Judging Mike Gillis

Image courtesy of Longbomb (CC)

As per TSN, the Vancouver Canucks relieved the team’s GM and President Mike Gillis from his duties several days ago.  This came as no surprise in light of remarks Gillis himself made over a week ago when questioned about the future of embattled Head Coach John Tortorella:

“I don’t know if I will be back next season.”

Success

Gillis has enjoyed enormous success with the Vancouver Canucks, make no mistake.  Five straight division titles, two President’s Trophies, and reaching Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals.  I personally agree with Lowetide’s view on measuring success, and that pennants (i.e. banners) are an ideal measurement of success in an era where it is incredibly difficult to both create and sustain success.

Thus, the team didn’t just “reach the Stanley Cup Finals”, they were crowned Western Conference Champions and deservedly so, beating out half of the league for the honour.  So in terms of actual physical reward for their efforts, Mike Gillis lead the team to six pennants (the five division titles and the Western Conference Championship) and three trophies (two President’s Trophies and the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl).

Under his leadership, the following individual trophies were also won by Canucks players:

  • Ted Lindsay Award – Daniel Sedin (2010/11)
  • Art Ross Trophy – Henrik Sedin (2009/10) & Daniel Sedin (2010/11)
  • Hart Memorial Trophy – Henrik Sedin (2009/10)
  • William M Jennings Trophy – Roberto Luongo & Corey Schneider (2010/11)
  • Frank J Selke Trophy – Ryan Kesler (2010/11)
  • NHL First All-Star Team – Daniel Sedin (2010/11), Henrik Sedin (2009/10 and 2010/11)
  • NHL Second All-Star Team – Daniel Sedin (2009/10)

Building A Contender

Now, how much of this success you attribute to anything specific Gillis did is another matter.  He did receive the GM Of The Year Award in 2010/11, but a lot of the pieces were arguably already in place by the time he arrived, and the natural evolution of a talented group of players merely blossomed during his time there.

Seeing as the 2011 Stanley Cup run was clearly the peak of the team’s evolution under Gillis, it seems only fair to judge him firstly by the moves he made to build that contender.

That 2011 squad was considered at the time to be one of the most talented, deepest squads of recent times, and I was inclined to agree.  Building a squad that is capable of only being one win away from a Stanley Cup is no mean feat; let’s have a quick look at the roster from that season, while seeing which players were signed or traded for by Gillis (displayed below as bolded text), as opposed to those who were already “in place”:

Note: these aren’t the actual line combinations, but rather an approximation based on the respective talents of each player.

Forwards:

D. SEDIN – H.SEDIN – BURROWS

HIGGINS – KESLER - SAMUELSSON

RAYMOND – MALHOTRA – HANSEN

TORRESLAPIERRETAMBELLINI

GLASSBOLDUCORESKOVICH

Defence:

HAMHUIS – BIEKSA

EHRHOFF – EDLER

SALO – BALLARD

TANEVROME

ALBERTS

Goal:

LUONGO

SCHNEIDER

 As stated, the players bought in during Gillis’ tenure are shown in bold.  That is a lot of players, a good amount of whom are particularly significant players.  His top offensive forwards were set, but he brought in six good quality NHL players to fill out the roster.  The real smart moves were made on the backend, however.  He acquired two legitimate top-pairing defenders, Hamhuis and Ehrhoff, for virtually nothing.

Ehrhoff was a salary dump by the Sharks and acquired by Gillis for an aging Brad Lukowich along with prospect Patrick White, who has still yet to play a professional game in North America.  Hamhuis signed as an unrestricted free agent with Vancouver following a unique situation where his negotiating rights were traded twice in the space of a week (Nashville to Philadelphia to Pittsburgh).  Clearly Hamhuis was looking for something very specific, and Gillis and Vancouver offered it to him – on a very reasonable contract, to boot.

