Wil­son a shark in NHL trade wa­ters

San Jose GM has as­sem­bled a blue line that’s rare in cap era

Waterloo Region Record - - Sports - DAMIEN COX

It seemed like the days of be­ing able to as­sem­ble a Big Three on de­fence were all but gone.

Ray Bourque, Adam Foote and Rob Blake in Colorado. Scott Stevens, Scott Nie­der­mayer and Brian Rafal­ski in New Jersey. Nick­las Lid­strom, Larry Mur­phy and Chris Che­lios in Detroit.

The salary cap, in­sti­tuted in 2005, just made it too dif­fi­cult, it seemed, plus hav­ing 31 teams ag­gres­sively in the hunt for good de­fence­men meant there was com­pe­ti­tion ev­ery time a good one came on the mar­ket.

San Jose, how­ever, seems to have cracked the post-cap code in this re­gard, and this sea­son will ice the trio of Erik Karls­son, Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vla­sic, the best three­some in the NHL go­ing into the 2018-2019 sea­son. Nashville might dif­fer, with P.K. Sub­ban, Ro­man Josi and Mat­tias Ekholm, but most would give the Sharks a slight edge with the ac­qui­si­tion of Karls­son and his splen­did skill set this week.

The fact Karls­son and Burns were ac­quired by trade speaks to the re­source­ful­ness of Sharks gen­eral man­ager Doug Wil­son and his cre­ative­ness when it comes to horse-trad­ing with his fel­low GMs. Heck, he didn’t even know Burns was a for­ward or a de­fence­man when he got him from Min­nesota in 2011 for Devon Se­toguchi and Char­lie Coyle, and most would agree that has turned out very much in San Jose’s favour.

Wil­son, now in his 15th year run­ning the Sharks, was never re­ally viewed as overly cau­tious among his peers, but he was cer­tainly com­mit­ted to a con­sis­tent draft-and-de­velop strat­egy and un­der­stand­ably con­scious of the rev­enue and pay­roll re­stric­tions of San Jose, which plays in one of the NHL’s small­est rinks.

In the past three years, how­ever, Wil­son has be­come in­creas­ingly bold, al­most at the same time Nashville coun­ter­part David Poile has be­come sim­i­larly ag­gres­sive when it comes to trades. In a theme that was to reap­pear, Wil­son fig­ured out a slightly di­abol­i­cal way to get goalie Martin Jones out of di­vi­sional ri­val Los An­ge­les, in­volv­ing Bos­ton as a brief stop­ping point be­fore bring­ing in the net­min­der to so­lid­ify the Sharks in the crease. Jones, in his first sea­son, took San Jose all the way to the Stan­ley Cup fi­nal be­fore los­ing to Pitts­burgh.

Last win­ter, Wil­son went after a player, Evan­der Kane, who had worn out his wel­come in both Win­nipeg and Buf­falo, and also a player other GMs wouldn’t touch for rea­sons of salary, pro­duc­tion and bag­gage. After pay­ing a firstround pick, a conditional fourth and a prospect for Kane, the Sharks were de­lighted to see Kane score nine times in 17 reg­u­lar-sea­son games, then an­other four times in nine play­off games.

The sec­ond-round loss to Ve­gas was mas­sively dis­ap­point­ing, but the Sharks liked what Kane had shown them enough to give him $49 mil­lion over seven years. That set­back to the Golden Knights, mean­while, only served to make Wil­son more ag­gres­sive.

Aware, as was all of the hockey world, of the ug­li­ness in Ot­tawa be­tween Mike Hoff­man and Karls­son, Wil­son got Sen­a­tors GM Pierre Do­rion to trade Hoff­man to him, un­load­ing the salary of Mikkel Boed­ker in the process. Then, in a sim­i­lar way to the

Jones swaps three years ago, Wil­son sur­prised ev­ery­one by flip­ping Hoff­man to Florida, putting him right back in the same divi­sion as Ot­tawa and mak­ing Do­rion look a lit­tle fool­ish for not putting a rider on the deal.

The Karls­son trade, fi­nally, was the ic­ing on the cake, giv­ing San Jose those three big tal­ents on the back end while not giv­ing up any­thing of par­tic­u­lar im­pact in re­turn. With Burns now 33, Joe Pavel­ski 34 and Joe Thorn­ton creak­ing along at 39, Wil­son clearly made the as­sess­ment that this was the time to strike if the Sharks were go­ing to win a Cup with this core group.

Since that ap­pear­ance in the 2016 fi­nal, the Sharks have turned over half their ros­ter, and have a nice mix of play­ers they drafted — Vla­sic, Lo­gan Cou­ture, To­mas Hertl — and play­ers ac­quired via trade. All those years of pil­ing up as­sets in the draft and sign­ing use­ful, in­ex­pen­sive free agents like for­ward Bar­clay Goodrow gave Wil­son lots of bodies and picks to bar­gain with, al­low­ing him to move six pieces to get Karls­son.

We can de­bate whether San Jose is now the favourite to win the Cup. People in Nashville, Las Ve­gas, Win­nipeg, Washington, Pitts­burgh and, yes, Toronto feel their teams are right there. But trad­ing for Karls­son at least matched the Leafs’ sign­ing of John Tavares as the big­gest moves of the NHL off-sea­son, and gave San Jose a ma­jor new weapon in their bid to reach the fi­nal.

It’s hard to es­ti­mate who will ben­e­fit more; Karls­son, for hav­ing a more tal­ented and ex­pe­ri­enced group around him, or San Jose’s for­wards, none of whom man­aged 70 points last sea­son. The Sharks’ power-play unit was mid­dle of the pack in both the reg­u­lar sea­son and play­offs last year, and it’s hard to imag­ine the for­mer Ot­tawa cap­tain won’t make it bet­ter.

You could also ar­gue the Leafs, with Karls­son and for­mer Cana­di­ens cap­tain Max Pa­cioretty leav­ing the East­ern Con­fer­ence en­tirely, ben­e­fit even more.

So this is where we are to start the 2018-19 sea­son, as­sum­ing Ed­mon­ton doesn’t de­cide it can’t sign Dar­nell Nurse and feels com­pelled to move him (un­likely), or Toronto does the same with Wil­liam Ny­lan­der (equally un­likely).

It took un­til mid September for the fi­nal crit­i­cal ques­tions of the NHL off-sea­son to be an­swered. The Leafs made their splash early with Tavares, while Wil­son’s pa­tience paid off late with the Karls­son deal.

Now let’s get through the mean­ing­less­ness of train­ing camp and get this thing started.

KARL B DEBLAKER THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Erik Karls­son gives San Jose a for­mi­da­ble blue line, join­ing Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vla­sic.

MAD­DIE MEYER GETTY IM­AGES

The San Jose blue line might be the NHL’s best with Brent Burns, pic­tured, Erik Karls­son and Marc-Edouard Vla­sic.

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