While one era ends, the next doesn’t know where to begin

(Illustration: Game 7 Hockey)


During his end-of-season press conference, Canucks GM Mike Gillis stressed the need for a "reset" within the organization, which is an appropriately vague term for a team that doesn’t really know which direction it’s heading in.

They believe they can still contend, yet their core is aging. They want an uptempo brand of hockey to re-capture a softening audience, yet they don’t have the personnel up front to do that anymore.

So what should they do?

Gillis’s actions this off-season will potentially define a new era in Vancouver. He’s already fired the coach, but that will be little more than a lateral move if he fails to improve the roster. Since 2010-11 Gillis seems to have flip-flopped between trying to build a team based on speed and skill to one based on size. With several holes in the line-up that need to be addressed, it’s time for Gillis to pick a direction and commit to it.

That direction should be this: doing everything necessary to acquire young, top-end talent capable of being cornerstone offensive players within the next few years.

That will be a very difficult task. What makes this an extraordinary predicament for Gillis is that with Alain Vigneault gone, his number is going to be up next if things continue to get worse before they get better. It’s going to be exceedingly difficult for Gillis to position the team for long-term success when he’s (presumably) on such a short leash himself.

Why is it so essential the Canucks acquire young talent? A quick look at the average age of their roster and what they have in the system and it’s obvious: there is simply no one on their way up capable of eventually carrying the offence the way the Sedins have over the past 7 years. It’s debatable whether Daniel and Henrik are still able to do that, but the fact that we’re even debating it at all is a sign that the day when they are no longer top line players is, at best, not that far off. They’re not the thoroughbred 100-point superstars they were three years ago.

Cam talked about this in his post from last week: the last time a new coach was brought into Vancouver, core offensive players Brendan Morrison and Markus Naslund were on the downslope, but the team had the Sedins emerging and newly-acquired goalie Roberto Luongo. The Canucks now have a new coach and the twins are the age that Naslund was then (32), but where is the new guard? Nicklas Jensen? Brendan Gaunce? They could become fine complimentary scorers, but it’s hard to imagine them carrying the load the way the Sedins do.

At the same time, fans and management need to be concerned that Ryan Kesler’s peak season may be behind him as well. With all his injury issues, I’d be very wary of relying on Kesler to be the first line centre in a couple of years when it’s time to make that transition.

Mike Gillis has made a choice to go with Cory Schneider long-term in an effort to "extend the window". The problem with that is in a few years when Schneider is in his prime, it’s very likely the Canucks aren’t going to have the support around him to be a contender. Imagine a 30-year-old Schneider with the Sedins in their mid-30s and Ryan Kesler at 31 in a conference with the likes of Los Angeles, San Jose, and a maturing Edmonton team. That sounds like a 4-8 seed that continually gives up 2nd and 3rd round picks at the deadline in the hopes of winning a couple more playoff games. That sounds like the Calgary Flames.

Would it have been that much of a risk to assume that Roberto Luongo was going to remain an elite goalie for a few more years while Eddie Lack developed into an NHL starter? Was that risk worth giving up the return they would have received for Schneider? Ironically, by committing to Cory in an effort to keep the team competitive for longer, Gillis may have blown his best chance at restocking the team’s most barren cupboard: the one labeled "quality offensive prospects".

I’m not suggesting the Canucks "blow it up" and tank for draft picks, but they’re going to need to get creative. For a team loaded with No Trade Clauses, that’s a lot easier said than done. The optics of trading a player with an NTC are bad, but what other choice do they have? The alternative is watching the core of this team continue to erode while management rearranges deck chairs in the form of giving up picks for complimentary pieces.

Stanley Cup winning teams boast elite players in the prime of their careers. There is no way around this model. That’s why I’m not as excited about a new coach as most seem to be, because no matter how competent a coach is, no coach has ever led a team without elite players in the prime of their careers to a Stanley Cup. Especially not in the salary cap world, where having key players on cheap deals is essential.

The biggest mistake Mike Gillis ever made might turn out to be not trading Cory Schneider during the 2011-12 season. But that ship has sailed, and Gillis and Laurence Gilman have a heavy, heavy workload ahead of them this summer. What they end up accomplishing will have a dramatic effect on both the future of the Canucks and the future of their employment.