To that, he added Keith Ballard and Andrew Alberts via trade, Aaron Rome via free agency, and signed Chris Tanev as an undrafted free agent out of college.  Each player provided good depth options and Tanev in hindsight looks like a particularly astute move.  The Ballard trade may draw criticism now, but remember at the time he was a highly regarded player with a number of strong seasons under his belt.

Seeing as defensive depth is one of the most important aspects of building a strong playoff contender, Gillis did phenomenally well in this regard.  They may not have had a Pronger, a Niedermayer, a Weber or a Chara, but they had four defenders who would be legitimate top-pairing guys on other teams, and another two who would be at least top four, as well as a future top-four guy hanging on as an extra.

Of course, his two goalies – one a top-tier goalie in his prime and the other simply waiting for his opportunity to take over the reins – were there when he got to Vancouver (or at least, in the system), so we can’t ascribe that to Gillis, but if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

And then Mike Gillis decided to break it.

Downfall

The Roberto Luongo debacle is one of the messiest player vs. manager situations I have seen in my time as a hockey fan.  I won’t recount the full horror show, but in short: Luongo suffered an up-and-down season in 2011/12, was seemingly usurped by backup Schneider resulting in the latter being signed to a starting goalie-type contract, leading many to speculate on a trade – something that Gillis eventually publicly admitted.  Luongo split time with Schneider in 2012/13 but was relegated to backup status for the playoffs, and following the season put his penthouse in Vancouver up for sale.

The Canucks openly shopped him around the league, but Gillis didn’t pull the trigger on any deal.  On the day of the NHL Entry Draft in 2013, Corey Schneider was shockingly traded to the New Jersey Devils, effectively making Luongo the starting goalie again.  Luongo was finally traded on deadline day this season back to Florida, leaving the Canucks with neither of their top-rated netminders.

This left the team in the hands of the highly-touted, but relatively unproven Eddie Lack, as well as new hire Jakob Markstrom (part of the trade return), who is also highly touted but has struggled to stick as an NHL goalie.

Then there was the Cody Hodgson-Zack Kassian trade.  Cody Hodgson was pretty much the only strong forward prospect in the Canucks season, but Gillis saw fit to trade him for “toughness”.  Kassian is not without hockey skill, but compared to Hodgson he doesn’t hold a candle.  Hodgson is quite simply the better hockey player, but the Canucks clearly thought they weren’t hitting their fists-on-skates quota for that season so pulled the trigger.

Perhaps at the time they thought Kassian would provide just as much hockey skill as Hodgson, but with the added bonus of toughness.  Either way, the deal – in my opinion – has worked out far more in Buffalo’s favour (it ain’t Hodgson’s fault the Sabres are a horrible team…).

Body Of Evidence

Let’s have a look at some other notable points in Gillis’s career at the helm of the most consistently successful Canadian franchise of the last decade:

Highlights

  •  Signed Alex Burrows to a very reasonable contract (4 years, $2m per season – Burrows would average over 25 goals per season through this contract, making it extreme value).
  • Signed the Sedin twins to identical 5 year, $6.1m per season contracts (Henrik has averaged 1.05 points per game, and Daniel 1.02 PPG over the life of that deal, good for 6th and 8th in the league respectively, not to mention capturing a tonne of individual silverware, and the deals expire this year just as they are slowing down as players.  Those were outstanding deals).
  • Signing Alex Edler to a very reasonable 4 year contract at $3.25m per season, just as he was blossoming into a very good two-way player.  In 2013 Gillis then signed Edler to a 6-year, $5m per season contract, which could again turn out to be decent value (though that remains to be seen, of course).
  • Signing Kevin Bieksa to a reasonable contract for a player of his ability, 5 years at $4.6m per season. This deal ends when Bieksa is about 34, the age at which he’s likely to slow down; for the time being he’s still one of the team’s best defenders.

