It’s not as simple as firing everybody

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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.

Here’s what he wrote this morning in regards to the Canucks:

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.

But here’s why honesty is important:

“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.

  • The Benevolent Orca

    Why Gillis should go in one simple move.

    Luongo trade could have happened last year. Why? Asked too much or wanted Lou to be #1.

    Either way Gillis has flip-flopped on that, among a great number of things.

    Gillis is a flip-flopper. Absolutely no consistency.

  • andyg

    It’s not as simple as firing everybody, but firing Gillis is the easy move. Look at their drafting. Since 2008, when Gillis took over, the total contribution of every draft pick outside of the first rounds combined for 12 games in a Canucks sweater. Think about that. FIVE years of drafting and every player drafted in Rounds 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 combined for a total of TWELVE games for the Canucks. How do you build a contender with that record? You can’t buy your entire team on the market. There was also an article (wish I could remember the source) that significantly downgraded the expectations that Bo Horvat was developing like your typical top-6 center. At best they figured him to be a bottom-6 center. At this point the Canucks, in my opinion, are in for a very long struggle. With such a poor drafting and development you HAVE to get the most out of every trade, especially for your star players. Bottom-6 guys and a prospect Goalie is not a sufficient return. Now, even if they did turn over all their stars and assets I don’t think they would get enough in return or be supplemented enough by their prospect pool to contend for the cup this generation.

  • Marsh

    What’s wrong with selling the future if it gets you to game 7? It worked.

    Gillis is nowhere near the worst GM in the league and we’re not about to pluck one of the best GMs from a contender. There’s a good chance that the family pick a worse GM to take us forward. Have to consider this if you want to sack the guy.

    Gillis has a decent record in FA, no? After we resign Tanev, Kassian and Santorelli, we’ll have $4-5m in cap space. More with a Kesler trade/Booth buyout. Are they really going to pay for a buyout when there is cap space and they might be paying for a new coach/GM? It’s not a lot of room for any GM.

    A Kesler trade leaves us needing a completely new 2nd line and this is what I don’t trust Gillis with. He’s going to get a fringe 2nd liner, a late first (so a second) and a good, but not great prospect. We have plenty of fringe 2nd liners. A good prospect does not change our future and neither does yet another late first. Looks like he’s trying to fix everything with this one trade and we’re going to end up with nothing.

    • Mantastic

      “What’s wrong with selling the future if it gets you to game 7? It worked.”

      False.

      The only notable move Gillis made to push the 2011 team to elite status was acquiring Ehrhoff.

      Which was highway robbery, no doubt.

      Everything else was in place (the Burke/Nonis core), acquired based on Vancouver’s geographical advantage and did not require giving up assets (Hamhuis) or was simply swapping out secondary players for different ones (Grabner, Mitchell, Morrison & Pyatt for Samuelsson, Ballard, Malhotra & Torres).

      The reason the org depth chart has eroded has only a little to do with the success in and around 2011…

      • andyg

        Are you are forgetting about Malholtra, Torres Lappier and Higgens?

        That’s like their entire 3rd line and a bit of the 4th, something we haven’t had since. Supporting cast was key.

      • Mantastic

        He gambled. It almost worked. I don’t have a big problem with that. He had a good core and put good pieces around it. He used the advantages he had. Simple things perhaps, but not things all GMs do well.

        What would you expect from a new GM? – assume the family says no to blowing it up completely…

        • Mantastic

          Where exactly did he gamble and how did it almost work?

          Aside from a pending Kesler trade, there’s no need to “blow it up” anymore.

          The Canucks can’t score, are on the verge of losing their best goal scorer and have one of the worst goaltending tandems in the league.

          This is a team that can contend for the lottery as soon as 2015…

          • andyg

            There you go, he has the team going in the exact direction that we need to right now. Draft picks!

            He has done it with out doing anything.( other than letting the owners hire Torts)

            Kess may have just hurt his knee. If he needs surgery.( good luck trading him at the draft)

            That’s Gillis fault also right?

          • Mantastic

            “He has done it with out doing anything.”

            Giving away Grabner, Hodgson, Lou, Schneider & selecting a checker with the 9th pick have something to do with this…

          • andyg

            You need to focus on something new. Saying the same thing a thousand times is not going to make it true.

            If the owners decide to make changes than fine.(it is their call)

            You have got to the point where you are running down a young prospect just because he was drafted by Gillis. It is getting pathetic!

          • andyg

            And you have to stop pretending you understand anything about the inner workings of ownership.

            I’m not sure you understand basic business/ownership principals. So perhaps move on from the brothers Aquillini…

          • Mantastic

            I love Retard00’s posts! So much material…so little time…

            Hey, Sh!tForBrains00, why not enlighten us with your stupidity again. You have got to be one of the biggest morons on here so I would like to hear your version and have a nice chuckle. Eagerly waiting for your reply! 🙂

        • Mantastic

          In most sports, GMs will gamble a bit to go for it all. the 2011 team was very close and it was a fun ride.

