If you wanted to hear that Mike Gillis was going to blow up the Canucks’ roster and mass-fire the coaching staff during his press conference last Thursday, you were likely gravely disappointed. Gillis has never been one to make a hasty, emotional decision and he was disconcertingly calm as he answered questions about the Canucks’ disappointing season and the unceremonious four-game sweep that ended it.
Gillis stayed away from drastic words like “rebuild” and instead pushed the far less dramatic “reset” repeatedly. Which is silly, because everyone knows you only need to push reset once. Pushing it repeatedly is pointless. Besides, sometimes you have to take the cartridge out and blow on it before it will work properly.
“Five years ago, we came in here and reset this organization, and it’s time to do it again,” said Gillis, referring to 2008, when he was first hired to be the General Manager of the Vancouver Canucks.
Looking at what Gillis did then may help us know what to expect during the coming off-season. How much of a “reset” did Gillis institute when he joined the organization?
Most new GMs tend to make sweeping changes at the coaching and management level, bringing in their own people to occupy these vital positions. Gillis, however, bucked the trend. After extensive interviews with head coach Alain Vigneault and associate coach Rick Bowness, he kept both of them on, which certainly seemed like a good decision by the time the 2010-11 season came around.
It certainly seems far more likely now that Vigneault will be let go, but Gillis has had many opportunities to fire him and hasn’t done so yet.
What Gillis did do, however, was fire both assistant coaches, Barry Smith and Mike Kelly, replacing them with Ryan Walter and Darryl Williams. Smith is currently the Director of Player Development for the Chicago Blackhawks, while Kelly moved on to become the head coach and general manager of the Saint John Sea Dogs of the QMJHL.
While Walter was a bit of a bust as an assistant coach and was let go two years later, Williams is still the Canucks’ assistant coach who works with video. He and Newell Brown, who replaced Walter in 2010, may want to keep a lookout if this off-season’s “reset” bears any similarity to the one five years ago.
At the management level, Gillis made significant changes. Steve Tambellini resigned to take the Edmonton Oilers’ GM job, but he was likely on his way out in any case. Gillis brought in Laurence Gilman to be his VP of Hockey Operations and Assistant General Manager, then promoted Stan Smyl and Lorne Henning from the scouting ranks, making Smyl his Senior Adviser and Henning the VP of Player Personnel and Assistant General Manager.
It seems unlikely that we’ll see any similar changes this time around. This was the one area where Gillis brought in his own people and there hasn’t been any indication of dissatisfaction with their work. Gilman, in particular, has been an essential part of the front office. As the resident cap wizard, Gilman has been responsible for some of the Canucks’ most esoteric manipulations of the salary cap and also negotiates with teams, like the Toronto Maple Leafs, where Gillis isn’t on the friendliest of terms with their GM.
Gillis also made some adjustments to the Canucks’ scouting and development in 2008, bringing in Dave Gagner as director of player development and hiring and firing a few scouts. Though the Canucks may make some changes in this area, they’re unlikely to be any more significant than in previous seasons, although Gillis’s recent record at the trade deadline may lead him to question some of his pro scouts.
Now we get to the players themselves. The issue with comparing what happened in 2008 to what might happen this off-season is that 2008 was more of a transitional year. The Sedins had established themselves as first-line players, but Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows were both still third-line checkers. Markus Naslund and Brendan Morrison were still Canucks.
So, in 2008, Gillis revamped the top-six of the Canucks, releasing Naslund and Morrison to free agency, letting go of the last remnants of the West Coast Express era. To replace them, Gillis went after veteran free agents Pavol Demitra and Mats Sundin in order to bridge the gap until other players were ready to step into the role.
Kesler and Burrows showed they were ready that following season, as Burrows lined up alongside the Sedins, while Kesler apprenticed on Sundin’s wing, once the big Swede finally signed with the Canucks partway through the season.
While Burrows made it a moot point, Gillis also took steps to fill the Sedins’ open spot on the right wing, acquiring Steve Bernier in a trade with the Buffalo Sabres. Bernier was ultimately a disappointment in a top-line role, eventually getting packaged into the Keith Ballard trade, speaking of disappointments.
This off-season, the Canucks’ top six is pretty much set. The top line of the Sedins and Burrows is still a solid combination, while Kesler should get another shot at centring Chris Higgins and David Booth while all three are healthy. With young players like Zack Kassian, Nicklas Jensen, and Jordan Schroeder available to slot into the top-six in case of injury or scoring slumps, there doesn’t seem to be any need to acquire much in the way of veteran top-six talent like in 2008.
The bottom six certainly needs some attention, however. In 2008, Gillis let go of bottom six forwards that Dave Nonis had acquired, like Byron Ritchie and Brad Isbister (neither of whom played in the NHL again) and signed Darcy Hordichuk and Ryan Johnson to play on the fourth line. Neither player was particularly good in Vancouver, though the duo had one moment of glory in the playoffs, as Johnson blocked a shot at one end and Hordichuk scored at the other, thanks to a gorgeous spin-o-rama pass from Rick Rypien.
Johnson appeared to be Gillis’s first attempt at bringing in a legitimate defensive centre, echoed later with acquiring Manny Malhotra, Maxim Lapierre, and Samme Pahlsson, with Malhotra being the most successful of those acquisitions.
Gillis also claimed Kyle Wellwood off waivers in 2008 and he ended up playing a decent chunk of the season as the Canucks’ third-line centre. Like the veteran acquisitions of Demitra and Sundin, this seemed to mainly be a stop-gap measure until a better option could be found, though Wellwood was vastly underrated defensively.
The 2008 “reset” wasn’t particularly inspiring among the forward ranks, then. Gillis’s bottom-six acquisitions were unimpressive and his top-six moves don’t really apply to the Canucks’ current situation unless Gillis makes a major trade.
Gillis did even less with the defence, which is understandable, considering the Canucks still had Matthias Ohlund to go with Sami Salo, Alex Edler, Kevin Bieksa, and Willie Mitchell. Gillis let Mike Weaver go (in hindsight, perhaps a minor mistake) and traded Lukas Krajicek for Shane O’Brien.
The Canucks are in a similar position this off-season, with Jason Garrison, Dan Hamhuis, Kevin Bieksa, Alex Edler, and Chris Tanev all well-established and Frank Corrado knocking on the door. With Keith Ballard likely to receive a cap compliance buyout, that leaves only minor tinkering to be done with the defence unless Gillis makes a drastic move by trading, say, Edler, who has a no-trade clause that kicks in next season.
If Gillis meant what he said when he talked about a “reset” akin to 2008, don’t look for blockbuster trades or sweeping changes. What Gillis did in 2008 was assess the current team, find the gaps, and fill them in. If that’s Gillis’s definition of a reset, then you can expect next season’s Canucks to look remarkably similar by the end of the summer.
Major stick-tap to HFBoards poster 19nazzy, who has kept a detailed transaction history of Mike Gillis’s tenure as General Manager. His thread was invaluable for preparing this post.Tags: Mike Gillis