The 2007-08 season ended badly; the Canucks stumbled out of the playoffs, Markus Naslund moved on (and yes, that’s Brad Isbister behind him), Dave Nonis was fired. (photo: Jeff Vinnick/Canucks.com)
When assessing Mike Gillis’ record as GM, we must consider the lineup he had, year-by-year.
Appointed in the spring of 2008, Gillis had never worked in NHL management. Instead, he’d spent the better part of two decades as a player agent, cultivating a reputation as a black sheep. He was the agent who delivered massive contracts to Bobby Holik, Tony Amonte and others. Gillis was the lead agent who recognized better than the GMs how to best exploit the free agent market; his prediliction towards unconventional thinking is why Francesco Aquilini hired him.
In the five years since his appointment, the Canucks have won the second-most regular games in the league – only Pittsburgh have won more. And yet, a chorus of discontent has risen. In the wake of Alain Vigneault’s firing, it got louder than at any other time during Gillis’ tenure. ‘The wrong guy is out,’ many have screamed. ‘Gillis is to blame!’
But is that really the case? Indeed, Mike Gillis inherited a solid young core from the previous regime. But has he really done nothing to improve this team? Beginning today, the first in a series of season-by-season looks at Gillis’ work (or lack thereof) in assembling the team that two years ago was on the brink of glory and today stands at an apparent crossroads.
The 2008 off-season, after the jump.
INVENTORY – FORWARDS
At the end of the 2007-08 season, Dave Nonis was fired by new owner Francesco Aquilini. Mike Gillis was Aquilini’s new general manager.
Nonis left behind a solid core of young players, but few useful supplementary parts:
That’s a top-six of the Sedins, Kesler and Naslund, with some mix of Morrison, Burrows and Pyatt thrown in. Naslund was still producing well, but Morrison was hurt during the year and Alex Burrows wasn’t quite yet ready for prime time.
The bottom six was mostly woeful: beyond Matt Cooke’s collapse, there were the contributions of Ryan Shannon, Brad Isbister and Byron Ritchie to consider. Trevor Linden had held on for one last season, but in hindsight, perhaps it was a bridge too far. He hadn’t been much of a scorer for nearly a decade and his production fell through the floor in his final season. He was a regular scratch and struggled to have much influence when he was in the lineup, though he reamined a shootout ace. The only bright spot in terms of "young talent" on the roster was Mason Raymond, I suppose…
Looking at their underlying numbers from Behind The Net, we find the Sedins and Naslund driving play very well, Kesler and Burrows holding their own in tough minutes. Everyone else is average at best, though the likes of Jeff Cowan, Rick Rypien, Ritchie and Mike Brown had their hats fed to them. Play crap players together and they’ll produce crap.
INVENTORY – DEFENCE
Again, a solid core, but there was a lot of mileage already on Mattias Ohlund and Sami Salo. Alex Edler had just completed his first full season, while Kevin Bieksa suffered his first serious leg cut. He missed much of the season, returning late in the year but was ineffective in his return. Lukas Krajicek spent most of the season on the injured list. It all meant that Aaron Miller and Mike Weaver, both intended to be spare parts, saw plenty of minutes.
Their underlying numbers suggest Weaver was a solid player in soft minutes, while Willie Mitchell, Salo and Bieksa played the toughest minutes and did fine.
Overall, this was a team that mostly excelled in mediocrity. They didn’t do much horribly, but they sure as hell didn’t set the world on fire either. And there were plenty of places for growth.
Defensive depth was a priority, as well as adding lower-order parts at forward. The fourth line was a mess and the third line was average at best. A guy like Jason Jaffray was a gamer and had some skill, but surely there were better options out there. Bringing Matt Pettinger in in place of Matt Cooke turned out to be a bust. Brendan Morrison was done, while Markus Naslund still had gas in the tank, but not much.
It would be a sea-change summer. Naslund and Morrison were allowed to walk. Trevor Linden retired.
Before the season opened Gillis made three trades, bringing in Steve Bernier, Shane O’Brien, potential reclamation project Michel Ouellet and depth dman Lawrence Nycholat, while shipping out Shannon, Krajicek and depth forward Juraj Simek.
Bernier, as everyone knows, came in as a developing scorer with power forward potential but never found his way. Many suggested that he simply needed to put his stick on the ice and he’d have 30 goals, others said it was a question of skating and poor fitness; whatever it was, Bernier started off with the Sedins and worked his way down the rotation from there. He was eventually traded for Keith Ballard.
Assessment: solid concept, Bernier was just 23 and had scored 45 goals over two-and-a-half seasons when Gillis traded for him, but he was underwhelming.
