San Jose Sharks Season Review, Part 7: The Owner and GM

Our season review on the San Jose Sharks comes to its most controversial part. The management group. From Richard Gere to Richard Nixon and from snakes to flying horses, the bizarre road traveled this season invites a wide array of unexpected comparisons. We take a look at the hockey team management, which figured in a considerable portion of this season’s controversy. For those needing to catch up on any of the prior subjects, they are linked below.

1. Main Points

2. Forwards

3. Defense

4. Goalies

5. Roster and Salary Cap

6. Coach

 Can Horses Fly?

Horse Racing - 3 Horse Race
Horses can run, but can they also fly? Of course not.

A famous story goes like this. An ancient general, whose battlefield success had been waning, was brought to face the king. Fully understanding his fate, the general came up with a creative plan to save his life. He told the king, “I have been working on a secret program and we have been having some success. I have been able to teach some horses to fly. I need one more year and once the program is done, having flying horses will allow us to conquer every enemy”.

The skeptical king was nonetheless willing to take a chance, “you have one year”.

The general returned to his amazed troops, who had witnessed the dialogue. They knew there was no such program and no such chance. They asked the general why he would make such a crazy promise, the general replied “A lot can happen in one year. For example, the king could die …”

Snake Oil

I have considerable respect for former Sharks Head Coach Todd McLellan. I can’t really bring myself to say the same thing about the General Manager Doug Wilson. Snake oil salesman? That sounds about right.

One should be fair when it comes to Doug Wilson. Objectively speaking, his tenure can only be considered a success. People are not speaking objectively about Wilson these days. He is the primary target of ire among the fan base. If a poll was taken among fans, Wilson would top the list of people that they wanted gone, not McLellan.

An Agreement

I have little doubt that Wilson and Sharks owner Hasso Plattner had a meeting of the minds after last season’s horrendous finish. When you have $9billion, as Plattner does, you generally get to avoid most of life’s humiliations. He bought the Sharks outright, took full control and hoped to win a Stanley Cup. Instead, his team went down in history for all the wrong reasons a year ago versus the Los Angeles Kings. I can’t imagine conversations with Hasso Plattner were any fun after that debacle.

Plattner was likely ill-prepared for such an outcome. Wilson was the point person forced to address the boss. I’m certain Wilson channeled his inner Richard Gere, tap dancing his way through a minefield as best he could.

It would make sense that Wilson and Plattner agreed that what happened versus the LA Kings would not stand and that changes had to be made. Plattner, no doubt, gave Wilson a heads-up on the sort of plan that would meet with the boss’s approval. Wilson dutifully developed a plan that fit the boss’s script. Whether Wilson liked that script or not was irrelevant; his only choices were to follow the boss’s requirements or look for a new job. Wilson developed a plan to overhaul what was a good team. Plattner, with his own agenda, approved the rebuild plan he told Wilson to deliver to him.

Hasso Plattner set the course, Doug Wilson was his willing accomplice.

Hasso Plattner
Sharks owner Hasso Plattner

I can easily imagine Plattner telling Wilson that he will not spend to the salary cap for a team that exits in round one of the playoffs. Wilson’s response was a plan that kept spending well below the cap. I can imagine Plattner telling Wilson this team was not tough enough. Wilson’s response was to get the biggest kid out there in John Scott. I can imagine Plattner telling Wilson he will never win a Cup with Thornton and Marleau, hence all the passive-aggressive treatment they received from Wilson, likely in an attempt to get either or both to waive ‘no movement’ contracts. Wilson has made statements such as “I never asked Joe Thornton or Patrick Marleau to waive their no trade clauses”. Wilson was selling snake oil. Actions spoke louder than words: he wanted them to waive their clauses.

The actions and reactions over the past (almost) 12 months were almost certainly a result of the plan Wilson and Plattner agreed to in the offseason.

 A Key Element

There is an extra part of that deal between Wilson and Plattner that is very critical to it all. As Plattner demanded a rebuild, Wilson requested job security, no matter how this past season turned out.

Doug Wilson
Doug Wilson

Moves were being made for the longer term. Short-term results while potentially painful, were not critical to the bigger picture. I believe Wilson got that job security assurance from the owner. The best evidence is what occurred near the trade deadline. Wilson had a struggling team with home attendance issues for the first time in years. Wilson did nothing to improve the team. That either speaks to job security or that he hates the boss and wouldn’t mind getting fired. I think it is the former, we can rule out the latter if Wilson keeps his job.

Perhaps Plattner added some caveats to their deal, they do not appear significant. Wilson didn’t need to fill the venue or make the playoffs plus he had enough freedom to insult Joe Thornton (the infamous “Joe has a tendency to lash out” episode). Perhaps that last one pushed the envelope, as it was one of the few situations where Plattner felt a need to personally intervene.

In practice, Plattner, for business reasons having to do with the state of the aging venue fondly known as the Shark Tank and a potentially more lucrative opportunity in San Francisco, may have more interest in having good team in 2018 than in 2015.

