilson.
Â“Heightened expectations are crucial,Â” he said. Â“Our players know where we want to be at, so when other teams talk about using the San Jose Sharks as a measuring stick, we don’t discourage that. We welcome those expectations.Â”
Wilson’s job won’t be complete until the Sharks are champs, but there is no doubt his efforts have the franchise eyeing Â– realistically Â– the game’s greatest glory.
Â“A lot of pieces of the puzzle are in the right positions,Â” Marleau said. Â“Now we have to go out there and believe in ourselves as much as Doug believes in us.Â”