The Great, Good and Bad of the Mike Gillis Era

Not many people knew a whole lot about Mike Gillis when the Canucks hired him in the summer of 2008. The firing of Dave Nonis came as a bit of a shock, and the fan base wasn’t given a whole lot of time to digest the move before Gillis came in as the replacement. In a little over three years, Gillis has managed to turn Vancouver into one of the most desirable destinations for players to play in the league. He has leveraged his experiences as an agent – he treats players fair, and he has been rewarded with some favourable hometown discounts (most notably from the Sedins, Kesler, and Burrows).

If you want to read more about Gillis as an agent, I’d highly recommend Money Players by Bruce Dowbiggin.

At the time of his hiring, the other top contender (according to many in the media) for the vacant general manager position was Brian Lawton (a former agent, like Gillis). Lawton was soon after hired by the Lightning, and did his part to set that team back a few years (trading away Dan Boyle for peanuts, and giving seven year deals to Matthias Ohlund and Ryan Malone, respectively, sure didn’t help). The guy we didn’t know a lot about at the time sure looks good by comparison. He hasn’t been perfect, but he has done a lot more good than bad. Let’s take a look.

The Great

Well below market value contracts for Kesler, the Sedins, and Burrows. Burrows, in particular, is incredibly underpaid. $2 million for a two-way 25-35-goal scoring winger? His team mates better be paying for everything (And Vigneault too, after Burrows likely saved his job with the game seven winner against the Blackhawks).

Signing Dan Hamhuis to a very reasonable six-year contract with a $4.5 million cap hit. Hamhuis is Vancouver’s most reliable defenseman, and he’s showing this year that he has more offense to give when called upon. It also helps that he’s a local guy and does a lot of work off the ice and behind the scenes.

Gillis has used the waiver wire to his advantage, adding players like Kyle Wellwood and Dale Weise. Wellwood was an underrated secondary scorer and playoff performer, while Weise is a young energy winger who looks to have some upside beyond that.

Gillis has also leveraged the assets (fancy word for money) given to him by ownership to increase the club’s capacity to scout every league possible. In particular, he has added a few undrafted prospects that have proven to be great finds. The two names at the top are Eddie Lack and Chris Tanev. Not every signing is a home run (names like Kellan Tochkin and Eric Walsky jump to mind), but it is essentially a risk-free way of adding a prospect. Keep an eye on Sebastian Erixon, a smooth-skating defenseman Gillis signed out of Sweden this past season (although Thomas Drance is reporting that Erixon may return home to Sweden).

Unlike previous general managers in Vancouver, Gillis has been smart and patient at the trade deadline. He held off on any major moves two years ago, and this past year he added Chris Higgins and Max Lapierre. Not only did the two become integral parts of the playoff run, they both re-signed at discounts. The trade deadline is an easy way to waste a few draft picks quite quickly (Eric Weinrich, Keith Carney, Geoff Sanderson, Martin Rucinsky, Sean Brown, and so on), something Gillis has managed to avoid.

Trading nothing (probably a compliment to Patrick White) for Christian Ehrhoff could be the best move Gillis has made to date. Ehrhoff was one of the top offensive defensemen we have seen in Vancouver, and he played a huge part in shifting the team’s style of play to more of an aggressive attacking game. He wasn’t always rock solid in his own zone, but adding a 50-point defenseman signed to a reasonable contract (at the time, not now) for peanuts is obviously a major, major win.

Gillis has successfully leveraged his pro scouting department to find players like Raffi Torres, Andrew Raycroft, and the above-mentioned Wellwood, Weise, Lapierre, and Higgins. He also used it to make a shrewd offer sheet to David Backes back in 2008. At the time, Backes was unproven as a top- six forward. Gillis boldly gave him a three-year, $7.5 million offer sheet. Someone in the Canucks organization saw something that other people in hockey didn’t. Unfortunately the Blues matched, and Backes is now their captain and best forward.

Perhaps the biggest positive impact Gillis has had is the overall atmosphere and culture change he has brought about. He is not afraid to admit when he has made mistakes (more on those below), but he is also not afraid to try things that are outside the box. Hockey still has a lot of the old boy’s club mentality, and even as a former player Gillis has done a great job finding the balance between the qualitative and the quantitative analysis.