O’Brien was brought in to be a 6/7 guy and did grow into something bigger – both in role and in girth. He was consistently tough and though he had his battles with management and the coaching staff about his love of the nighttime and snacking, he filled a spot well for two season until he was waived and traded before the 2010-11 season.
Ouellet and Nycholat both barely played.
Kyle Wellwood wasn’t a trade, but he was picked up off waivers. His story is well-documented; the Canucks effectively rebuilt his career, pressing the need for a proper diet (and inspiring Gillis to initiate player-centred ideas, like a team chef) and forcing Wellwood to learn the game as a two-way forward. He cost nothing to pick up, he was an adventure at times, but he turned into one of the team’s most effective forwards. Plus he was really, really fun to watch.
Pavol Demitra proved to be a solid addition (photo: bydand/flickr cc)
Darcy Hordichuk – It’s still hard to fathom quite why he was brought in. He couldn’t skate, he couldn’t shoot and he couldn’t really fight, either. And yet he actually saw ice time in Blackhawks-Canucks I.
Ryan Johnson – In hindsight, can we see a bit of Manny Malhotra here? Johnson was brought in despite the fact he had zero offensive ability. In his two regular seasons with the Canucks, he started less than a third of his shifts in the offensive zone. He had one job – get the puck out of the defensive end and get off. His first season he was pretty decent; his second not as much. His penalty-drawing rate halved from year one to year two, and he started taking more. That’s not a huge number for a guy playing as little as he did (7-8 minutes at 5 on 5), but when your job is to not screw up, period, each extra penalty gets noticed.
Nolan Baumgartner – the return of an organizational warrior. Baumer had one job – show young dmen like Yann Sauve the ropes. He got a couple more cups of coffee in Vancouver, including some unexpected playoff game time in 2010, but he was behind it by then.
Pavol Demitra – Gillis’ first big signing. Demitra’s first season was a success – looking at his WOWY numbers from 2008-09, we see that he was a positive contributor on the top two lines and had a big influence on the play of players lower in the order, like Kyle Wellwood and Jannik Hansen. He also formed a fine ‘what could have been?’ partnership with Mats Sundin (how might that season have been different if the big Swede had started the season in Vancouver and not arrived halfway through…). His second year, was far less successful Demitra battled injuries and personal issues for much of the season, putting up rather ‘meh’ possession numbers. Of course, there was also his epic performance in the Olympics, but that’s not what the Canucks were paying him for.
Rob Davison – brought in to be a depth guy and we exactly that. The fact that Davison had spent the 2004-05 lockout in the noted hockey hotbed of Cardiff suggested an adventurous spirit, but it also told us that European clubs hadn’t exactly been lining up out the door for him. Wasn’t terrible, but he did lose his job to Shane O’Brien, playing just a couple dozen games over the season.
Jason Krog – in baseball he’s a Quad-A player: too good for AAA baseball, but too flawed for the big leagues. He lit up the AHL in Winnipeg, managed four games for the big club and bagged a goal.
Mats Sundin – the big guy couldn’t decide what to do. He’d left Toronto amidst some controversy and though the Canucks offered him a contract in the summer, he didn’t sign until December. He struggled when first added to the lineup, but his eventual partnership with Ryan Kesler (Demitra was later added to the mix as well) turned his season around. He didn’t return for a second season and we are left to wonder what might have been had he played a full campaign.
Third round pick Prabh Rai spent most of his time as prospect on the injured list. (photo: Kathleen Hinkel/Icon SMI)
Only Cody Hodgson and Yann Sauve made it to the NHL – though, of course, as top-round picks, you’d hope so. CoHo we know all about. Sauve’s been a bust.
The team had missed the playoffs and was populated with a bunch of mediocre players. Under Gillis’ watch, the core assembled by Dave Nonis took a big step forward in 2008-09, losing in the second round. Young players like Alex Edler, Kevin Bieksa and Alex Burrows all took great leaps forward offensively, while Jannik Hansen became a regular checker. Gillis’ signings were mostly good, as a team that had struggled to score in 07-08 suddenly became a top-ten scoring team. That was as much about internal development as it was the additions of Demitra and Sundin, though. Demitra was a wash for Naslund, but even a diminished Sundin was clearly an improvement over Brendan Morrison in decline.
So, the team got better. A lot of that was natural development but a fair bit was up to better forwards. Call Gillis’ 2008 a solid first effort – he found quality replacements for fading stars as well as improved depth players. The team still had flaws but it was notably better than it was before.