Bigger? Faster? Younger? Tougher? How About Better?

There isn’t one single way to win in the NHL. 

NHL teams often look to the recent Stanley Cup Champion(s) for some insight into how to construct a winning roster. The Washington Capitals went away from their successful run-and-gun strategy because a defensive Montreal team stymied them back in 2010. Washington finally found success again this season, largely because of a return to a more offensive brand of hockey.

After watching the Bruins and Kings steamroll their way to the Cup in 2011 and 2012, respectively, many teams (including the Canucks) have placed a mandate on getting bigger. With fewer infractions called in the postseason, bigger players are at more of an advantage. They can use their size to wear down smaller opposing players, and the speed factor isn’t as pronounced with an increase in obstruction.

However, the Kings didn’t decide to get big over night. Neither did the Bruins. And we aren’t talking about either of these teams if not for unbelievable performances from Tim Thomas (Conn Smythe, 2011) and Jonathan Quick (Conn Smythe, 2012). Building a team or forging an identity takes years and years. Boston has size throughout the lineup, and their big players are forwards, defensemen, scorers, checkingers, and agitators. The same holds true for Los Angeles. Both teams are also blessed to have elite franchise defensemen running things from the back end, too (Zdeno Chara and Drew Doughty). 

And for players on both teams, it is more a mentality of playing big than being big. Look at Brad Marchand, Mike Richards, Andrew Ference, and so on (although it does speak to their overall size when I can only pull three players who aren’t "big").

Tunnel Vision

Back to my original point. Looking exclusively to recently successful teams for inspiration isn’t a terrible idea, but it is a narrow-minded way to build a team. Luck, health, and goaltending (as previously mentioned) are all significant factors in postseason success or failure. A good goaltender or a bad injury can derail even the best laid plans and rosters.

Entering the offseason with the mandate to get bigger, stronger, grittier, or younger is also very narrow-minded. There isn’t one way to win in hockey. The team with the most depth, the most talent, and the best goaltender will win more often than not. Are the Chicago Blackhawks big and tough? They have some players that play that way, but they are routinely outhit. That’s because they usually have the puck, and as Patrick Kane said, it is hard to throw hits when you have the puck all the time. 

And, of course, health is the unspoken factor at work here. The Canucks have been injured too much in recent years. Their entire defense was hurt in the 2011 Final. You can’t plan for the Sedin concussion (last year), but better depth minimizes the negative impact of such an injury. Are the recent injury problems enough to warrant making a change behind the scenes? I’m not sure, and I don’t want to speculate. But it is worth looking into. 

For whatever reason, the Canucks seem to be more banged up than their opposition. In 2011, they had a lot of depth and were able to overcome the injury problems all the way until the Boston series. This year, the Chris Tanev injury killed their defense. And Ryan Kesler was finally healthy, but he was far from ready in terms of conditioning and game shape. 

The only way to go from here is to get better. I realize that is incredibly basic, obvious, and intangible advice, but it is the truth. Vancouver’s depth this past season wasn’t very good. It didn’t matter against Edmonton, Calgary, and Colorado, but not having a fourth line (and barely having a third line) won’t work against the top teams in the league. And that is what I have picked up from watching Pittsburgh, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, heck, even Ottawa – they have four lines that know their respective roles and can play hockey well.

When was the last time the Canucks had a fourth line that wasn’t a liability? How about one that gave them the advantage over an opposition’s fourth line? Cooke-Chubarov-Letowski?  The team in 2011 had three fantastic lines and a fourth line that was often a mix of Jeff Tambellini, Victor Oreskovich, and Alexandre Bolduc, among others. Boston’s fourth line is a huge part of their overall identity. The Penguins have third line quality talent on their fourth line (particularly Brandon Sutter).

Approaching the draft table or free agency with the mindset of getting better is the only way to properly get this thing back on track. Trying to force a new brand of hockey onto a group of players better suited for something else rarely – if ever – works. Just ask George McPhee.  

Proactive GMs

Another common trait among most of the remaining teams is proactive GMs. When Bryan Murray (for my money the best GM in hockey) moved David Rundblad and a draft pick for Kyle Turris, he was lambasted for overpaying. Rundblad had just dominated the SEL and was expected to anchor the top pairing for years to come. Turris was struggling in the Phoenix system. Fast forward a few years – Turris is a legitimate top six center that can log tough minutes, while Rundblad is still toiling away in the AHL.  Is bigger better?

