It’s not exactly a good thing when Elliotte Friedman writes 900 words about your team in a 30 Thoughts column before mentioning anybody else, but Vancouver’s in the midst of one of the worst streaks in franchise history. It’s not just the weak record since 2014 began that has Vancouverites on edge, but the assumption of a rudderless organization that just traded possibly the best player in franchise history for a goaltender yet to live up to his NHL potential at 24, and a 25-points-per-82-games 26-year-old centreman.
There’s little point in reporting, again, that the Canucks are not as bad as their record indicates. Yes, they won’t make the playoffs, but there was a perfect storm of bad luck that’s accumulated over the last few months from injuries and a low PDO. That’s led to some curious decisions on the part of the head coach, but the organization has such little going for it right now it’s hard to tell what aspects of the team are controlled by ownership and what aspects are controlled by management.
Last year after the trading deadline, Daniel Wagner wrote an excellent post about how the Toronto Maple Leafs were able to use Darren Dreger to influence the starting point for any Roberto Luongo negotiations. Dreger reported a proposed deal, and the next day he refuted it on TSN Radio.
There were some similar aspects this deadline. TSN has really made the trade deadline a dream for speculators and, while it makes for entertaining television, the incompleteness of the information makes it not particularly useful. From what I gather, ownership approved a potential Ryan Kesler trade until they didn’t, and ownership put the pressure on Mike Gillis to make the playoffs this year until he didn’t. The problem with the hockey mainstream media, basically, is that the sources reported are mostly anonymous.
Friedman is a little different however. I like reading 30 Thoughts because he doesn’t try to jam-pack his column with scuttlebutt. It’s a mix of opinions, quotes, speculation and there’s a sense he’s plugged into the fanbases of all 30 NHL teams.
1. Canuck rumour I: That the Aquilini family forced Tortorella on Gillis. Verdict: Skeptical. The choice came down to Tortorella or John Stevens, whose name you are going to hear a lot for any openings this summer. I believe there was an agreement to go with the more experienced candidate.
2. Canuck rumour II: That ownership blocked Gillis from trading Ryan Kesler at the deadline. Verdict: Don’t believe it. As mentioned above, Aquilini was well aware of the GM’s plans. It would not be the least bit surprising if an interested team or two told Vancouver it could be involved at the draft, but not now, for cap reasons. Also, when Kesler said no to Columbus, the Rangers and Philadelphia, the Canucks may have pulled back because they didn’t like the situation.
Obviously rumour II is the more popular rumour around these parts recently. We had three posts last week regarding a potential swap for Ryan Kesler and more of those will go up towards the draft. It’s just a reality with hockey trade rumours: they only go away when the subject is traded.
Friedman points to circumstantial evidence in his intro to the column that Aquilini was made well-aware of Gillis’ deadline plans. That evidence involves two reported meetings between the Aquilini family and Gillis, and the follow-up a few paragraphs later. “If you supported Gillis’ deadline plan, is it really a good idea to fire him a week later?”
There’s also a plausible explanation for why Kesler wasn’t moved other than “ownership blocked a deal”. The answer is that not a lot of teams were really interested, and the ones who were didn’t have what Gillis was looking for. I sat in a room with Dimitri for six straight hours before the deadline and he developed a nervous twitch whenever the name “Brandon Sutter” was mentioned. It’s entirely possible that Gillis wanted a player like Brandon Sutter—young, an NHLer, a centreman—but not specifically Brandon Sutter himself. Sutter has some brutal underlyings over the last couple of years, with Relative Corsi percentages of -9.0% and -8.4% respectively, a year after replacing Jordan Staal, a tough minutes plus player. It’s become evident that the Penguins did not get better by trading a good player for a similar centreman, and the Canucks wouldn’t want to repeat that mistake.
I would think (or hope) that Gillis is looking for a player with a higher ceiling than Sutter, or one who has showcased offensive talent close to Kesler. As much as people might disagree right now, Gillis isn’t stupid. He’s well-aware of the situation right now and is walking that tightrope over the rivers of ‘Save My Job’ and ‘Don’t Jeopardize the Future of the Franchise’. (For the record, both rivers have angry crocodiles in them)
There’s another thing: there’s an argument to be made that the first thing a new general manager would have done in the place of Gillis (suppose Gillis was fired a day before the Heritage Classic) is trade Roberto Luongo for Shawn Matthias and Jakob Markstrom. That is a successful deal on the part of the new general manager. Looking at it from another perspective, had Gillis and ownership met and re-evaluated their course of action, is what followed terribly different than had Gillis been fired? I wouldn’t say so.
