It’s fair to say that Vancouver Canucks general manager Mike Gillis has generally come across as sour, dour, and irascible during his regular Team 1040 appearances over the years.
Even when he’s working out to Bob Marley, in a situation where we might reasonably expect the THC and the endorphins to be flowing, the Canucks president and general manager has often seemed like a guy who’d literally rather be anywhere else in the world other than appearing on local sports talk radio to be grilled by the likes of Matt Sekeres, Scott Rintoul or Jason Botchford, or, alternatively, sucked up to by the Bro.
All of that huff and bluster which we’ve come to expect was conspicuously missing from Gillis’ 1040 appearance on Thursday morning, however, as the embattled team executive appeared to be laying out a pitch to fans. The substance of that pitch: a return to the sort of high-tempo, entertaining style of hockey that the Canucks have gotten away from over the past several seasons.
It’s a tough sales job facing a general manager and an organization coming off of a cataclysmic season like that which the Canucks have endured, and are still enduring. And it may not just be the fans that Gillis has to convince, which the general manager seemed well aware of as he admitted: “I’m not sure I’ll be back next year.”
We’ll unpack Gillis’ comments after the jump.
The interview began with the Bro doing his best Mark Buerhle impression while lobbing the mother of all soft balls in Gillis’ direction: asking about the success of the Canucks for Kids Telethon.
From there, the interview got into questions about whether Gillis even enjoys being extraordinarily well compensated to run a professional sports team when he’s being criticized in a ravenous hockey market like Vancouver. “No one is as hard on myself as I am,” Gillis responded, while underlining that he still enjoys the job he has. Breaking news: competitive, self-confident executive remains competitive and self-confident.
Finally the interview got interesting, as Gillis was asked about Tortorella’s performance in his first year as a head coach in Vancouver. Generally speaking Tortorella hasn’t been a disaster by the underlying numbers, but the results haven’t been there, and certainly the firey head coach’s decision to ride the Sedin twins and Ryan Kesler early has backfired.
“John’s a proven winner, he’s a competitor” Gillis said of his controversial head coach, before adding that Tortorella would face a rigorous evaluation process at the end of the season. Still, Gillis refused to blame Tortorella entirely for the death spiral his team appears to have fallen into during the coach’s inaugural season with the club: “When you have an entire team’s level of performance drop off there has to be reasons for it, whether those reasons are attributable to one thing and one thing only is unlikely.”
While Gillis didn’t scapegoat Tortorella directly, he did focus on the team having, “got away from our core principles of how I want this team to play… and the tempo we want to play with.” This sentiment was a constant theme throughout the interview.
Here’s an example of the sort of slight of hand I’m talking about:
People love to pick someone to blame, but the reality is that, as an organization we’ve deviated from some of the things that have made us successful and some of the things that I know will be successful. We’re going to get back to those levels, we’re going to get back to the style of play that we started six years ago, we have the personnel to do it, we just have to be committed and have the guts to be able to carry it out.
Or in other words: “I’m not blaming anybody, but boy has our team got away from the style of play that made us successful.”
Later in the interview, Gillis elaborated on what he sees as hallmarks or “fundamental principles” of the type of hockey he wants to see the Canucks play:
I want us to play upbeat, puck possession, move the puck quickly, force teams into mistakes, high transition game. I think we have the personnel to do it, if we don’t have the personnel to do it they’ll be changed. That’s my vision, that’s how I believe you’re going to win in the Western Conference in the NHL. If you look at the top teams in the West, there isn’t a lot that separates any of the teams in the West, but the top teams play that way.
You just have to watch any of the dozens of examples of Vancouver’s constipated breakout to know that “transition” isn’t an area that Tortorella’s Canucks have excelled at. Actually Tortorella’s plodding breakout schemes were an issue in New York too…
Here’s what I found to be the single most interesting comment Gillis made on Vancouver’s style of play and how that pertains to Tortorella’s job security and future in Vancouver:
John’s an accomplished coach, six years ago everyone thought Alain Vigneault couldn’t change from a defensive style coach to an offensive style coach. If given the resources and if the players are committed to it, I think any coach can coach the team that he has, but having said that, our problems are far reaching and they will be addressed. If people don’t want to get onside with how I view this team and how I want them to play, then they won’t be here. Just like six years ago.
That’s just a stupendous, meaty quote. You’ll remember that Alain Vigneault was originally a Dave Nonis hire who was retained by the team when Gillis first took over. But Gillis interviewed Vigneault for weeks in a drawn out process, at the end of which Vigneault was retained.
Vigneault’s Canucks went from playing no-offense hockey under Nonis, to playing relatively high-event hockey under Gillis. In came a whole whack of blue-line speed (Christian Ehrhoff, Keith Ballard), blowing the zone was paramount, and the team morphed progressively into an above average offensive side and then an elite one. That offensive dynamism has come crashing down, however, over the past 130 games or so.
In the recent past Gillis pretty clearly asked Vigneault to adapt to the way he wanted to play, and Vigneault assented. Later on in Vigneault’s tenure when the team sorely lacked depth, Vigneault asked the twins to play more cautiously and focus on their two-way game. When the new former Canucks bench boss returned to Vancouver with the New York Rangers this week, he joked that he’d turned Martin St. Louis into a defensive specialist and those words had an especially ominous ring for Canucks fans.
But we’ve digressed somewhat. The point here is that it’s difficult not to imply from Gillis’ comments that the general manager would like to see Tortorella amend his game plan somewhat and commit to playing the sort of “upbeat, puck possession, move the puck quickly, force teams into mistakes, high transition game,” that Gillis says he favors.
The good news for Canucks fans is that if the team is serious about emphasizing skill and playing some east-west hockey, then the club could be fun to watch again in the near future. The bad news? Gillis, it seems to me, opened the door for Tortorella to return next season, so long as that return includes a pledge to occasionally try and exit the defensive zone crisply and with possession of the puck.
Perhaps I have this all wrong, but that’s what I took away from listening closely, transcribing, and reading way, way too much into Gillis’ comments on Thursday morning. The Canucks executive said some other relatively interesting stuff too – like how the team has yet to begin negotiations with pending restricted free-agents Chris Tanev and Zack Kassian yet, and also that the club will spend to the salary cap this summer “provided the right players are there,” to justify the expenditure.
But those topics discussed during the interview will get short shrift in this space – at least for today. After all, for the next month or two the biggest sports story in Vancouver will have nothing to do with which players the Canucks retain or add in the offseason. It will pertain, rather, to the future of the disappointing Gillis/Tortorella axis at the helm of the Canucks.
Listen to the complete interview here.