The Good

Had Mats Sundin signed the two-year, $20-million contract offered to him back in 2008, who knows whether the Sedins would have re-signed the next summer or not. Thankfully for the Canucks, the contract offer got Sundin’s attention, but not enough to make him sign outright. He spent the next five months fishing in Sweden, while we got to enjoy the daily JP Barry show on the TEAM 1040. In late December, Sundin signed a deal for about $8 million (prorated over the final half of the season).

It took Sundin another few months to get his hockey legs under him. He unfortunately saved his best hockey for when Roberto Luongo was displaying his worst (games five and six against Chicago in 2009). Sundin’s most positive contribution to the organization wasn’t the 28 regular season points he scored, or the eight he added in eight playoff games. If you look at what he contributed versus his salary, his tenure wasn’t a success. However, he had a hugely positive impact on his line mate Ryan Kesler. Kesler has spoken about how much he learned from Sundin in terms of professionalism and how to prepare himself for each game. The numbers don’t lie, either.

In his pre-Sundin career, Kesler scored 48 goals and added 53 assists in 279 games played (0.17 goals- per-game and 0.36 points-per-game). In his time with and after Sundin, Kesler has amassed 85 goals and 109 assists in 218 games (more than double the goals-per-game output at 0.39, and also more than double the overall production at 0.88 points-per-game). Sundin wasn’t the only reason for Kesler’s offensive explosion, but he sped up the process tremendously. Well worth the investment, no? 

The Bad

The Luongo extension (12 years with a lot of zeros in the dollar amount) was a risk, and right now it is looking like one that could hamstring the team down the road. Luongo’s cap hit is respectable for an above-average starting goaltender, but the term and his inconsistent play in important games are both worrying. I won’t write much more about Luongo (I have tried to go the entire month without a Luongo post, and so far so good), but this gamble is coming up empty so far for Gillis.

As good as his recent fourth line acquisitions have been, Gillis dropped the ball with some previous ones. Ryan Johnson was one of the worst hockey players we have ever seen skate a regular shift in Vancouver, and Darcy Hordichuk wasn’t far behind. The Canucks managed to ice a fourth line that was a liability for about two seasons before it was fixed.

Marco Sturm looked like a player coming off of a few serious knee injuries, but Gillis managed to cut his losses quickly.

Acquiring Keith Ballard for two underperforming forwards and a draft pick seemed like an obvious move to make, at the time. Ballard has been slow to adjust to the Canucks system, even after more than a full season. His game is based on skating and physical play, but his positioning and offensive contributions (at least in Vancouver) leave much to be desired. Like Luongo, his contract could potentially hurt the team in a few years when they could use the cap space.

Ryan Walter was a controversial hire as a Hungry Spirit eater coach. His background post-playing had been in broadcasting and motivational speaking. Walter had a stint with the Canadiens in a motivational coaching role, as well. Walter wasn’t a fit for the Canucks, and Gillis replaced him with Newell Brown. Brown was the main reason why the power play improved so much from 2009-10 to 2010-11.

Trading for Steve Bernier from Buffalo was the right move, even with the benefit of hindsight. Giving up 2nd and 3rd round draft picks for a young power forward is a deal you have to make. However, giving Bernier a two-year extension after he had already shown his lack of offensive ability wasn’t the right move. For a brief moment, he was a solid winger who could get in on the forecheck and throw his weight around. He scored the odd goal, but he missed on a lot of great chances because his hands were about three seconds behind the play. For some reason, Bernier decided to lose about 25 pounds one summer. He returned much quicker, but it did him no good as he lost his physical edge. He would have been better off keeping the weight and going in for a double hand transplant.

Giving up on Michael Grabner may come back to haunt the Canucks. Grabner’s rapid development is an interesting situation, though, as he likely would not have broken out in Vancouver like he did last year in Long Island (at least not as quickly). He had a slow start to the season, but because of the Islanders lack of depth and their willingness to develop their prospects, he was given a long leash to produce. The offensive eventually arrived.

Gillis has made mostly good moves on and off the ice. He has had his share of misses, but unlike many of his contemporaries, his ego doesn’t stand in the way of him admitting his mistakes.