This summer, San Jose Sharks GM Doug Wilson raised more than a few eyebrows when he made a series of bold moves. After five consecutive seasons with better than 100 points, San Jose parted ways with a couple of their top point producers and a top prospect in a series of trades.
Why would Wilson mess with a formula that wasn’t that far away from being a success?
Perhaps a look back at his career as a defenseman with the Chicago Blackhawks holds the answers.
The 1977 NHL Draft wasn’t loaded with first round superstars. In fact, only two players that were selected in the first round that year (which was only 18 picks at that point) went on to have solid career: Mike Bossy and Doug Wilson.
Selected with the sixth overall selection that year, Wilson jumped straight into the NHL and became one of the best defensemen of the next decade. Over the next 14 years, Wilson skated in 938 games in the Indianhead sweater.
He racked up 779 points (225 goals, 554 assists) while playing for Chicago, an astounding 265 more than any other defenseman in team history; the man who sits behind Wilson in Chicago’s books, Bob Murray, spent a big part of his career playing by Wilson’s side.
How good was Wilson? There have been only 15 individual seasons in the history of the Blackhawks organization in which a defenseman reached 60 points. Seven of those 15 were by Wilson, who has the three highest single-season point totals by a defenseman in Hawks history.
During his time in Chicago, Wilson played in six All-Star Games and, in 1981-82, Wilson reached the individual pinnacle at his position when he was awarded the James Norris Memorial Trophy; he posted 85 points that year.
Wilson was a part of some memorable Blackhawks teams, and skated with some of the best individual players in the franchise’s long history. Through the 1980s, he watched as Denis Savard, Steve Larmer, Al Secord, Troy Murray and Dirk Graham enjoyed great individual success. In the 12 seasons between 1979-80 and 1990-91, the Blackhawks won their division six times and finished second once.
But those great Blackhawks teams never even played in the Stanley Cup Finals.
The 1980s in the NHL were dominated by two teams: the New York Islanders and the Edmonton Oilers. Between 1980 and 1990, the Cup was handed out 11 times. Four times it wound up in the hands of the Bossy-led Islanders, and five times it was presented to the Oilers of Messier, Kurri and, of course, Gretzky.
Because of the dominance of those teams, not only did the Hawks not get to the promised land but many of those great Blackhawks players haven’t received their due in the history books; both Wilson and Larmer have a legitimate case to be in the Hall of Fame.
Fast forward to the summer of 2011 in San Jose. Wilson, who doesn’t look like he’s aged since he trimmed his jheri curl int he late 1980s, is now the General Manager of a team that has battled the Blackhawks in the Western Conference for the last few years. With superstar talent all over his roster, the teams Wilson had constructed had been close.
But, again, Wilson hasn’t been able to get a team to the Stanley Cup Finals.
As Wilson approached this past summer, he looked up and down a roster that’s full of underappreciated players. Joe Thornton is one of the better two-way centers in the game, and Patrick Marleau has quietly accumulated spectacular numbers during his time with the Sharks.
Perhaps as Wilson looked at his team when the dust settled in June, he felt a sense of déjà vu.
In many ways, Thornton and Marleau mirror the play of Savard and Larmer. Like Secord, Dany Heatley was brought in to be a physical scorer, and he was that in the regular season. And he likely sees a great deal of himself in Dan Boyle.
Perhaps the dramatic moves Wilson made this summer were an attempt to somehow give Thornton, Marleau and Boyle the chance he never had as a Blackhawk. Brent Burns, Martin Havlat and Michal Handzus replace Ian White, Heatley and Devin Setoguchi on a dramatically different Sharks depth chart that will try to, finally, get over the hump in the Western Conference.
We’ll see if his moves made a difference, or if the painful irony is that a young team in Chicago has become the nemesis that Edmonton was to his Hawks teams 30 years ago.