Mike Gillis’ record (Part IV): A look back at 2011


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).

Off-season needs

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. 

Gillis’ Moves

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.)

Free agents

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!)

Draft picks

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.

Final Assessment

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.

  • Enjoying this series!

    This was a fine year for drafting. Two blue chippers in Jensen and Corrado, with Tommernes and Blomstrand tracking splendidly. Gillis needs to keep leaning heavily on his Ontario and Swedish scouting.

  • If David Booth was a good trade at the time for the Canucks, does it mean it was a bad trade for Florida, who essentially gave him away?

    Much like with Bernier, Alberts, Ballard & Kassian, I’d suggest perhaps these organizations knew what they were doing when they gave them away.

    Also, while I like Booth the player in some role, he likely has negative trade value in the NHL. In other words, the Canucks couldn’t give him away.

    After all, Florida essentially gave him away and his last two years haven’t helped his value, I would think.

    Also, while the 2011 draft looks to have some useful players, the expectations should probably be tempered.

    There is a reason our farm system isn’t well regarded with Jensen as the “crown jewel”.

  • antro

    Great series, Patrick!

    “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.”

    Agree and agree. People credited Malhotra for doing a lot of enabling, and he was great, but Torres came with bona fide 5v5 chops, and helped a lot.

    No plan B for Malhotra is right. I think Samuel Pahlsson was a deadline deal that year, no? But yeah, that was no plan b!

    Come to think of it, Gillis still has no plan b for replacing Malhotra’s role. Gaunce?

  • antro

    Ugh, I still remember that feeling of being up 2-0 and 3-2 in the series. You had that nagging thought in the back of your head that maybe, just maybe they could do it. And then further back you had another nagging thought saying there was no way, this is the Canucks we’re talking about. At those points though, it was so hard not to be overly optimistic.

    I do think Gillis has sat on his hands a bit too much the past couple of seasons. Speaking of which, is Torres a UFA? I wouldn’t mind seeing him back. I wonder what it would take to pry Goc out of Florida, too. I like a Torres/Goc/Hansen 3rd line.

  • JCDavies

    Jesus, forget the useless stats, if the canucks want to win they should look at the final four teams, with the exception of the pens, the other 3 are the model teams of how to get far in the play offs. Boston is decimating the pens, like taking candy from a baby, and this goes to show you a few things.
    The canucks do not have a play off system, never have, never will. And it’s the coaches and the ppl who know how that the canucks need. Boston is on a tear and if it wasn’t for the leafs “canucking’ the last 10 minutes of the third, the pens would have had an easy ticket to the finals.

    It’s also obvious that there have always been two sets of rules in the nhl. One for the regular season , where the refs are mandated to make every call in the name of exciting hockey, but during the post season will put their whistles away. This isn’t something new, it’s written on all the teams remaining in the playoffs, big teams with skill that can play through games will hardly any calls. The canucks are not one of them, not by a long shot.

    With that being said, the Canucks still haven’t got a clue, still believing that play off hockey is the same as the regular season..it is not. Play off hockey is about playing a tournament style or system, where there are not many high risk pplays and passes like what the pens have been trying to do to boston, and are now on the verge of getting humiliated like the canucks in a sweep. It’s time for the canucks to get real hockey minded people in the franchise, no more player agents playing gm, or guys who couldn’t spot real talent if it grew on a coconut and fell on their heads like their scouting. and of course, no more coaches who are not a student of the game and no more players who cant contribute in the post season like the Sedins and Raymond etcetc.

    The canucks are no spring chicken franchise, they’ve been here for a long time, and they are out of runway for another decade of losing followed by excuses. It’s time to purge the team. its time for the team to shape up or ship out. Stats and excuses are for losers.

  • JCDavies

    The Canucks could have just buried Sturm and his contract in the minors, it was a low risk move. I am not sure why the Canucks behaving like a ‘big market’ club would be a bad thing.

  • JCDavies

    Just remember, everyone: the sky is falling, and the only solution is to fire everyone and get “better people”

    Who those better people are and how we’ll get them are for another day. Hurry, fire all the people!

  • The Aquilinis may not be thrifty, but I doubt they would take kindly to “wasting” large amounts of money.

    I like how Gillis has run this team overall. He hasn’t made a ton of mistakes, especially not ones that were seen at the time.

