Mike Gillis’ best summer is surely 2010. In 2008 he got his feet wet and returned the Canucks to the postseason, in 2009 he’d made more decisions in re-shaping the team (and he’d also convinced the Sedins to re-sign for below market value). Saving money in 2009 allowed him to bring in key free agents in 2010.
In the 2010 playoffs, the Canucks had again run into the Blackhawks brick wall. The Hawks were again too much to handle and the Canucks’ penalty kill had been a miserable failure all playoffs.
The first key acquisition of Gillis’ tenure, Pavol Demitra, went out with a whimper. Injured for most of the year, his greatest moments came in the Olympics, as he drove Slovakia into the semifinals. It was an against-all-odds performance.
At the same time as Demitra was starring on the international stage, Shane O’Brien managed to turn his greatest opportunity into nothing. Injuries had offered him increased ice time, but over the two week break for the Olympics, O’Brien reportedly partied it up and packed on the pounds. He became a lesson for Canucks management on the importance of off-ice culture.
How to re-shape the third and fourth line? How to find and keep as many NHL-capable defencemen as possible? What to do with a pair of young forwards? Those were the questions facing Mike Gillis as the 2010 off-season began.
Inventory – Forwards
Here we are. The Sedins have reached the pinnacle; they are among the game’s best. Henrik wins the Art Ross and the Hart. Daniel, despite missing nearly twenty games with a broken foot, returns with a vengance, scoring at a clip (4.0 pts/60 min) even better than his brother’s (3.9 pts/60 min). It was a season for the ages.
Mikael Samuelsson proved to be exactly the player the Canucks believed he could be, bagging 30 goals while moving between Henrik’s and Kesler’s wings. On top of this, Pavol Demitra’s battles with injury opened a door for Mason Raymond, who bagged 25 goals in a contract year. Coupled with the NHL-arrival of Michael Grabner, Mike Gillis had to choose which young winger made more sense – the cheaper but still mostly-unknown Grabner, or the apparent known quantity of Mason Raymond. He’d choose the latter.
In terms of deployment, the Canucks are starting to move towards the offensive-zone/defensive-zone setup that has become most familiar. Ryan Johnson is the enabler, while the Sedins get matched up to the opposing team’s weaker forwards.
There’s the fourth line, though, in the bottom left, bleeding shots against weak opposition. The Darcy Hordichuk era was done.
Inventory – Defence
The mid-season loss of Willie Mitchell was huge in 2009-10. He played the toughest minutes on the blue line. Coupled with the leg injury suffered by Kevin Bieksa and the Mathieu Schneider mess, the Canucks found themselves handing regular minutes to Aaron Rome, late-season acquisition Andrew Alberts and Moose captain Nolan Baumgartner. It was not the safest way forward. Shane O’Brien suddenly was the fourth dman, which you know Alain Vigneault wasn’t altogether that comfortable with. Evan Oberg was the club’s top prospect but clearly terrified the crap out of the coaches, who allowed him only to take a few strides away from the bench on each of his 18 shifts.
Willie Mitchell’s defensive heavy-lifting skews the chart somewhat, Christian Ehrhoff and Alex Edler’s strong two-way play gets shaded down visually as a result.
Aaron Rome was the weakest of the Canucks’ regulars.
Ryan Johnson taught the Canucks one thing – the theory would work if they found a better player. Taking draws wasn’t as important as being able to get the puck out. Johnson was hustler, a battler, but he was maxed out as a hockey player by the time the 2010 postseason roled around. To be effective on the penalty-kill and in the bottom-six the Canucks needed better.
Ever-improved defensive depth would be essential. If there was one thing Mike Gillis said he learned in the wake of 09-10, it was that you can never have enough defencemen. Everyone figured he’d go after at least one. He surprised us all and got two.
And there was no need to find a backup goalie to replace the departing Andrew Raycroft – Cory Schneider’s time had arrived.
Unlike the previous two summers, there were no long-time greats hanging around. Former Gillis client Pavol Demitra’s contract was up and the team decided to go in a new direction. It didn’t make sense to keep the oft-injured Slovakian around to play on the third line, especially given the salary he might demand. Resources could be allocated better.
Willie Mitchell proved to be a big dilemma. His concussion symptoms had kept him out through the playoffs and the salary he’d command were he healthy would not have fit the new salary structure that emerged with the signing of Dan Hamhuis.
He also chose to keep Aaron Rome and Tanner Glass around.
