Mike Gillis' record (Part III): a look back at 2010

Patrick Johnston
June 05 2013 02:13PM

Mike Gillis' best summer is surely 2010. In 2008 he got his feet wet and returned the Canucks to the postseason, in 2009 he'd made more decisions in re-shaping the team (and he'd also convinced the Sedins to re-sign for below market value). Saving money in 2009 allowed him to bring in key free agents in 2010.

In the 2010 playoffs, the Canucks had again run into the Blackhawks brick wall. The Hawks were again too much to handle and the Canucks' penalty kill had been a miserable failure all playoffs.

The first key acquisition of Gillis' tenure, Pavol Demitra, went out with a whimper. Injured for most of the year, his greatest moments came in the Olympics, as he drove Slovakia into the semifinals. It was an against-all-odds performance.

At the same time as Demitra was starring on the international stage, Shane O'Brien managed to turn his greatest opportunity into nothing. Injuries had offered him increased ice time, but over the two week break for the Olympics, O'Brien reportedly partied it up and packed on the pounds. He became a lesson for Canucks management on the importance of off-ice culture.

How to re-shape the third and fourth line? How to find and keep as many NHL-capable defencemen as possible? What to do with a pair of young forwards? Those were the questions facing Mike Gillis as the 2010 off-season began.

Inventory - Forwards

Here we are. The Sedins have reached the pinnacle; they are among the game's best. Henrik wins the Art Ross and the Hart. Daniel, despite missing nearly twenty games with a broken foot, returns with a vengance, scoring at a clip (4.0 pts/60 min) even better than his brother's (3.9 pts/60 min). It was a season for the ages.

Mikael Samuelsson proved to be exactly the player the Canucks believed he could be, bagging 30 goals while moving between Henrik's and Kesler's wings. On top of this, Pavol Demitra's battles with injury opened a door for Mason Raymond, who bagged 25 goals in a contract year. Coupled with the NHL-arrival of Michael Grabner, Mike Gillis had to choose which young winger made more sense - the cheaper but still mostly-unknown Grabner, or the apparent known quantity of Mason Raymond. He'd choose the latter.

In terms of deployment, the Canucks are starting to move towards the offensive-zone/defensive-zone setup that has become most familiar. Ryan Johnson is the enabler, while the Sedins get matched up to the opposing team's weaker forwards.

There's the fourth line, though, in the bottom left, bleeding shots against weak opposition. The Darcy Hordichuk era was done.

Inventory - Defence

The mid-season loss of Willie Mitchell was huge in 2009-10. He played the toughest minutes on the blue line. Coupled with the leg injury suffered by Kevin Bieksa and the Mathieu Schneider mess, the Canucks found themselves handing regular minutes to Aaron Rome, late-season acquisition Andrew Alberts and Moose captain Nolan Baumgartner. It was not the safest way forward. Shane O'Brien suddenly was the fourth dman, which you know Alain Vigneault wasn't altogether that comfortable with. Evan Oberg was the club's top prospect but clearly terrified the crap out of the coaches, who allowed him only to take a few strides away from the bench on each of his 18 shifts.

Willie Mitchell's defensive heavy-lifting skews the chart somewhat, Christian Ehrhoff and Alex Edler's strong two-way play gets shaded down visually as a result.

Aaron Rome was the weakest of the Canucks' regulars.

Off-season needs

Ryan Johnson taught the Canucks one thing - the theory would work if they found a better player. Taking draws wasn't as important as being able to get the puck out. Johnson was hustler, a battler, but he was maxed out as a hockey player by the time the 2010 postseason roled around. To be effective on the penalty-kill and in the bottom-six the Canucks needed better.

Ever-improved defensive depth would be essential. If there was one thing Mike Gillis said he learned in the wake of 09-10, it was that you can never have enough defencemen. Everyone figured he'd go after at least one. He surprised us all and got two.

And there was no need to find a backup goalie to replace the departing Andrew Raycroft - Cory Schneider's time had arrived.