Ray Shero recognized that this was the season to go all-in, and go all-in he did. Evgeni Malkin’s contract expires after next year, and the Penguins will have to cut a lot of salary both this summer and next to fit him in. Sure, he added size and toughness (Douglas Murray, Brenden Morrow), but he also went after versatility (Jussi Jokinen) and offense (Jarome Iginla). Pittsburgh is an aggressive team and they hit a ton, but they aren’t known for their size (relative to LA or Boston, at least).

Peter Chiarelli didn’t make a ton of moves this year (or last year), because he has built a team that is rock solid from top to bottom. Great trades for the organization (Phil Kessel for Tyler Seguin, Nathan Horton/Gregory Campbell, Dennis Seidenberg, Chris Kelly) – these all helped to develop and maintain Boston’s identity as a big – and skilled – puck possession team.  

The Derek Roy trade was a huge flop, but at the time it made sense. Roy played pretty well in the regular season, and early returns looked pretty good. The team needed depth, and Gillis went out and got it. But it is completely baffling how the club has avoided making a move with Keith Ballard over the past few years. In 2011, he didn’t suit up ahead of Christian Ehrhoff (playing with one arm, basically) or Alex Edler (who couldn’t even grip his stick).

And this past year, the Canucks wasted a year of Frankie Corrado’s ELC because the coaching staff didn’t trust Ballard. Gillis may say that he lets the coach do the coaching, but it is the manager’s fault if a $4.2 million asset can’t crack the lineup when the games matter most. Ballard simply wasn’t reliable enough in Vancouver for Vigneault to trust him in big games.

Gillis has done some good things since 2008, but he has struck out more than he has connected since the summer of 2010 (thankfully Dan Hamhuis turned down bigger offers from both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh to come here), and that is why the Canucks need to ignore the pressure to go one way or another – they simply need to get better.

Previous Posts from Jeff (@anguscertified)

  • orcasfan

    Ya, the injury situation is a bit scary. It’s not just the last few years, this goes way back 5-7 yrs. If you look at MGL, Canucks have been in top 11 for last 6 years. That’s amazing stuff. How the heck can a team sustain that many injuries yr after yr? I know they travel more than any other team, but this is a bit much. If I’m Gillis, I’m looking into this yesterday.

    I think the Canucks poor trades and poor drafting is part of a systemic issue…..poor scouts at amateur and pro levels. Botch has said Canucks have the largest scouting staff in the league – which isn’t much of a surprise. But it’s not translating into anything tangible. In fact, it might be working against them. Gillis needs to start poaching scouts from Senators, Bruins, Panthers and Stars. This teams drafting dept needs a major overhaul. I can’t believe Gillis hasn’t done it yet – it’s mindblowing.

    Either way, Canucks need to inject some youth on ELC. I’ve been pushing for Aquilini to start buying some prospects. They have this once ever 7 years option for compliance buyouts, time to use it. It allows them to keep their core (Edler etc), and inject some youth without giving up their own prospects or roster players.

  • Gillis has worked on both of those things. Have you not heard of the nutritionists, the sleep doctors and the like that he has hired to try and minimize the injury risks? It seems to not be working, but unless there is an unknown factor at work it is probably luck-driven.
    As far as trading and drafting, have not most (if not all) of his trades looked good the day they were done? Imagine if Bernier was a power forward on the second line and thus Hodgson was traded for Sutter or Carlson. Ballard played 20 minutes a night and averaged 30 points and 82 games while maintaining an average plus minus with good underlying numbers. Or if Booth scored at a 25 goal clip? All of these things were reasonable expectations as they happened, and had even half of them gone as expected, this team would look very very different.
    And I do believe that Gillis HAS overhauled his scouting department. His legion of scouts don’t just sit on their hands… It will take time to see if our drafting gets better.

    • JCDavies

      Yeah but the point is NONE of that happened.

      The fact is, Gillis has seemingly failed to accurately evaluate the talent of these players.

