Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a seven-part series here on Jet City Ice, providing you with a guide to the Pacific Division teams, those that our beloved Seattle franchise will see most frequently during the season.
The San Jose Sharks team was birthed in much the same way that our Seattle team will be when the time comes: a new ownership group hiring the staff, management, and coaches; followed by an expansion draft to fill out the roster. The rules for expansion drafts were tilted towards existing teams in those days (more on that in future articles), so getting the Sharks out of the wading pool and into the deep end was a rocky endeavor.
For you pedantic die-hards out there: the details surrounding the 1991 “dispersal and expansion drafts” that brought the San Jose Sharks into existence start back in 1974, and are way too intricate to go into in this article. If you’re that interested, and have a few hours to kill, here’s a link to get you started.
The most notable player who was a member of the Sharks after the draft dust settled was legendary Montreal winger Guy Lafleur. That’s not a joke, he actually was. He was selected from the Quebec Nordiques, almost immediately traded back to the Nordiques for Alan Haworth, and subsequently retired from the NHL before the 1991-92 season even started. You can shock and amaze your friends with that white-hot nugget of NHL trivia.
Among the other luminaries who began the season with the newborn Sharks club were forwards Mike McHugh, Ed Courtenay, and Jeff Madill; defensemen Neil Wilkinson and Dean Kolstad; and goalie Jarmo Myllys.
Yeah. Me neither. See what I mean about being tilted towards existing teams?
With its lineup comprised mostly of has-been’s and never-was’s the Sharks led the league in losses in its inaugural season, notching 58 in the ‘L’ column while totaling 359 goals against. This was succeeded by a 1992-93 season in which they lost 71 games and allowed a staggering 414 goals. Needless to say they missed the playoffs both years, despite the fact that at the time you had to be one of the six worst teams in the league to miss the playoffs.
Fast forward to today, when the Sharks can jump up and bite you (sorry, couldn’t resist…) on any given night. For nearly two decades now the Sharks have been consistently indomitable in the Pacific Division. They can roll three scoring lines, pound your forwards to mince meat in the corners, and on any given night their goaltender may be supernaturally impenetrable. What changed?
The team’s history can be divided into two eras. To identify the point at which the San Jose Sharks’ fortunes changed for the better, you only need to remember two words.
From D with the C, to GM
After 14 seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks, winning the Norris Trophy and amassing 779 points in 938 games, defenseman Doug Wilson was traded to the Sharks just prior to the beginning of the inaugural 1991-92 season. He was immediately named the team Captain, a title he held until retiring from the NHL after two seasons in San Jose.
Look at their record those seasons. Can you blame him?
Wilson joined the Sharks front office in 1997, spending five years as Director of Player Development. Then following the management purge that saw Dean Lombardi exit the team, Wilson was named as the Sharks’ General Manager in 2003.
He still holds that title as you’re reading this. He’s the second-longest-tenured GM in the league, behind only David Poile of the Nashville Predators. There was a sea change in San Jose in 2003-04, and when you look at the performance of the team in the years prior to Wilson’s ascension versus after, it’s easy to see that he was the catalyst.
What’s interesting about the NHL Entry Drafts during which Wilson has served as GM is how often the Sharks do not have a pick in one of the first three rounds. Wilson regularly uses those picks in trades that land him NHL-ready players. That philosophy isn’t shared by a lot of his peers, but it’s hard to argue with the results.
You also have to marvel at his first year calling the shots for the Sharks at the draft. While everyone else was lining up their throw-away picks to make sure they caught their flights out of town that evening, Wilson used his 7th round pick, the 205th overall, by calling out the name Joe Pavelski. Holy. Crap.
Wilson’s headline-grabbing trade that set the Sharks on the path to where they are today was when he sent Brad Stuart, Wayne Primeau, and Marco Sturm to Boston in exchange for Joe Thornton. Jumbo Joe and (Seattle Thunderbirds alumnus and 2nd overall pick) Patrick Marleau became a potent one-two punch that would inflict untold damage on the Western Conference for more than a decade.
It’s appropriate to include the aforementioned Pavelski as a key performer, amassing 355 goals and 761 points over 13 seasons. Wilson also continually surrounded his three stars with a rotating cast of potent snipers, shut-down artists, and other steady role-players.
Then there’s defense. Wilson plainly has an eye for talent at his former position, and during his time in San Jose he’s managed to acquire a few gems. Rob Blake. Christian Erhoff. Dan Boyle. Doug Murray. Currently the Sharks’ blue line is patrolled by a couple of guys named Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson. Perhaps you’ve heard of them?
Let’s not forget goaltending. The list of netminders that Wilson has relied on is short, but represents a cross-section of some of the best performers in the Western Conference during the last two decades: Vesa Toskala, Evgeni Nabokov, Antti Niemi, and Martin Jones. And remember that Wilson had all of these guys in their prime; the win-loss ratios of those goalies during their years with the Sharks is remarkable.
Western Conference Powerhouse
This all translates to performance on the ice. Last year San Jose went 46-27-9, had a goal differential of +28, and finished 2nd in the Pacific Division. The Sharks appear to take particular glee in clobbering their Pacific Division rivals, posting a 17-8-4 record last season against those clubs.
And that wasn’t a fluke, it was the icing on the cake. The last 10 years the Sharks have a cumulative record of 441-258-87, earning 969 points out of a possible 1572, with a goal differential of +257 — an average of just under +26 per season.
When the playoffs roll around, the Sharks are rarely on the golf course. They’ve missed the post-season only once in the Doug Wilson era; they’ve gone at least two rounds deep ten times; reached the Western Conference Finals five times, and made it to the Stanley Cup Final once.
Last year’s playoffs wasn’t without its bumps in the road. San Jose kicked things off against a hungry VGK team that pushed the series to a seventh game. But that seventh game, man….
Their defeat of the Golden Knights set up the series with the Avalanche, which landed the Sharks in the middle of some controversy:
It was only in the Conference Finals that they lost, to the eventual champion St. Louis Jorts.
BLUES. Sorry. St. Louis Blues. Old habits die hard.
Doug Wilson is entering his 16th season calling the shots in the San Jose front office. He’s 62 years old. Based on the last 15 years, I can’t see the organ-eye-zation getting rid of him in the absence of a staggering blunder. Will he retire? No way to know for sure, but there’s no indication of him slowing down at all.
So, I am woe to admit, we can pretty safely assume that Wilson, and the formidable Sharks teams that he assembles, will be haunting our Seattle franchise in short order.
Our freshly-hatched team will be meeting up with Wilson’s Sharks in just over two years. When they do, they had better bring their ‘A’ game. Because it’s apparent that every time the teal and black show up in our barn, it’s going to be a difficult night.