Gillis' moves

Unlike the previous two summers, there were no long-time greats hanging around. Former Gillis client Pavol Demitra's contract was up and the team decided to go in a new direction. It didn't make sense to keep the oft-injured Slovakian around to play on the third line, especially given the salary he might demand. Resources could be allocated better.

Willie Mitchell proved to be a big dilemma. His concussion symptoms had kept him out through the playoffs and the salary he'd command were he healthy would not have fit the new salary structure that emerged with the signing of Dan Hamhuis.

He also chose to keep Aaron Rome and Tanner Glass around.

Trades

Most figured that one of Grabner or Raymond would be moved out. Grabner had one year left on his ELC, while Raymond was likely to get 2 million-plus. Gillis chose to move Grabner and re-sign Raymond. Hello Keith Ballard. It was a hefty price to bring in the highly-rated Florida blueliner, Grabner, the disappointing Steve Bernier and a first round pick going in the other direction. The Canucks also received Victor Oreshkovich in the deal. Of course, Ballard didn't turn out to be quite what was expected, but he was a lot easier to deal with than Shane O'Brien.

On the eve of the season, in a series of moves that were motivated by cap space as much as anything, the Canucks traded O'Brien to Nashville for spare parts (Ryan Parent and Jonas Andersson) and Darcy Hordichuk to Florida. Both had no clear role to fill on the team.

During the 2010-11 season, Gillis added Chris Higgins and Max Lapierre. In the wake of Manny Malhotra's injury, Gillis went all-in on his checking lines, adding a pair of unwanted toys in Lapierre and Higgins. Both excelled in the Canucks' system.

Free agents

Manny Malhotra

Alongside signing Dan Hamhuis in 2010 and bringing in Christian Ehrhoff in 2009, Malhotra is one of Gillis' signature moves. Before his devestating eye injury in March 2011, Malhotra was playing the best hockey of his life. He was eating massive defensive minutes and driving a top-notch penalty kill (remember, they were murdered short handed in the 2010 playoffs). Malhotra's signing and subsequent usage changed the way many in the NHL understood the game.

Dan Hamhuis

Gillis' true coup in 2010 was not just signing Hamhuis, but landed the Smithers native for below market value. Hamhuis had declined to re-sign with Nashville and had been shuffled over to Philadelphia ahead of the free agency window. Paul Holmgren so coveted the chance to negotiate with Hamhuis, that he gave up a gently used Ryan Parent, only to hear 'we want to test the market.' He then flipped Hamhuis to Pittsburgh for a pick, and Shero heard the same refrain. Hamhuis proved to be an outstanding addition to a solid group of defencement.

Hamhuis' loss in the final vs Boston in 2011 is oft cited as one of the reasons that the Canucks collapsed in the final.

Raffi Torres

Torres added sandpaper, goal scoring and controversy to the thrid line. Matched with Malhotra and Hansen, this trio proved a vital counter-punch to the top line work of the Sedins and the Kesler line. Call it a hattrick of great signings.

Jeff Tambellini, Joel Perrault, Peter Schaefer

In an effort to find the magic bullet for the fourth line, Gillis brought in former first rounder Tambellini, ex-Canuck and Senator Schaefer and ex-Coyote Joel Perrault. All three spent time on the fourth line carousel, but only Tambellini would stick around for the whole season.

Bill Sweatt, Chris Tanev

Sweatt had refused to sign in both Chicago and Toronto, but still showed huge potential. Chris Tanev, we know his story. A late growth spurt took him to RPI and then a contract with the Canucks. By the end of the season, he was taking shifts on the Canucks' third pairing.

Lee Sweatt

Bill's brother was brought into play a depth role; he played three games, scored a great goal, broke his foot and then was never seen again. He's retired and trading securities in Colorado.

Eddie Lack

The Stork went undrafted, but caught the attention of scout Lars Lindgren. We have Lindgren to thank for finding Wyatt Arndt an internet friend.