    When we were on the verge of the cup, he didn’t make massive changes. He also didn’t need to rush for impact prospects, as our forwards were prolific, our D-core was still young and we had no worries in net.

    He inhereted a good thing, and isn’t one to change for change’s sake. That being said, when he sees an advantage to making a change, he does it.\ (i.e. keeping the scouting staff and system that brought in Edler, Schneider etc. while changing the way the Canucks did many things like sleep and eat).

    Now though, he has to take a different approach as this core is not ready to take on any of the teams in the final four.
    I am anticipating bigger trades, good young talent acquired at the expense of a veteran or two, and a different approach to drafting. If none of those things happen, then I will be more open to criticizing Gillis; instead of insisting that he is just playing within the context of a cup contender and is flexible enough to adopt a different philosophy.

    Every single year, fans and GMs overreact to the dominant fore of the day.
    2008, Detroit won and obbiously that was because of continuity of core and the skill throughout their lineup.
    2009, Pittsburg won and skill ruled the day. 4th line skill was the new thing, as well as depth at center.
    2010, Chicago won and ELCs were the new “it”. Pittsburg was cited as another example, and it was now a “must” to have a highly producing ELC on your team.
    2011, Boston won as physicality trumped skill. GMs scambled to adapt to the “new rules” in the playoffs and loaded up on size and quality 4th lines.
    2012, LA won and again, size ruled the day along with center depth, great goaltending and big deadline deals.

    When everyone turned to skill, Boston did not follow. When Chicago won, LA didn’t seek to emulate them. When LA/Boston won, Pittsburg didn’t change their formula. Yes, LA won and they were large, but they had imposing players to begin with and there wasn’t a philosophical shift.

    All of the above techniques work, if you have Superstars on ELCs, that is a massive advantage. If you can get your hands on supremely talented, imposing players, big bonus. Do you have an above average 4th line? Great. Can you ice an extraordinary skilled lineup? Awesome.

    They all work, none are guaranteed to win the cup.
    Yes, you have to adapt to new situations but going overboard won’t help. If you told people in 2009 that Boston would win the cup with physicality in 2011, you wouldn’t be believed. Boston was ahead of the curve and to win, the Canucks must be as well.
    I can’t tell you what the next shift will be, but I am pretty sure that within 3 years… Size will have passed out of the spotlight.

    • “I can’t tell you what the next shift will be, but I am pretty sure that within 3 years… Size will have passed out of the spotlight.”

      But that is when all our prospects with size will be cutting their teeth!

      You’re telling me we’re going to be following the trend again!

      Thank god we have a “progressive” GM.

    • JCDavies

      “but I am pretty sure that within 3 years… Size will have passed out of the spotlight.”

      Skilled players with size will always have value. Size will always have a piece of the spotlight.

  • There are a number of areas the Canucks would need to address to play like Boston or LA. Realistically, the chances of that happening this offseason are slim to none.

    The Canucks simply don’t have the cap space or chips to move around, aside from Schneider. And that doesn’t look like it’s happening unfortunately.

    One area where I’d like to see them be proactive is addressing their penalty issues.

    Between the Burrows-Auger incident, Gillis quoting penalty stats before game 7 vs Chicago and our general inability to catch a break from the refs, it’s time to accept our reputation and address it.

    The most obvious guy to strongly consider trading would be Burrows, in my opinion. I also wouldn’t be surprised if the apathy towards resigning Lapierre is partly due to his reputation, regardless of the fact he has improved.

    As good as he is at even strength, to what degree does Burrows’ penchant for penalties and $2.5 cap raise undercut his value?

  • Mantastic

    Winning is in vogue. so whether you accomplish it with pure skill or size with skill, people will always want to follow the winning “ways” but in the end of the day, teams win is with depth and skill, this is why Vancouver made it so far in 2011.

    vancouver is built to win with pure skill, they don’t have the horses to run with the sized teams, that’s just the way it goes. In the past 2 years, however, instead of Gillis realizing that he should just stuck to what he was doing prior to the SCF lose, and build onto the core that burke and nonnis have built, he opted to find less skilled bigger players (the trade of Coho for Kassian) and sign a bunch of their ageing core past their prime to big contracts.

    vancouver will not win a cup in a while because A) their skill is deminishing due to age B) they will have worse depth due to cap issues.

    if they had better drafting, depth would not be as big of an issue as it is now. and with no replacement of the skill that the Sedins are losing by the year, the team is hopeless.