More than anything, they need to avoid the trap of becoming a team that’s merely good enough to make the playoffs, and find a way to acquire players that have the potential to become the new faces of this franchise.

  • The theme, I guess, is it’s hard to win without quitting, (sorry, “rebuilding”) for years at a time. LA, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Boston all quit for most of the aughts and now find themselves in the conference finals.

    Gillis’ biggest mistake is he took over a team that hadn’t purposefully and strategically quit for the five years before he got there.

  • “Imagine a 30-year-old Schneider with the Sedins in their mid-30s and Ryan Kesler at 31 in a conference with the likes of Los Angeles, San Jose, and a maturing Edmonton team.”

    There is an unspoken assumption floating around that the Canucks control Schneider’s contractual rights until he retires.

    The only way to have done that would have been a 12 year contract but the Canucks were at their limit.

    While most big market teams are able to extend their core players easily, it’s not difficult to picture a scenario where Schneider thinks twice before signing an extension.

    For example, what if the Canucks have their third underwhelming year in a row and either are knocked out early in the playoffs or miss the playoffs entirely? The latter scenario seems unlikely but certainly not impossible.

    If MG (finally) gets the axe, does the new GM actually try and extend the Sedins? As much as they may be declining, it’s not as though they are easy to replace.

    And if the Sedins are gone, does Schneider actually want to hang around for a rebuild? The ridiculous rationalizations for giving Luongo a lifetime contract were based on the premise that he wouldn’t hang around for a rebuild. Why exactly would Schneider?

    And unless Gillis starts making better transactions, this will be his ultimate legacy as far as I am concerned. At every position (forward, defense & goalie) at both the NHL level and minor league level, the franchise is in a worse position than it was when Gillis was fired (assuming Luongo is given away). Think about that.

    And this is due to Gillis’ absolutely god awful trade history (aside from Ehrhoff) and backwards drafting philosophy that he probably learned from Billy Beane and his disciples. Clearly he hasn’t been paying attention to the changes in MLB in the last decade and that ‘Moneyball” is in many ways just a period piece at this point.

    Where Nonis (smartly) drafted high ceiling guys (Schneider, Edler, Grabner, Bourdon, White among others), Gillis has tried to “hit a double instead of a homerun”. Sure, Nonis had some outright busts (White) and mild disappointments (Grabner), but it’s not like the Canucks have received a whole lot of value & quality games from Gillis’ draft selections. And none of these guys (other than Hodgson) have ever been considered top prospects within the industry. Gillis is the JP Ricciardi of hockey.

    I had high hopes for Gillis shortly after he was hired. I liked that he was going to apply principals that have been effective in MLB to the NHL. I liked that he convinced the owner to spend more on scouts and player development. I liked that he talked about a “cycle of young players”.

    But after 5 years and the organization being worse at every position at both the NHL and minor league level, I see little reason based on his past performance to believe he can build a sustainable contender.

    • Ok so I ask again…then hire who? I respect your criticisms but then what? Keep the aging core and try to complement with who and how under the cap restrains? Trade Schneider and keep Luongo? Trade off the aging assets and with a new scouting dept become relevant again before the Flames? If you can see what has gone wrong with the organization so well for close to a decade then surely you can tell us what should be done going forward . I’m curious.

      • As I’ve said, I feel anyone who looks at the organizational depth chart will agree the team is weaker at forward, defenseman and goaltender at the major and minor league level today than they were 5 years ago when Gillis was hired.

        If you figure the Canucks have a fair shot at hiring an average GM, I would consider that an upgrade on Gillis.

        In my mind, Gillis is in moral hazard territory:


        In other words, he is willing to make job saving moves that will be detrimental to the next GM and the organization as a whole. And that should scare the hell out of Canuck fans.

        Example 1: Trading a 2nd round pick & Kevin Connauton for a few games of Derek Roy. Terrible trade.

        Example 2: Reportedly willing to part with a 1st round pick for a few games of David Clarkson. Disaster averted.

