The Sharks’ season officially is over.
Now comes the hard part.
San Jose general manager Doug Wilson surely has been preparing already, but now he can truly turn the page. The Sharks played their last game on March 11, and they won’t play again until whenever the 2020-21 season begins.
During that time, Wilson will face the most critical offseason since taking the reins in 2003. He made over a team that finished second-to-last in the Western Conference into a Conference finalist during his first year, but the to-do list is far more daunting after the Sharks finished with their worst points percentage since.
If the Sharks are going to avoid the first streak of playoff misses during his tenure, Wilson will have to, among other things:
- Hire a coach
- Find a solution (or two) in net
- Add scoring depth on the wing
- Supplement an aging, expensive core with NHL-ready youth
- Do each of the last four things under a flat salary cap
Those are challenging tasks for any general manager, let alone one grappling with an ever-changing reality formed by the continually evolving consequences of the coronavirus pandemic.
Wilson believes some of the solutions already are in place. He admitted in April that interim bench boss Bob Boughner has the “upper hand” to make his job permanent. Wilson also thinks the Sharks have the right foundation in place, and prospects capable of taking the next step.
He also has the benefit of experience. The Sharks made the playoffs after missing them prior to his first season at the organizational helm, and they made the Stanley Cup final the year after the first playoff miss that happened during his tenure.
This is going to be a heavier lift.
For one, Wilson had a clean slate in the crease the last time around, and he acquired Martin Jones to replace the departed Antti Niemi. Jones’ contract and trade protection -- as well as the Sharks’ relative lack of draft capital -- will make a similar transition much harder.
In both 2003 and 2015, Wilson also had a high pick at his disposal. The Sharks got back into the first round after trading Barclay Goodrow to the Tampa Bay Lightning, but the Lightning’s pick is going to be in the 20s (at best). San Jose picked No. 6 overall in 2003 (Milan Michalek) and No. 9 overall in 2015 (Timo Meier). Only Michalek played in the first season after he was drafted, but both players turned into key contributors who helped the Sharks remain in contention beyond then.
It’s certainly possible the Sharks can use the Lightning’s pick to find another player in that vein, but Wilson also will have to contend with salary-cap uncertainty. The cap rose $2.4 million in 2015, and that additional space helped the Sharks trade for Jones and sign veterans Paul Martin and Joel Ward as free agents. It might not rise at all next season, with games set to be played in front of empty arenas for the foreseeable future.
The Sharks could have nearly $18 million in space under a flat salary cap, if none of the crop of young forwards who played this season are penciled in for opening-night roster spots. But San Jose only has five forwards with more than a season’s worth of NHL games under their belts signed past this season.
Wilson will need to sign or acquire another goalie -- whether it’s pending free agent Aaron Dell or someone else -- and add at least a couple of defensemen, too. He can potentially rely on those aforementioned forwards (and a re-signed Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton) to fill depth-forward roles on the cheap, but cap space could disappear quickly if Wilson hits the free-agent or trade markets to fill holes on the wing and in net.
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Sharks owner Hasso Plattner believes in Wilson’s ability to pull it off. Plattner doesn’t say much, making his January endorsement of Wilson especially telling. The general manager undoubtedly is in a better position now than he was then after restocking the Sharks’ draft-pick cupboard and signing European and collegiate free agents who could, if all goes right, address big needs at low prices.
Wilson has his work cut out for him, though. Now that the Sharks' season officially is over, it’s only just getting started.