Patrick Marleau
Joe Thornton is not lashing out in this picture  (Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports)

When Doug Wilson did nothing to improve the team at the trade deadline, deciding it was better to risk finishing out of the playoffs than in, it became clear that this team was being sacrificed. The question was, for what? There was zero chance that Wilson does nothing to improve a team on the playoff fringe — unless the owner is on board with that. Wilson locked in his own job security, while throwing the team under the bus, including the respected coach Todd McLellan. He tried to sell it all as a ‘step back’. More snake oil.

Through it all, the determination the organization showed in sticking to poor decisions was impressive. Or embarrassing. Wilson seemed to want to undermine this year’s team while at the same time, showing the merits of the plan he agreed on with the owner. That proved to be one tough needle to thread, at least for the fan base and media. Neither of whom sign Doug Wilson’s paycheck.

The move of Brent Burns to defense is perhaps the signature move, yet Wilson’s own explanations for the move when it was made were completely disingenuous. He talked about Burns on the power play, for example, but Burns was already playing defense on the power play. Still more snake oil. Coach Todd McLellan, who likely had little say in the matter, kept Burns on the blueline, even as he knew it was costing his team games and perhaps his job. If anyone thought we’d be running out of Wilson’s snake oil by now, they’d be mistaken.

One thing has become clear in the postseason. The owner is more involved in the personnel decisions. The season’s outcome was not really in doubt for the last few weeks of play. Yet it took well over a week after the season ended to finally announce that the team was parting ways with the coach and his staff. At this point, the owner is calling more of the shots. A season with so many missteps that followed a season with a historically bad ending meant that ‘stay the course’ was not a consideration. Hasso Plattner authorized this season to play out as it did. The only question: who would be the fall guy? Doug Wilson had his ‘autographed get out of jail free card’. Todd McLellan did not.

Watch the clip and substitute in the roles. McLellan for Jack Ryan (Harrison Ford),  Doug Wilson for CIA’s Robert Ritter and Hasso Plattner as the unseen president — and see how much of the dialogue actually parallels the Sharks situation. McLellan as the Boy Scout trying to do his job, but also neck-deep in supporting the plan. Wilson as the slimy manager that was also smart enough to make sure his backside was covered before things blew up. Plattner as the authority figurehead with the political agenda who authorized the plan that spun out of control and undermined one of his respected subordinates. Maybe the Sharks should make a movie instead of raising ticket prices.

Did the Youth Movement Work?

sharks top prospects
Doug Wilson put a lot of faith in 19-year-old Mirco Mueller (James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)

Central to the deal, Plattner expected a plan that looked more future and less present. A ‘tomorrow team’ in Wilson’s words. Wilson sold his version of the plan, emphasizing his younger players, hoping that some of them would emerge. Horses flying and all that. Wilson mentioned youth, he often led with Mirco Mueller, probably where Wilson placed his greatest hope. Mueller was the player Wilson traded up to get in round 1 of the 2103 draft. When a GM trades up, it is because he has high hopes for that player. Mueller may pan out at some point, but he clearly was not NHL ready at age 19.

Two other returning youngsters Wilson mentioned specifically, Matt Nieto and Tomas Hertl, failed to improve on their rookie seasons. Still, 3 rookie players did emerge which cushioned the blow. Chris Tierney and Melker Karlsson both played well, while Barclay Goodrow managed to hang onto a roster spot. The youth movement had some success, if not with the players Wilson expected to succeed.

sharks salaries
Chris Tierney’s late season play may have helped Doug Wilson retain his job (Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports)

If Hasso Plattner did have a caveat for Wilson’s job security, beyond Wilson keeping his word, it likely revolved around the play of the younger players. For a ‘tomorrow team’, the ability to find and develop young talent is essential. Did the young talent do enough?

No doubt, those numbers are being crunched by Wilson. Combined 57 points from Karlsson, Tierney and Goodrow and -1; but look at what happened since February 1 with these 3 players: combined 33 points and +4. See the growth!! A bright future is the owner’s real requirement for Wilson and that is what Wilson will sell. If Wilson had either broken Plattner’s trust or failed badly on the ‘tomorrow team’, he would have been quickly replaced after the season ended. While there remains a chance that Wilson gets removed, he appears to have gotten past the major obstacles.

Dysfunction and the Owner

Dysfunction begins at the top. Hasso Plattner decided he needed to put his imprint on the culture and losing became acceptable. That is a huge risk with long-term consequences. Wilson and McLellan, whatever their flaws, have extensive track records of being far better at their jobs than anything people saw this season. As many have pointed out, this season did not need to play out the way it did.

Whatever harsh criticisms Doug Wilson is getting these days, he has earned them. But the harshest criticisms need to be pointed higher.

Hasso Plattner made this mess. He brought out the worst in his management team, not the best. In the USA, the people have the opportunity to vote out the president every four years. In sports, the owner gets to be the owner, essentially for life. Do I trust Hasso Plattner to clean up the mess he made? I’ll borrow Richard Nixon’s own ironic words from his famous 1952 Checkers speech, “You wouldn’t trust a man who made the mess to clean it up”. Unfortunately for Shark fans, they have no choice.