Doug Wilson and the Risk Worth Taking

John Tavares has left the New York Islanders and is headed to the Toronto Maple Leafs. The best player to hit unrestricted free agency in a very long time had a list of six teams he considered: the team he played for his first nine seasons, the New York Islanders, and five others. The San Jose Sharks were one of the five. In many respects, the Sharks were a very good fit. But Tavares made the choice, in his own words, “to live his childhood dream.”

Now begins the second-guessing, however misguided, of Sharks general manager Doug Wilson begins.

Tavares Watch

Tavares was eligible to sign a contract extension with the Isles beginning July 1, 2017. But even before this, the Tavares watch began. I first noted his potential to join the San Jose Sharks in February 2017. And as time dragged on, Tavares’ future on the Island (yes, Brooklyn is on Long Island) was anything but certain.

Doug Wilson
Doug Wilson (Jason O. Watson-US PRESSWIRE)

On the other side of the country, Sharks general manager Doug Wilson left little room for doubt he was ‘all in’ on Tavares for at least a year. While his comments were appropriately cryptic so as not to cross any league guidelines, Wilson spoke of having around $10 million in cap space looking for an asset to use it on. An asset, singular. Not plural. Tavares was the only player in that price range with the genuine potential to switch teams.

The Sharks had the need, with Joe Thornton’s prime now over and a void at the top-line center spot. Not to diminish the work of Logan Couture or Joe Pavelski, but Tavares is simply more capable of stepping into Thornton’s skates, while lines with Pavelski and Couture would provide San Jose an insane amount of center depth.

Wilson not only had the cap space, he also had a talented roster capable of going deep into the playoffs. The rest of the sales pitch was solid, too. The Sharks were the best-prepared team for Tavares because Wilson had prepared for this moment for a long time. If it had gone right, the Sharks had the chance to become a juggernaut for the next several years. It didn’t go right.

San Jose Sharks Face Reality

For the Sharks, all is not lost, but this was a rare opportunity and it’ll sting. The Sharks were not a given to sign Tavares, but every time I looked at the list of likely teams competing for Tavares, the Sharks had the best fit. Alas, he didn’t grow up dreaming about California.

San Jose still has a number of good centers, but no one who is a matchup nightmare for most teams. With Ryan Getzlaf, Anze Kopitar and Connor McDavid in the division, having a center capable of playing at the elite levels of these other outstanding players…well, it matters.

John Tavares, New York Islanders
John Tavares  (Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images)

The Sharks sit on plenty of cap space, so there is plenty of opportunity to upgrade the roster. At the moment, it is slightly depleted. Mikkel Boedker, a solid contributor in the second half of last season, is gone, though San Jose did get a number of draft picks in return. Sixth defenseman Dylan DeMelo is likely on the way out, as the team did not tender him a qualifying offer – he is now an unrestricted free agent. Paul Martin had his contract bought out; it was a move designed to help the Sharks clear cap space for Tavares for this year, but it won’t help and it might even hurt. Eric Fehr, who did fine work in his time as a fourth-line center, appears to have moved on as well. The core of the roster remains, but there is work to do.

The Sharks Took a Risk Worth Taking

From a personnel standpoint, nothing equaled the opportunity Tavares presented since the deal that brought Joe Thornton to the Sharks. We’ll never know the moves Wilson passed up to keep the window open for Tavares. Was it a risk worth taking? Absolutely. As we wrote earlier, the Sharks could have had Tavares, Couture, Pavelski and Thornton as their centers. And there are plenty of other top talents on the roster, including Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Tomas Hertl and Evander Kane. The middle of the lineup is also solid, with Chris Tierney, Joonas Donskoi, Marcus Sorensen, Justin Braun, Timo Meier, Melker Karlsson and Joakim Ryan.

Joe Thornton Sharks 2017
Joe Thornton (Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports)

When you have a chance to become a juggernaut, you take the chance. Adding Tavares would have given the Sharks a lineup that made the team the Stanley Cup favorite. For a franchise with a lot of playoff history but no championship, Tavares was their best shot and Wilson took it.

Wilson Made the Right Decision

The chance to acquire Tavares presented a unique opportunity. San Jose has had only one top-10 draft pick in the past decade (ninth overall at that) and it’s the only time they’ve even been in the draft lottery over that span. There is no easy path to getting a talent like Tavares if you don’t have the high draft picks.

Wilson took his chances and it didn’t work. But he made the right choice. There was an opportunity to lock down an elite talent for the prime of his career with a solid team surrounding him. Wilson positioned his team as best as possible for it. Had it worked, it would have transformed the Sharks for years to come.

If there is any solace, the best roster at the start of the season is often not the one holding the Stanley Cup eight months later. One could argue the Washington Capitals won their Stanley Cup this season with their worst roster in years. This can happen for the Sharks, too. Losing Tavares doesn’t prevent San Jose from getting a Cup, though the path is clearly harder.

It was always a risky move to keep the door open Tavares. Some risks are worth the reward. I applaud Wilson for taking the risk. It was absolutely the right move, even if it didn’t work.