After facing many critics over the past couple of seasons, Doug Wilson and Brent Burns have certainly changed the narrative surrounding their time in teal.
As the San Jose Sharks entered the 2015-16 NHL season, there were enough positives to feed the optimists and enough negatives to feed the pessimists. Many of the latter focused on general manager Doug Wilson and sometimes specifically his choice to move Brent Burns back to a defenseman.
Examining the way those two were instead huge reasons San Jose reached its first Stanley Cup Final helps give that accomplishment context. It is amazing those critics ever had any credibility. That perception is not limited to hindsight, either.
Let me count the ways…
For one, skilled right-handed defensemen have more value than power forwards. They get more ice time and are much harder to find.
Moreover, Burns was already a two-time All-Star defenseman and was voted to the first team at the IIHF World Championships. One can get at least the former with a rather one-sided game, but being on either list still means being among the very best in the world.
It did not matter that Wilson was making that call as one of the best defensemen in his time. It did not even matter that Larry Robinson was one of the best ever and believed in Burns on the back end. They obviously did not know what they were talking about.
Even if Burns were a better at forward than on the back end, the Sharks had a deeper blue-line need. Did anyone seriously think his upgrade over the fourth-line forward that would sit would be bigger than the downgrade from him to the next man up, Matt Irwin?
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Unfortunately, few people engage in the kind of rational debate where those basics can be conveyed anymore. If you disagree with them, you are lacking in knowledge, understanding, character or have some kind of agenda.
Now that’s settled…
Once San Jose committed him to the back end, Burns found another level defensively last December. He remains aggressive offensively because that potential pays more than it costs.
Once he is there, Burns makes the play. No one is better at stopping an odd-man rush, as he lays his big body out at the right time to cut off pass and disrupt shot. His stick is as good as anyone the Sharks have, and he couples that with his length to lead the unit in takeaways since moving back.
Finally, Burns was as good as any defenseman except maybe Kris Letang in the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs. The forward-vs.-defense debate is decisively over, but the more extensive questions about Wilson should never have gone beyond making sure he was accountable for his mistakes.
Sorting legitimate criticism from inane whining…
Wilson was already unquestionably San Jose’s best general manager ever. This goes beyond the four best postseason records happening in his tenure. Only the Detroit Red Wings had a better composite regular season record, made the Stanley Cup playoffs those 10 seasons or accumulated as many postseason and series wins.
Obviously Wilson ranks behind any general manager winning a Stanley Cup. Statistically, a general manager has almost a 70 percent chance of not winning a title in 11 years. Only eight teams had won over that span—26.7 percent of the NHL.
Some critical of Wilson for bare cupboards that came from selling picks and prospects for Stanley Cup runs blamed him for the end of that postseason streak. Some critical of a lack of accountability from top to bottom blamed him for calling out players after the historic choke of 2014. Both amount to blaming him for making the changes they requested.
Wilson overreacted publicly with his criticism, but the emotion was understandable. The reaction had to be intense.
San Jose has been good in the regular season and come close to reaching the next level. That is different than being close to winning it all. The margin is sometimes a single play in a given game and often a single game in a given series. Winners make that extra play.
San Jose was eliminated by a lower seed five times. There were only three times it won as a lower seed. Two came as a fifth seed beating the fourth-seeded Nashville Predators, still years away from their first Stanley Cup playoff series win.
Change approaches and coaches, not GM
Wilson clearly gave the team enough to succeed, but the players continually failed. Perpetuating his win-now strategy would mean perpetuating his mistakes.
Hence Wilson’s famous “tomorrow team” and “take a step back to take two steps forward” comments. The timing was perfect right before the richest draft in over a decade.
Fans can thank his rebuild when ninth-overall pick Timo Meier is playing alongside Joe Pavelski or Logan Couture in a couple years. Ultimately, Wilson should only bear responsibility for trying to compensate for failed depth moves at the trade deadline.
Raffi Torres, Michal Handzus, T. J. Galiardi, Dominic Moore, Niclas Wallin, Bill Guerin and Mark Bell were the most notable moves that looked good but did not work. All five of his most recent additions succeeded—four of them splendidly: Joel Ward, Paul Martin, Roman Polak and James Reimer.
Wilson lost Reimer, Polak, Nick Spaling and Dainius Zubrus from the Stanley Cup finals roster this summer. He added David Schlemko and Mikkel Boedker so far.
The Sharks enter the 2016-17 NHL season as one of the league’s deepest teams. Moreover, their best six players are as good as any team’s and Brent Burns as hard to play as any of them. (The others are Pavelski, Couture, Joe Thornton, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Martin Jones.)
Wilson deserves credit for building a team that reached the Stanley Cup Finals and could be good enough to get those two extra wins next year. Burns deserves credit for making the move back to defenseman the foundation of that jump.
Neither finds that success where they are right now without some patience. That allowed them to partner in building a team capable of contending for years to come.