      Let’s start with the Ballard trade. Yes, on the surface, acquiring Keith Ballard seemed like a solid idea. A mobile top-4 defenseman who could move the puck and had a nasty hip check. However, he already had two mobile, offensive defenseman in Edler and Ehrhoff. with Kevin Bieksa providing shut-down skill and toughness, the acquisition of Hamhuis made Ballard expendable only weeks after he was acquired.

      Meanwhile, faced with a decision between two similar players in Mason Raymond and Michael Grabner, Gillis seemingly flipped a coin and chose to ship out Grabner. Perhaps it’s unfair to blame him. Who could have known that Raymond would continue to struggle to establish himself a legimiate top-6 winger. while Grabner would take advantage of increased ice-time and skilled linemates? Especially since Raymond was coming off a break-out season with 20 goals and 50 points. Grabner showed respectable first-year numbers in a small sample size. For a Canucks team in win now mode, it made sense.

      However, management overlooked the pedigree of both players. Grabner had very good numbers in the WHL and AHL. Raymond in the NCAA and AHL. but Grabner’s AHL numbers were better, and the WHL is of a higher calibre than the NCAA. Grabner was also a relatively high first-round pick, while Raymond was selected in the 2nd round.

      It’s also worth noting that Grabner was two years younger, with more time to grow into his role. His style also seemed like it would gel well with the Sedins. After all, he’s a shooter and would benefit greatly from the fruits of their cycle game.

      I know that hindsight is 20/20, but scouts and GM”s are paid to look at all of these factors. It looks like they couldn’t look past a one-season sample size in their decision.

      If Gillis knew he was going to go after Dan Hamhuis, why didn’t he attempt to trade for his rights? That way the cost would be lower than trading or a contract player, plus he would possibly have had a clearer picture of his blue-line on draft day?

      The final lack of proper judgement related to Ballard was when it came time to resign Christian Ehrhoff. Rather than trading Ballard while he still had some value and re-signing a player who had been nothing but good for the team, they let Ehrhoff walk and retained Ballard’s massive salary to by a 7th defenseman.

      And now, briefly, the Booth move. It sure made sense at first glance as well. As much as the trade was taking a chance, I think the teams willingness to gamble on a player with an extended injury history was unwise, given that the injury woes the team had just experienced in the run to the finals. If they were going to acquire a scorer, they should have targeted one who could pick up the slack when guys like Kesler were out of commission, not one who would join him in the injured reserve.

  • orcasfan

    Thanks, Jeff, good post. I just posted something over at CC with a similar message. Absolutely, the team’s problem has been a lack of depth! But, let’s be more specific here…what we really mean is a lack of depth in skilled forwards. Unfortunately, due to bad scouting, bad luck and a poor prospect cupboard, Gillis has tried to fill that depth in the line-up with either rejects, or failures.

    Look at Detroit as a perfect example.(by the way, aren’t we supposed to be using them as a model?). When they have their stars injured, their depth players are skilled enough to step up. When our stars are injured, our depth players (hellos to Hansen, Higgins, Lapierre) are just not skilled enough to be effective replacements.

    What worries me these days is that Gillis & Co might still be over-valuing their group of bottom six forwards. As far as I can see, the only keepers there are Higgins (as a 3rd liner, please) and Hansen. Every other place on the bottom six should be filled with new faces (with skill) – either from the farm or trade/UFA acquisitions. The positions that are most desperate in need of replenishing are 3rd and 4th C’s. And, please, remember how Detroit does it…they give their prospects try-outs on their bottom six!

  • orcasfan

    Funny you mention Bryan Murray. I live in Eastern Ontario, and I have to say, his moves used to frustrate me.

    But ever since the Senators “rebuild” began, Murray has been bang-on….and let’s not forget he built the 2007 Ducks Stanley Cup team.

    But a big part of his success has come from his partner in crime, nephew Tim Murray. He’s been Bryan’s right-hand man when it comes to the draft in both Anaheim and Ottawa.

    You would think that given his age, Bryan will most pass the reins in a few more seasons.

    But I really wish Vancouver could find a way to nab him. I’ve been touting Gilman as my choice for next GM, but if there was a way to retain him and still bring in Murray…

    Oh well, it’s just a pipe dream…

  • orcasfan

    As for the team….it’s obvious a change in tactics is necessary. First of all, the team needs to be better at the draft. I would say they’re doing ok, but there’s room for improvement.