Lowlights

  • Making an almost embarrassingly aggressive pitch to an aging Mats Sundin ($20m over 2 years), before settling on a 1 year $8.6m deal which, in hindsight, Sundin did not live up to.
  • Signing Roberto Luongo to a 12 year deal.  The cap hit per season ($5.33m) is right on the mark (or was) for a netminder of Luongo’s abilities – he was right at his peak at the time – but that term is ridiculous – Luongo will be 42 when the deal finally ends.
  • Signing Ryan Kesler to a six year, $5m per season contract.  Kesler is a very good player, and the first season of that contract made the deal look like a genius move (41 goals and a Selke Trophy for Kesler), but his offensive numbers since that year have not justified the contract.  He brings more than simply scoring, for sure, but he is not a $5m player anymore.
  • While not Gillis’ fault, he did have to deal with accusing the Maple Leafs’ Brian Burke and Ron Wilson of tampering with the Sedin twins prior to getting them signed.
  • Firing head coach Alain Vigneault and hiring John Tortorella.  Vigneault may or may not have been to blame for numerous early playoff exits, but he did help take the team to the Finals, not to mention all those pennants mentioned above.  Maybe a new voice was needed, but Tortorella has proven to be little more than an embarrassing distraction to the team.  Gillis did hint later that the teams owners, the Aquilini family, were closely involved in the hiring process – not necessarily an advisable route to take.
  • The Canucks’ prospect system has been a constant sore spot during Gillis’ tenure.  Highly rated prospects such as Michael Grabner and Cody Hodgson were traded likely too soon, Jordan Schroeder and Nicklas Jensen did not adjust as well as many hoped to the pro game, and there doesn’t look to be any truly elite talent in the system at any position.

    Bo Horvat looks very good in junior, but by no means projects to be an elite NHL scorer (though could be brilliant defensively), Brendan Gaunce looks pretty good but his ceiling is unclear, and Hunter Shinkaruk has had a difficult year in the WHL.  That lack of depth kills an organisation, especially one coming to the end of its truly competitive window.

Judgement

I think it’s pretty clear that Gillis enjoyed, overall, a successful tenure at the helm with regards to on-ice results.  The early playoff exits (i.e. not a single appearance in the third round other than that 2011 run) are a black-mark on the resume, but one thing many fail to realise is just how difficult it is to succeed in the playoffs.  It’s a long road, and one stretch of bad or even just mediocre games can kill any hope of success, and ultimately that cannot, in my opinion, be blamed on Gillis but rather the play of the players at that particular time.

Managing to sustain success to the extent of two straight President’s Trophies? That’s fantastic, achievable only by an extremely well-designed team.

The real negative on Gillis’ time at the top comes from the state the organisation is in now.  I’m comfortable with stating the team is not as bad as their record would indicate, but as has been acknowledged in several quarters, the Canucks are nearing the natural closing of their window of opportunity.  Gillis quite simply didn’t do well enough when it comes to ensuring the team can enjoy continued, prolonged success in the same manner as Detroit, Chicago or even San Jose.

Put simply, the team is in a much worse shape than it was when Gillis took charge.  Again, not all of that is on Gillis – his best players have enjoyed their peak seasons and are now on the downward slope, but he hasn’t found – either via draft, free agency, or trade – the Nyquists, the Tatars, the Manthas, the Hertls, the Coutures, the Dekeysers, that next generation of players who may or may not be elite as those that preceded them, but at the very least should keep them competitive.  Much of Vancouver’s defense are approaching the end of their peak years, save for Edler and Tanev; gone are two legitimate starting goalies; and the elite offensive superstars are slowly winding down, with no apparent replacements.

This is not an un-salvageable situation by any stretch – Gillis’ replacement could, with some shrewd moves and smart drafting, stop the ship from sinking.  The team has some valuable parts, and players that could remain quality assets for the team for many more years.

Mike Gillis built, or helped build depending on your stance, a Championship-worthy team.  His crime was not failing to win, but rather in not building the foundations for the continued opportunity to contend.

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