Most figured that one of Grabner or Raymond would be moved out. Grabner had one year left on his ELC, while Raymond was likely to get 2 million-plus. Gillis chose to move Grabner and re-sign Raymond. Hello Keith Ballard. It was a hefty price to bring in the highly-rated Florida blueliner, Grabner, the disappointing Steve Bernier and a first round pick going in the other direction. The Canucks also received Victor Oreshkovich in the deal. Of course, Ballard didn’t turn out to be quite what was expected, but he was a lot easier to deal with than Shane O’Brien.
On the eve of the season, in a series of moves that were motivated by cap space as much as anything, the Canucks traded O’Brien to Nashville for spare parts (Ryan Parent and Jonas Andersson) and Darcy Hordichuk to Florida. Both had no clear role to fill on the team.
During the 2010-11 season, Gillis added Chris Higgins and Max Lapierre. In the wake of Manny Malhotra’s injury, Gillis went all-in on his checking lines, adding a pair of unwanted toys in Lapierre and Higgins. Both excelled in the Canucks’ system.
Alongside signing Dan Hamhuis in 2010 and bringing in Christian Ehrhoff in 2009, Malhotra is one of Gillis’ signature moves. Before his devestating eye injury in March 2011, Malhotra was playing the best hockey of his life. He was eating massive defensive minutes and driving a top-notch penalty kill (remember, they were murdered short handed in the 2010 playoffs). Malhotra’s signing and subsequent usage changed the way many in the NHL understood the game.
Gillis’ true coup in 2010 was not just signing Hamhuis, but landed the Smithers native for below market value. Hamhuis had declined to re-sign with Nashville and had been shuffled over to Philadelphia ahead of the free agency window. Paul Holmgren so coveted the chance to negotiate with Hamhuis, that he gave up a gently used Ryan Parent, only to hear ‘we want to test the market.’ He then flipped Hamhuis to Pittsburgh for a pick, and Shero heard the same refrain. Hamhuis proved to be an outstanding addition to a solid group of defencement.
Hamhuis’ loss in the final vs Boston in 2011 is oft cited as one of the reasons that the Canucks collapsed in the final.
Torres added sandpaper, goal scoring and controversy to the thrid line. Matched with Malhotra and Hansen, this trio proved a vital counter-punch to the top line work of the Sedins and the Kesler line. Call it a hattrick of great signings.
Jeff Tambellini, Joel Perrault, Peter Schaefer
In an effort to find the magic bullet for the fourth line, Gillis brought in former first rounder Tambellini, ex-Canuck and Senator Schaefer and ex-Coyote Joel Perrault. All three spent time on the fourth line carousel, but only Tambellini would stick around for the whole season.
Bill Sweatt, Chris Tanev
Sweatt had refused to sign in both Chicago and Toronto, but still showed huge potential. Chris Tanev, we know his story. A late growth spurt took him to RPI and then a contract with the Canucks. By the end of the season, he was taking shifts on the Canucks’ third pairing.
Bill’s brother was brought into play a depth role; he played three games, scored a great goal, broke his foot and then was never seen again. He’s retired and trading securities in Colorado.
The Stork went undrafted, but caught the attention of scout Lars Lindgren. We have Lindgren to thank for finding Wyatt Arndt an internet friend.
No picks until the fourth round; all the other ones were moved in trades. Patrick McNally left Harvard in a cloud last fall, while Adam Polasek and Alex Friesen spent time in the AHL and ECHL this season. Both are long shots at this point and Polasek is likely to be remembered as "the guy the team drafted ahead of Brendan Gallagher – come on!". Jonathan Illhati and Sawyer Hannay weren’t signed.
The core lead the charge in 2010-11. The Sedins had their second straight epic season, Ryan Kesler hit everything that moved and scored 40 goals. The defence was rock solid and so was the goaltending. It was all going so well…
Going into the 2010-11 season, many picked the Canucks as Cup favourites. They had a bevy of NHL defencemen (they were so deep, most expected that Kevin Bieksa would be moved to get the team under the cap, hello Laurence Gilman), their scoring forwards were in their prime and they had what looked to be the best goaltending tandem in the league.
Mike Gillis put his stamp on the team in the summer of 2010. He’d added pieces to the team each summer since he was hired, and each subsequent season the team was better. He convinced players to sign for less than market value, to believe in the concept he was assembling. In 2010, he found a pair of role players and they didn’t just fit the puzzle, they made the puzzle bigger.