Draft picks

No picks until the fourth round; all the other ones were moved in trades. Patrick McNally left Harvard in a cloud last fall, while Adam Polasek and Alex Friesen spent time in the AHL and ECHL this season. Both are long shots at this point and Polasek is likely to be remembered as "the guy the team drafted ahead of Brendan Gallagher - come on!". Jonathan Illhati and Sawyer Hannay weren't signed.

Final Assessment

The core lead the charge in 2010-11. The Sedins had their second straight epic season, Ryan Kesler hit everything that moved and scored 40 goals. The defence was rock solid and so was the goaltending. It was all going so well...

Going into the 2010-11 season, many picked the Canucks as Cup favourites. They had a bevy of NHL defencemen (they were so deep, most expected that Kevin Bieksa would be moved to get the team under the cap, hello Laurence Gilman), their scoring forwards were in their prime and they had what looked to be the best goaltending tandem in the league.

Mike Gillis put his stamp on the team in the summer of 2010. He'd added pieces to the team each summer since he was hired, and each subsequent season the team was better. He convinced players to sign for less than market value, to believe in the concept he was assembling. In 2010, he found a pair of role players and they didn't just fit the puzzle, they made the puzzle bigger.

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Patrick Johnston is a Vancouver journalist. In addition to regular contributions here at Canucks Army, his work has appeared in The Province, Hockey Now and on the CBC. Check out his blog and other writing at http://johnstonwrites.wordpress.com or follow him on twitter: @risingaction
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#51 antro
June 06 2013, 01:23PM
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@NM00:

Last point, tho' it's been fun!

I don't have anything against what scouts say, and yes, the canucks generally don't have a good prospect system by a lot of evaluations. But, I wanted to know how you were evaluating that the picks that Gillis has made are poorer than the average GM, given draft position, etc. You don't seem to get this. To say that a GM is doing poorly at drafting takes a lot more evidence than you can muster (namely, looking at what proportion of NHLers come from different draft positions as a whole, not just Canucks, and then seeing if the Canucks are substantially worse; or using comparables, etc). So, maybe, I should just say, you may be right, but you don't have evidence for it, as you claim.

"Established NHLers don't get sent down to the minors towards the end of the year."

It was one game, widely reported to be a run-in with AV, and it ended pretty quick.

"This is a non-sequitar. What exactly is your endgame by trying to take me to an unfamiliar area?"

This is just hilarious. Now I know that you aren't really that serious. You said "oh, it's just semantics". I said, "no, there are people who have done this systematically, and this isn't just a question of semantics." (I'm paraphrasing, yes?) So you say "non-sequitar". And then, you have a paranoid reaction: "what exactly is your endgame..."

ARE YOU SERIOUS???? My endgame is to steal all your marbles and make you the laughing stock of the playground...;)

Have a nice day!

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#52 NM00
June 06 2013, 01:32PM
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@antro

"I don't have anything against what scouts say, and yes, the canucks generally don't have a good prospect system by a lot of evaluations."

Oh my god there is finally some substance in what you say. If you had said this 20 comments ago instead of going off on tangents we both would have saved time.

"But, I wanted to know how you were evaluating that the picks that Gillis has made are poorer than the average GM, given draft position, etc."

If you notice, I was comparing him to Nonis since they had somewhat similar draft picks.

Nonis had top prospects the industry liked. Which, as you finally, finally, have come to acknowledge means something.

"Paranoid reaction" is your interpretation. I am not quite sure why you feel the need to projection your feelings onto me :)

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#53 JCDavies
June 06 2013, 01:35PM
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@NM00

Some of those sources are better than others at sorting through good and bad information but they all get most of their information from team scouts and team scouts always have an agenda.

Team scouts try to inflate the value of their own prospects and lower the value of other teams prospects (at least the ones the might want to acquire for the right price).

There is no way for Keith Law and those organizations to physically watch every player so they fill in the gaps by talking to scouts. So yeah, scouting reports do need to be put in context and should be supported by stats.