    Obviously Jensen and Corrado were fine picks…but look at the Gillis era draft history.


    Cody Hodgson 10th overall by the Canucks
    Tyler Myers 12th overall by the Sabres.

    Ok, I know that drafting can be a crapshoot, and hindsight is 20/20, but Tyler Myers was the 4th ranked North American Skater by Central Scouting. Hodgeson was 9th. Myers was a big, talented defenseman playing in the Canucks back-yard.

    Yann Sauve 42nd overall by the Canucks
    Justin Schultz 44th overall by the Ducks.

    yeah, remember that uber-talented defenseman that the Canucks almost signed as a free agent last summer? They could have drafted him…I’m not sure how the two defensemen were ranked, but another obvious case of Gillis overvaluing talent from the OHL and QMJHL and ignoring players in his own backyard. (Ok, Schultz wasn’t even in WHL, but the Canucks found a defenseman they liked in the CCHL (Ontario) in the last draft. Surely they can pay attention to the BCHL!).


    Kevin Connauton, 83rd over-all by the canucks
    Cody Eakin, 85th overall the Capitals.

    Again…Eakin is exactly the type of player the Canucks need. But God forbid they draft a WHL’er!

    Gillis lost the 2010 1st round pick in the Ballard trade, missing out on two-way prospect Quiton Howden 25th overall. Evgeni Kuznetsov, the consensus best player not the in the NHL, was picked 26th. Emersom Etem and Charlie Coyle were selected 28th and 29th.

    The Canucks also lost their 2nd round pick in that draft. The Blue Jackets used that pick (the 55th) on petr Straka. the 56th overall pick was Johan Larsson, considered a top two-way prospect.

    in 2011, they grabbed a little-known Quebec prospect 90th overall as a potential sleeper. So did Bryan Murray and the ottawa Senators with the 96th overall pick. Where is Alex grenier now? J.G. Pageau is an excellent energy player for the Sens.

    Three picks after the Canucks selected an NCAA bound American, again hoping for a sleeper pick, the Flames did the same. Johnny Gaudreau had a huge World Juniors and is considered one of Calgary’s lone future bright spots.

    Again…the draft isn’t a science. But great teams draft well. It is possible. the results speak for themselves.

    • orcasfan

      Exactly. Good stuff. The drafting isn’t good enough. None of this “haven’t drafted in the top 10” etc etc. Lots of quality players can and have been found later in drafts. Canucks have found 1 in Corrado, but 1 isn’t good enough in 6 years of Gillis.

      They clearly need to change up the drafting. Wheter it’s the employees or strategies, I don’t know. Just fix it. Like, yesterday.

    • JCDavies

      “Kevin Connauton, 83rd over-all by the canucks Cody Eakin, 85th overall the Capitals.

      Again…Eakin is exactly the type of player the Canucks need. But God forbid they draft a WHL’er!”

      Didn’t Connauton play in the WHL?

      Either way, I hate when people whine that we don’t draft enough WHLers… I mean seriously, take the player you like the best, don’t arbitrarily take someone because they play in a certain junior league.

      • JCDavies

        Drafting depends on the scouts as well, some can spot talent better than others. It however doesn’t end with just drafting, you have to train young players as well, which the Canucks hate with a passion. The Canucks love trading draft picks away, that’s what they do best. They expect every players to come in and single handily lead the useless core to the cup. Or they will trade whomever wants more ice time that’s not a favorite of the coach, like hogson. The Canucks need to fire every single one of their scouts, that’s the first best way to start fixing their many many problems.

      • JCDavies

        Kevin played in the WHL after being drafted. He was drafted out of the NCAA.

        The WHL point is a legitimate one I think…it’s not that they should always draft WHL’ers, it’s the fact that they NEVER do. Most of the league is grabbing some really solid talent from the WHL. And the Canucks, despite having many WHL teams close by, continue to ignore it as a source of talent.

