Wilson’s bold moves in 2007 draft a continuation of strategy

By Jeff Dahlia

When Sharks Executive Vice President and General Manager Doug Wilson arrived in Columbus for the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, he and his staff were without a first-round pick. The fact that they’d have to show up for the first night of the draft just to make a formal appearance didn’t sit well. Their first pick was the 41st selection, which pushed them well into the second round.

On Friday afternoon, the Sharks were looking to obtain a pick that would give them more bite.  Wilson hammered out a deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs, sending goalie Vesa Toskala and center Mark Bell to the Leafs for Toronto’s first- and second-round picks this year (13th and 44th overall) and fourth-round pick in 2009.

“We made the goaltending move in order to give us some flexibility in the way we structured the 13th pick and the option for next year,” he said. “We knew we had to get up to a certain number to get the player we wanted and that was the range we had to get to.”

But Wilson turned around and sent that pick, plus the newly-acquired 44th pick and a 2008 third-round pick to the St. Louis Blues. In turn, the Blues surrendered an additional four draft spots to Wilson and Co., which moved them up to the ninth overall selection.

Why all of this? They knew the player they wanted and Wilson was going to try his darnedest to get him.

“We just identify the players we want and it’s my job to get us in the range to match where our scouts have forecasted them,” he explained. “If there is something we really want and something our guys really believe in, I respect their opinions immensely and we’ll do it.”

Welcome in their newest prospect, Logan Couture, a 6’0 center from the Ottawa 67’s of the OHL.

Wilson is one of the best at working other teams hard for drafting leverage. He has the passion to work hard for his scouting staff and the franchise. Over the last four drafts, the Sharks have stockpiled talent through drafting, which has paid enormous dividends. From Milan Michalek, Steve Bernier, Matt Carle and Joe Pavelski in 2003, to Lukas Kaspar, Thomas Greiss in 2004, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic in 2005, the list is bountiful.

The number of prospects coming into the organization and becoming productive parts at the NHL level is very encouraging, as it must be especially for those who are still waiting in the wings.

“We believe in players and when we get them, we’re going to work with them and we’re going to assume it’s going to take time,” Wilson said. “Sometimes we get a surprise and it doesn’t take that much time.”

With Kaspar and Greiss on the verge of NHL stardom, many on the list above have already shed their prospect status and have made a splash for the Sharks. It is apparent that the strategy is working for the Sharks and the prospects are embracing it.

“We believe that it’s our responsibility to give them the tools they need to succeed,” he added. “You’ve got to work with the development side. We don’t believe in turning and burning somebody by drafting him at 18 years old and stating they should be this by 20 years old.”

Wilson offered a perfect example in Patrick Rissmiller. Signed as an undrafted free agent back in 2002, the former Holy Cross College pivot has spent the last four seasons developing within the system before he made the Sharks full time this past season.

“Look at his situation,” he said of Rissmiller. “If the player is still with us, we’re going to make the commitment to make him better and get him to the NHL.”

The undrafted Rissmillers of the hockey world who go on to NHL careers are few and far between. But a good number of the prospects entering the San Jose system these days are becoming primetime contributors.
The science of selecting

The 14-year NHL veteran turned general manager will tell you up front, he’s only responsible for the fraction of the process. He, like many other general managers, relies heavily on his scouting department to help identify the ‘right’ talent.

“Our staff works so hard, they’re not afraid to step up and say who they want and they’ll say it with a lot of conviction,” he said. “Believe me, I respect them and I listen to them.”

In this case, the scouting staff takes cues from a qualified and established director, who leads and coordinates the effort. That responsibility in the Sharks hierarchy falls on Tim Burke, someone Wilson has worked very close with and whose skill Wilson admires.

“I have great respect for him,” Wilson said of Burke’s ability to forecast young prospects. “He’s got a great sense of that.”

Burke’s sense and Wilson’s trust are the key ingredients in the formula of the Sharks latest success at the draft table.

If other teams value the same player, they are aware that they have to move ahead of those teams, much like they did for Couture. Wilson downplayed the gutsiness of moving up as a regular practice.

“We just think it is a normal way of doing business," he explained. “You forecast the draft as to where you think people are going to go. Maybe not all 30 teams think they’re going to be there, but the perception is that he’s there.”

However, public perception is something they don’t like to be overly concerned with when it comes to forecasting and selecting.

“It’s more, ‘what do we believe’ in a hockey player,” he added. “If other teams value that player too, we know we have to get up in front of them to get him.”

And when it comes to the getting prospects, Wilson knows that even though it’s a gamble with every pick, he acknowledges his staff pulls out all the stops every year to grab the right ones.

He believes in the staff he works with and feels he owes it to them to be able to let them speak their minds. Of course the other part of that is listening and following through.

“I’m amazed,” he said of the process. “I think this is the toughest part of the business. I mean you have 18-year-old players coming from all these different places and a staff with conviction stating that ‘he is the guy we want.’”

Wilson also feels you can’t be afraid of making a mistake if you have strong conviction in the prospects.

“If you’re always making safe choices or safe picks, I’m not sure where that would get you,” he explained. “You would rather come off the draft floor with two or three guys you really want than five or six guys you kind of want.”

Earning fins

Once San Jose moves past signing prospects, the development process continues on. As Wilson previously mentioned, it’s a process that has no set timetable. What is constant is the Sharks commitment to their players and an honest attempt to get them in the NHL.

“We get them in and we know we’re going to have work with them and they’re going to have to work,” he said. “Their time frame will be their time frame.”

Every player will get a chance to earn a place in the organization. While it might not be at the NHL level right off the bat, the opportunities are still endless if the player comes prepared every day.

“It’s not easy and we’re not going to give a guy an opportunity or a job by default or their draft rank,” Wilson said.

For instance, Wilson stated that if a player comes into the system and constantly works on getting better and shows he can, the chances would come. You don’t have to look any further than Vlasic last season.

“He was one of our best defensemen at 19 years old and then at 20 years old in the playoffs because he plays the game the right way,” Wilson said of the youngster. “That comes from your hockey sense and your willingness to do it.”

Wilson said it’s hard in any case to not want to work with a player and help him push forward if he’s working hard and doing all those little things right.

“It’s not about saying, ‘I’m here and I’m a talented player,‘" he said. “You have to apply the fundamentals. If you can do that, then we’re not going to hold people back.”

The ultimate vindication according to Wilson comes when the teammates know it and say a guy can play.

Is that going to be the case for Couture come this summer?

“If a guy comes in, he can play, and does the work in the summer time, he’ll play,” Wilson said.

The door is open for Couture, but it is really too early to tell. Whether it’s this fall or one in the near future, the Sharks will do everything in their power to make him an NHL player one day. They spent a whole day gathering the picks to get him.

Copyright 2007 Hockey’s Future.  Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.