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#54 Mantastic
June 06 2013, 01:56PM
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@antro

yes, COHO is the anchor in the line that features VANEK and POMINVILLE. HOW IS THIS A SHOCKER? advanced stats mean absolutely nothing if they don't actually translate tangible numbers. I.E. Booth. and it's not like Kassian is killing his advanced stats either, look at his wowy with the twins vs burrows. you're WOWY arguement doesn't support you're actual arguement the kassian-coho trade

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#55 NM00
June 06 2013, 02:00PM
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@JCDavies

"There is no way for Keith Law and those organizations to physically watch every player so they fill in the gaps by talking to scouts. So yeah, scouting reports do need to be put in context and should be supported by stats."

I don't disagree. In regards to baseball, though, stats only tell a certain part of the story when it comes to prospects specifically.

For example, Keith Law has talked about how batspeed cannot be quantified. It actually takes a pair of eyes. The same can be said about a pitcher's stuff, a position player's tools etc.

Anything this subjective is prone to bias, of course.

Where statistical information can come in handy, for example, is K/BB ratios in regards to future plate discipline. One could make the argument that JP Arencibia was always "overrated" as a prospect because he simply never controlled the strikezone. That is an example of statistical data being used to supplement a player evaluation.

Of course, there is also stats gone bad. I refer you to the quote by Voros McCracken on the Mariners defence:

http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/sloan-analytics-cuban-mccracken-jedlovic/

Since I like to compare Gillis to former Blue Jays GM JP Ricciardi, I'd argue the Blue Jays' Moneyball draft philosophy was off the mark.

They drafted almost exclusively college players for so long based on the premise that college players had statistical track records. As Keith Law has said, other teams caught on and by the time the Jays' turn to draft came, better college players were off the board.

And what you saw was a lot of players who can play at the MLB level, but a system that was devoid of star talent for nearly a decade.

But don't tell antro. He'll force me to quit my job and perform a study!

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#56 JCDavies
June 06 2013, 02:20PM
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@NM00

"Anything this subjective is prone to bias, of course."

"Of course, there is also stats gone bad"

Absolutely. I see scouting reports and stats as two tools that organizations should be using to support each other.

Keith Law is one of the better sources, he even brings his own radar gun to every game because he doesn't trust anybody else's.

Ricciadi was awful, there was no way firing that many scouts was going to be good for the team in the long run.

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#57 NM00
June 06 2013, 02:34PM
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@JCDavies

"Absolutely. I see scouting reports and stats as two tools that organizations should be using to support each other."

I could not agree more. All types of info should be used in the decision making process.

Back to the Blue Jays. Their prospects under Ricciardi were never well-regarded.

Which is part of the same reason I place an emphasis on what scouts say about our prospects. Edler, Schneider, Bourdon (RIP) and Hodgson were all well regarded prospects.

Just looking at the history of the NHL draft, it's quite clear that there is a correlation between what scouts say and how impactful a player will be.

This is my fear with Gillis. It's why I keep bring up the "trying to hit a homerun instead of a double" quote.

His apparent goal of trying to get "something" with his picks as opposed to gambling on potential stars like Nonis used to scares the hell out of me.

Gillis talks a good game so, like Ricciardi, perhaps he will keep his job for 8 years when it was clear after year 5 or 6 he was simply not a good talent evaluator.

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#58 Peachy
June 06 2013, 02:44PM
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Nice discussion...

Something more to think about: the argument about drafting really misses the point. Evaluating drafting is extraordinarily difficult. We have tiny sample sizes (made worse by the fact that the Canucks, like other contenders, routinely give up draft picks in trades) and after the first few picks, the draft is little better than a crapshoot anyways (note, this is where the Canucks have drafted the last god knows how many years.) Moreover, it takes (reasonably) a minimum of 5 years to evaluate a team's performance on a given draft.

I think strong statements to the effect of "Gillis' drafting sucks" or "Gillis has drafted well" can't really be supported, and especially not with the subjective evidence dominating discussion. No one is making a convincing argument.

The transaction record is probably a better way to evaluate Gillis at this point. Through 2010, he could do no wrong.