        I’m also not saying that the WHL factor should be front-line at the draft….but Gillis is obviously employing more scouts in the OHL and QMJHL. Hell, judging by the numbers, the Canucks scouts seem to pay more attention to the NCAA and Sweden than the WHL. Despite the WHL being one of the top 2 junior leagues in the world.

        This is a problem. It would be less so if the players selected equalled their counterparts from the WHL. Clearly they are not.

  • orcasfan

    Would the Stars trade Loui Eriksson for Edler? I know Burrows makes the Sedins better, but it makes more sense to have your best defensive winger on a line with Booth and Kesler who could face top lines.

    • orcasfan

      Actually, judging by the World Championships, Ericsson (and a larger ice surface) make the Sedins better.

      If there’s a way for the Canucks to acquire Eriksson….but alas I doubt it.

  • orcasfan

    Bigger? Faster? Younger? Tougher?

    Not Sedin, not Sedin, not Sedin, and not Sedin.

    And Sedin definitely not getting any better.

    The Canucks are the 45 year old cup virgins. LOL

  • orcasfan

    I’m really surprised by how little MG has changed in the scouting department (especially with how radical and different he said he was when he came in). Largely the same scouting base with a few extra hires.

    • JCDavies

      “After watching the Bruins and Kings steamroll their way to the Cup in 2011 and 2012, respectively, many teams (including the Canucks) have placed a mandate on getting bigger. ”

      If you look recent draft picks (post 2009 and Jordan Schroeder) and trades (Booth and Kassian) it could be argued that this isn’t really a new mandate.

  • JCDavies

    Gillis could learn a thing or two from his predecessor about the draft.

    In 4 Nonis drafts, Edler, Schneider, Bourdon (RIP), Grabner, Raymond & Hansen were selected without the benefit of high picks for the most part.

    Those first 3 guys were consensus top 50 prospects before playing in the NHL.

    In 5 Gillis drafts, not a single top 50 prospect other than Hodgson. And Gillis gave him up for far too little.

    It would be okay if Gillis won the occasional trade.

    1 win (Ehrhoff) and a number of losses (Bernier, Alberts, Ballard, Booth & Roy).

    Would this guy still have a job if he didn’t inherit a bounty?

    • JCDavies

      Exactly. I mean, to Gillis’s credit, he’s been pretty damn good on the Free Agent front. Malhotra, Hamhuis, Garrison. His first two trades were tremendous as well, bringing in Ehrhoff, Higgins and Lapierre.

      But it’s all been downhill from there, with one massive gaffe after another. Everyone makes mistakes, but Gillis list is getting lengthier and the contents more laughable.

  • JCDavies

    “They can use their size to wear down smaller opposing players, and the speed factor isn’t as pronounced with an increase in obstruction.”

    What a great sports league we follow, hunh?

    Imagine if in the MLB playoffs, the strike zone suddenly shrunk down to the size of a pea.

  • JCDavies

    Alright, one more pick at Gillis draft tendency’s.

    I was browsing Hockey’s Future, and came upon a write-up on defenseive prospect Damon Seversonm, selected 60th overall vy the New Jersey Devils:

    “New Jersey was surprised when Damon Severson fell to their laps in the second round. Some teams may be kicking themselves years from now as the Saskatchewan native could become a top-four defenseman. The 18-year-old blueliner played a role in Kelowna’s record breaking season that saw them win 56 of 72 games and taking first place in the B.C. Division of the WHL. He led all defensemen in scoring with 10 goals and 42 assists and finished a plus-43. The Rockets rallied from a 3-0 deficit in first round to defeat Seattle in game seven in overtime. The defenseman posted a goal and nine assists in 11 playoff games. Back in September, he signed an entry-level contract with the Devils. He played in the final weekend of the season with Albany and chipped in two assists.

    Severson is not afraid to use his 6’2, 200 pound frame defensively and will also drop the gloves on occasion. He is a swift skater that plays a low-risk style, but has sound positioning and stick-work in the defensive end.”

    Sounds like a Tanev or Corrado, only with more offensive upside. He also plays in Vancouver’s back-yard. Vancouver had the 57th overall pick that draft. They grabbed Alexander Mallet, who wasn’t even thought of as a potential second round pick before the draft….in fact, I remember hearing that Vancouver could have still grabbed him in a l;ater round.

    That my friends, is poor drafting.