Then there’s the luck aspect. You want ownership to be as honest with management as much as you want management to be honest about the state of the team. The Canucks have a 97.7 PDO in 2014. The even strength goaltending has been fine, but a normalized shooting percentage of 8% gives the team about 13 more goals at even strength. On the penalty kill, the team went from a .912 save percentage in the 2013 half of the first season (or unsustainably high) to an .817 in the 2014 half (much more unsustainably low).
Then there’s the mess of a powerplay which has been unlucky all season in my estimate. They’ve looked much better than their results and are just missing those deflections and rebounds in front, but are doing a terrific job getting possession and pressure. Sometimes something doesn’t click. It’s hockey and it happens. In Moneyball, Billy Beane has an important sports management line: “The day you say you have to do something, you’re screwed. Because you’re always going to make a bad deal.”
I think that Aquilini and Gillis really have to believe that the team has lost about 25 goals strictly due to bad luck this season and, while it’s been a while since we’ve heard this word “trust the process”. There’s no denying that Gillis has made some mistakes, but making mistakes shouldn’t be a fireable offence. Acting irrationally should be, but right up until the lockout, the Canucks seemed to be doing fine in making the high percentage play, even if those plays didn’t work out.
“A lot of GMs measure their own mortality relative to their job. If they feel they’re at risk, they’ll make different decisions than if they feel safe. That’s typical in any job. People want to keep their jobs. Man loves hierarchy. GMs want to feel safe and have longevity, and hopefully they also want to win championships. If he feels there is a risk of losing his job, he’ll behave differently than if there’s no chance he’ll lose his job.”
That quote is from Mark Cuban at the 2013 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, and a sports management quote that has stuck with me ever since I’ve heard it. The last thing the Canucks want is for Gillis to be on the hot seat, attempting to make a deal with the outside chance of saving himself that costs the organization something in the future. That’s the sort of thing that Friedman is alluding to in his column.
One of the many problems with all the anonymous quotes and speculation flying around is that we don’t know who thinks what. The classic example is that the Maple Leafs supposedly fired Brian Burke because Burke wasn’t willing to pull the trigger on a Roberto Luongo deal, and several days later Luongo was still not a Maple Leaf.
There are several unanswered questions that remain. Whose idea was it to go to Cory Schneider for Game 3 against Los Angeles? Whose idea was it to start Eddie Lack in the Heritage Classic? What held up negotiations for a “Markstrom, Matthias for Luongo and withheld salary” in the summer of 2012 or 2013? On-record explorations of the answers could tell us more about the power struggle on three levels, between coaching, management and ownership ever could.
So, yes, it’s a little more complicated than #FireTorts or #FireGillis because we’re not entirely certain just who is making the decisions for the Canucks. It’s plausible that Gillis kept Luongo at the behest of his owner and then traded him at the behest of his owner, and it’s plausible that Gillis made a calculated hockey decision to not trade Ryan Kesler for Brandon Sutter, and neither indicator is a horrific failure of a rudderless organization.
Not to say I think that everything is Great Right Now™ except for a bad luck problem. The team is short two top six forwards and a gamebreaker. Those are, as we’ve discussed relentlessly on Canucks Army, tough to come by. But it also doesn’t mean that the whole team is FUBAR, either. The team needs to make a couple of shrewd moves and hit on them.
Maybe part of that is hitting on a Ryan Kesler trade for a useful young player that is yet to break out, or maybe the next iteration of the Canucks that makes the playoffs includes an older Ryan Kesler. There’s not one course that the team “has” to follow, other than carefully assessing what a player’s value to the club is versus his worth on the trading market.
There are ways out of this lost season, but we just have to hope that management and ownership have a tighter relationship than how they’ve been described lately in the local press. The only thing worse than a sub-95 PDO over a ten-game stretch is the owner’s belief that he can run hockey operations better than the general manager he hired. Ditto manager and coach, but, uh, I’d be quite happy if the team just bit the bullet on that one and admitted they goofed.