That changes of course...

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#59 NM00
June 06 2013, 02:55PM
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@Peachy

It is too early to make "final judgements" on a lot of Gillis picks. It's too early to make final judgements on Nonis and Burke picks too.

But it doesn't mean it's too early to note what a pick's present day value is.

For example, both Jensen & Corrado's values are higher than when they were drafted. This is good.

On the flip side, well, all of 2008 - 2010 as far as I'm concerned.

And probably a bigger issue to me is the trades for non-rentals, many of which included draft picks. With that many poor outcomes, people should be questioning Gillis' process.

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#60 JCDavies
June 06 2013, 03:05PM
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@NM00

"This is my fear with Gillis. It's why I keep bring up the "trying to hit a homerun instead of a double" quote.

His apparent goal of trying to get "something" with his picks as opposed to gambling on potential stars like Nonis used to scares the hell out of me."

I wasn't aware of that quote until you brought it up and that isn't something I think Gillis should be doing. Gillis also talks in a vague circular manner, often spending the length of an entire interview saying nothing of value, so without seeing or hearing the quote it is hard for me to put into context.

I think there is something else going on with Gillis' drafting, however. In baseball if you need players to contribute to the big club immediately, you draft college players and if you have a lot of depth you and would like to delay the arrival of prospects to the majors you draft high school players. I think Gillis was doing some of that here.

When some of those players were drafted, the Canucks had quite a bit of depth and didn't really have room for many young players on their roster. I think Gillis drafted players that were committed to colleges so that they would turn pro at a later date and he could delay the start of their ELC.

There is the associated lowered upside/risk that comes with this approach but I think it is one of the factors, along with the Moneyball approach you mention, that explain the drafting of college players.

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#61 Peachy
June 06 2013, 03:10PM
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@NM00

Fair statements.

I'd caution against judging Gillis on the early draft performance though...

He was (probably) using Nonis' scouting staff and methodology with few tweaks in those years. As you've noted, the farm and developing players he inherited were bloody impressive. Given the difficulties of assessing draft performance and a solid data point indicating that the scouting team knew ehat it was doing, I don't think it's unreasonable for him to have kept things going the way they were.

I'm just saying that it's all fuzzy and hard to call.

Agreed on the transaction record. I hate seeing draft picks and prospects go. The trades in the last three years all seem to have made sense at the time (in particular, I believe that Drance described Roy as "nails"), but have not panned out. That's on Gillis.

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#62 NM00
June 06 2013, 03:20PM
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@Peachy

It isn't just about the scouts, though. The GM sets the organizational philosophy.

People would complain about Nonis going off the board with his picks; but I think it's fair to say he was looking for impact.

And considering Gillis hasn't exactly drafted top prospects, I think his draft philosophy has to be questioned. Everything from only drafting forwards with 1st rounders to avoiding the WHL to selecting a lot of older/college players.

I like Roy the player, irrespective of his playoff performance. But, common, a 2nd round pick and an okay prospect for KConn is way too much for a rental player, imo.

Clarkson for a 1st would have been an even bigger disaster.

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#63 Austin Wallace
June 07 2013, 12:20AM
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One comment.... If Hodgson is a double, Kassian is a homerun swing. The results haven't been there yet, but according to your philosophy... He certainly should have made that trade. Kassian's upside is a dominating physical 35 goal player. Hodgson might be PPG a couple of times in his career but only when in a Sedin-like role. Kassian is risky and might take longer but he is certainly a home run swing.

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#64 NM00
June 07 2013, 09:36AM
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@Austin Wallace

I don't know about a homerun considering the projections on Kassian when Gillis acquired him. He's still a winger and, in my book at least, it takes a lot to be an impact winger. If he turns into Bertuzzi than, yes, that would be a homerun.

I get what you mean, though.

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#65 Mantastic
June 07 2013, 10:14AM
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@Austin Wallace

i don't think you can classify Coho has a double. he has much higher upside, he is safer but good potential.

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