What do you do when you’ve collapsed a foot short of the summit of K2? (Yes, I know in real life you likely die. Go away.) Do you run quickly back down to the bottom and say, "The plan sucked, let’s do something completely different"? Or do you say, "Crap, that was so close, let’s have another go…"
That was the dilemma facing the near-champion Vancouver Canucks two summers ago. Protection against horrible memories means avoiding a recap of the 2011 Final, but let’s consider this point: the team failed because of injury as much as it did because of poor execution.
In any case, success does not come from standing still – how did Mike Gillis shuffle his deck in 2011?
Inventory – Forwards
Daniel kept up his torrid pace from 09-10, while Henrik’s shooting percentage regressed to a more stable career number. Ryan Kesler rode the percentages to 41 goals, while being put in front of the net in Newell Brown’s re-jigged powerplay.
Given his insane zone starts, Malhotra was putting together an amazing season. He was an enabler. And then he got hit in the eye…
Look at those lines, all tightly bunched in their usage. It was a system that demanded the top-end players score. It worked in spades.
I still don’t know what to think of Alex Bolduc. He was handed tough minutes, looked terrifying doing it, but still managed to be an even player. The goalies played remarkably well (.941 sv pct) when he was on the ice, thus his 1027 PDO and his +1 plus/minus. The next year in Phoenix, he was an exceptional performer in Corsi Rel.
Inventory – Defence
We know this story. Everyone thought Kevin Bieksa would be traded, but then Sami Salo blew out his achilles. The season consisted of Laurence Gilman juggling the cap to keep all the defencemen in the mix. Oh and suddenly Alex Edler needed shoulder surgery? Nice.
People complained that Keith Ballard wasn’t getting a fair shake, especially when he was scratched and Aaron Rome handed his place, but I never really understood what people saw in him that suggested he was anything more than what he seemed to be – a third pairing defenceman who took risks, sometimes was rewarded but more often was punished. Plus, he had a huge contract. The Grabner trade was turning into the Kobayashi Maru and in this instance, Gillis was not James Kirk.
All kinds of ice time management here. Dan Hamhuis became Kevin Bieksa’s rehabilitator, Keith Ballard and Aaron Rome were deployed pretty much the same way, while Chris Tanev was a positive corsi player with crap zone starts (partly because he played against weak opposition).
Keeping Christian Ehrhoff seemed impossible – he was a UFA and his salary demands would take him out of Vancouver. Continuing the trend of finding lower-lineup depth at cheap salaries was also a priority; Tanner Glass would sign with Pittsburgh, while Raffi Torres would go for the money with Phoenix.
Manny Malhotra’s future was up in the air; he’d returned to the lineup in the final vs Boston, but his eyesight was a huge issue, affecting his puck handling, his defensive reads and his timing.
Depth forwards was the order of the summer.
Although Ryan Kesler was out to start the year, Cody Hodgson looked ready to make the step up to being a full-time player. Max Lapierre had fit in better than anyone imagined he would and was rewarded with a two-year contract, filling more space up the middle.
On defence, the trio of Kevin Bieksa, Andrew Alberts and Sami Salo were retained. The defence had been strong all of 2010-11, so signing Bieksa long term and keeping solid contributors in Salo and Alberts made sense.
It was Gillis’ quietest summer. He moved out Christian Ehrhoff to the Islanders, who thought they might be able to sign the dman everyone wanted. He shuffled out disgruntled Sergei Shirokov for Mike Duco, who’d make a minor impact on the fourth line.
During the season he traded for David Booth while moving out aged, broken parts in Mikael Samuelsson and the just-signed Marco Sturm. (From an analytics perspective, Booth remains a fine addition, but his lack of results is what everyone focuses on.)
Byron Bitz – He’d fought injuries for more than a year, but the Canucks figured he might be worth the risk. He turned out to be a useful enough grinder, but hardly a game breaker (well except for that week when he was precisely that).
Alex Sulzer – Brought in to be a depth guy, he was adequate when he played but was moved mid-season to Buffalo.
Matt Climie – The new squad in Chicago needed a veteran AHLer to play with Eddie Lack. Climie was that guy. He got called up one weekend to sit on the bench.
Steve Pinizotto – Signed as a low-risk, high-reward player, Pinizotto made the team in preseason, then blew out his shoulder and was on the shelf for most of the next year.
Andrew Ebbett – Brought in as a swingman, he played well in limited minutes, until destroying his shoulder in January.
Marco Sturm – Coming off of major knee surgery, most thought he was done as an effective NHLer. The Canucks said they did due diligence and thought he was ready for a serious bounce-back season, but it was apparent almost right away that he wasn’t. It was a miracle that the Canucks were able to unload him for David Booth.
Mark Mancari – Ask Wyatt Arndt. (Two posts in a row for The Stanchion!)
Nick Jensen – Looks set to join the big club in 2013-14; he’s big, has a great set of hands and is a good skater. Huge upside here.
David Honzik – Slumped badly in his two years since being drafted, he’s now out of the organization.
Alexandre Grenier – A moneypuck pick. He was way off of everyone’s radar but knows how to move the puck and also has size. He took an unconventional route in the 2012-13 season, spending the first half in Austria before signing with the Wolves. He played in both the AHL and ECHL but still shows potential.
Joe LaBate – A college flyer, the Wisconsin winger is still a year or two off from signing a contract, but shows plenty of potential.
Ludwig Blomstrand – Could he be the Swedish Jannik Hansen? He’s a ferocious forechecker but doesn’t have the softest hands. He finished 2012-13 in Chicago after signing with the Canucks. Another project.
Frank Corrado – We know Frankie’s story. He’s taken off in the last two years and suited up in the playoffs this past spring. Will he keep a spot in the NHL next fall or will he go back to the AHL?
Pathrik Westerholm – Another over-age draft pick. Flamed out; he just never developed, looking lost in the 2012 prospects camp. He’s out of the organization.
Henrik Tommernes – He’s already 23, but only just signed his first Canucks contract. It’s now or never for the puck-moving defenceman.
This was the summer of ‘Stay-still Gill.’ The Canucks’ GM chose to stand pat with the roster that had nearly delivered a Stanley Cup. Nonetheless, it was a team that changed its balance. Cody Hodgson took the spot of Mikael Samuelsson but didn’t provide the same two-way play, even if he did score some great goals. He was ultimately showcased and traded for Zack Kassian. Christian Ehrhoff’s spot next to Alex Edler took ages to sort out; letting the German puck-mover go was a cap-forced decision, but it was one that is still difficult to swallow.
Marco Sturm was a disaster and even if he’d been healthy, he never would have replaced the vibrant sand-paper brought by Raffi Torres. Losing Torres is one of the under-told stories from post-2011; something that was only recognized this past spring when the Canucks tried to bring him back.
Manny Malhotra’s decline was hardly unexpected; but giving him a chance to prove himself was an honourable move. But there wasn’t a true plan B in place.
It was always likely to be a no-win scenario; Gillis fostered goodwill by rewarding the guys who had found success with contracts, but there was always a danger that by standing still, the Canucks would fall behind. It didn’t cost them in the regular season, but they couldn’t get over the L.A. Kings hump in the postseason and were eliminated in only five games.
Staying on top is tough game to play.