        Example 3: Sabotoging Roberto Luongo’s trade value to the point where he is a massively undervalued asset. And STILL attempting to trade him while his value is low.

        The best reason for the Maple Leafs to have fired Brian Burke is that he had dug himself so deep with the Kessel trade that he just had to keep pushing forward even if it wasn’t the right direction for the franchise.

        When Nonis took over, he could take a step back. Nonis didn’t have the opportunity to make any major trades or free agent signings when he took over. But he (smartly) paved the way for young Marlies to get opportunities (namely Kadri) by tossing aside Connolly, Lombardi & Komisarek. The exact moves that Burke could not make because it would be admitting failure.

        It’s actually a very comparable situation to Vancouver. A new GM could walk in and make the logical choice and trade Cory Schneider.

        As for how I would fix this mess, I believe the Canucks need an agressive retool and, in the process, try and turn the Sedins into more of a 1A line.

        A lot of people have been tossing out Edler trade scenarios in an attempt to add a frontline winger such as Skinner, Ryan or Erikkson. Of course, that would severely hamper the D core because Tanev/Corrado and the rest are low-medium ceiling replacements.

        Instead, use Schneider to acquire that frontline winger. My fantasy scenario would probably be something like Schneider and either Booth or Burrows (depending on what it would take) for Evander Kane. My supersized fantasy scenario would probably add in Edler and Bogosian.

        Of course, these fantasy scenarios are unlikely to come to fruition. And I don’t blame Gillis for that. I blame him for putting himself into the situation where he needs to make unrealistic acquisitions and contract dumps to properly retool the team.

        • I agree that trading Schneider is the only major move available to the GM to significantly change the makeup of the Canucks’ skaters. And that trading him is the logical move.

          Not that even this will be easy, but it will be easier than seeing fans’ dreams that Luongo, but especially his contract, yield any real trade value, come to fruition.

          Dreamers don’t seem sometimes to understand that trading is adversarial and opportunistic. That there is the Luongo contract a team would inherit. Then there’s this offseason, when the trade and R/UFA goalie market will be glutted. Smith, Bernier, Miller, for starters, further compromise Luongo’s trade value.

          A few years ago, the GM and owners committed to Lou, and he committed to Vancouver for his career. Time to give the fate of the team back to him – if he will take it. And that’s a question too in this mess.

          Schneider is way more valuable to this team for what he can bring in a trade. Luongo is still a very fine goalie, and one who is resonant with the age cycle of this team. Live with that cycle, and understand that the team’s window has either begun to close or has.

          Trade Schneider, pick up at least draft pick or two and a really good prospect or young NHL player. That’s the market.

          It’s fine. This team didn’t quite have it all. Happens. Lick wounds for a few years, enjoy the new Canucks, and being a fan.

  • As I said, I respect the points you make. I just wanted an idea of what you were thinking in terms of real trades/personnel moves. Funny I was telling a friend the other day how I thought Evander Kane would look good in a Canuck Uniform. I thought a blockbuster with Winnipeg could be a real possibility.

    • Well there is a relationship with Winnipeg. Schneider has a history in Manitoba and would be a massive upgrade on Pavelec.

      Frankly, I think something like that would benefit both teams. But “hockey” trades are so hard to predict, occur so infrequently and like most fans I may be overvaluing my team’s assets and undervaluing another team’s assets.

      But whenever I think of these types of fantasy scenarios, it becomes apparent that my dream offseason involves addressing Gillis mistakes (Luongo contract, Ballard & Booth) and moving around the quality Nonis pieces (Schneider, Edler) to fix other areas.

  • I think the area Gillis has really disappointed me is player development/keeping young players. In particular, Grabner and Hodgson. Two clearly skilled, contributing players given up for, what is turning out to be/what turned out to be, nothing basically.

    I lamented the Grabner trade from day one. It never fit in with Gillis’ defined goal of developing from within. Hodgson is the same. I don’t think Hodgson is a perfect player, but he’s proven to be much, much better than Kassian at the NHL level. Two young, NHL producing scoring forwards: exactly what we need right now, exactly what Gillis said he’d keep, and exactly what he gave away. The Ballard trade still pisses me off in particular.