          Gillis has not been horrible but he isn’t great. Now that he has to make significant changes, we’re seeing what he’s made of. It doesn’t seem to be a great situation. I don’t know if Gillis has many rabbits in his hat.

          Hey, Idiot00, maybe Gillis will teach any new players how to skate as well hahaha. You’re so smart! Smart00! haha

  • Mantastic

    Between 2008 and 2012 Gillis sold the future to win in the present by trading away multiple draft picks and drafting very poorly. He grossly mismanaged valuable assets (Schneider, Luongo, Hodgson, Bieksa, Burrows, Edler, Sedins, and now Kesler) by failing to trade them at the appropriate time to maximize their value.

    Now the Canucks are stuck. They have an aging core of veterans that are at the tail end of their prime or just passed their prime and still worth valuable assets but cannot be moved due to NTC’s leaving the team with no way to re-stock the cupboards via trade, they have no NHL-ready talent in the system to replace the aging core pieces, and they have little to no high-end talent in the pipeline for the future.

    Gillis has basically put the Canucks in the worst position an NHL franchise can be in. If that doesn’t warrant getting fired I don’t know what does.

    • Mantastic

      I think you’re pretty bang on here. I do think we need to flip some of our assets and do it on a steady basis. We also need to keep a couple to provide that leadership/mentor/stability etc. Gillis has really dropped the ball in this area. He may save his bacon over the summer with dealing Kesler, Edler etc but I hope not. Sometimes it seems like he is learning on the fly here. Not a well thought out plan at all.

      I will give Gillis props for icing teams that made it to the Finals and won two President’s trophies….

      • Mantastic

        “I will give Gillis props for icing teams that made it to the Finals and won two President’s trophies….”

        Yes it was quite the feat that Gillis taught Sedin, Sedin, Burrows, Kesler, Raymond, Hansen, Bieksa, Salo, Edler, Hamhuis, Luongo & Schneider (as well as Grabner, Morrison, Mitchell) how to play hockey…

  • Mantastic

    It wasn’t really touched on in your piece, but what really frightens me is that Gillis is going to have money to spend this summer. That is where most of his messes begin and end.

    • Mantastic

      Money to spend and nothing impactful on which to spend.

      He’s never been in this position before and there’s little reason to think he’s going to spend his way out his this mess.

      When he got the job, he could afford to do dumb thing like 2/20 to Sundin and 1/2.5 to Bernier because he inherited a talented young core devoid of bad contracts.

      Spending on the Grabovski’s & Stajan’s of the world will not fix this when the Canucks need, at minimum, two first liners & a servicable goaltender to contend next year…

      • Marsh

        Basically all of the reasoning behind my fear. Not to mention we also have a farm system to build, which brings Gillis related fears of it’s own. Since, well, having a bit of help might have spread some of the burden away from the core which is already stretched so paper thin on this team. People seldom realize that a desperate buyer is just as bad as a desperate seller in this league. And really, we’ve seen both out of Gillis. What we haven’t seen is some great shrewd decisions using bargaining strength as leverage.

  • andyg

    The finals against Boston appears to have broken Gillis.

    He went from a progressive GM who rejected the old hockey naratives to a GM who embraced them. Skill, depth and playing the percentages morphed into size, toughness and playing stiff.

    He also refuses to try and control the narratives around his team. Allowing Boston to fly the victim banner during the finals without a response to allowing the likes of Nonis and Shero undermine his credibility through their media lackies without a response.

    Finally, he went from a GM who said he wanted to respect players to one that is now being publically mocked by the likes of Luongo and Kesler. Very public displays of insubordination leaves me to believe he’s not respected by his own players. How can he remain?

  • andyg

    I don’t think everyone should be fired. But I do think that a coach that hasn’t shown he has the inclination or abilities to fit with either the current core or, frankly, the successful trends in the league isn’t a long-term viable option. And I think Gillis has had far more than enough opportunity to prove himself and has done nothing to a) strengthen the franchise or b) accept the decline and actually retool for the future, rather than just talk about it. This year may be one riddled with poor luck and injuries but we’re talking about multiple years of mismanagement here. I don’t care about all the TSN rumor-mongering — after all they need to do something to get viewers for the general non-event of trade deadlines. I do care that Gillis — regardless of what one knows or doesn’t about back room realities — has managed to gut/or not replenish the system, trade away assets for a loss, and failed to adequately surround core talent with enough complementary parts.

    A rebuild needs to happen under someone else’s watch.

    • andyg

      “I don’t care about all the TSN rumor-mongering — after all they need to do something to get viewers for the general non-event of trade deadlines. I do care that Gillis — regardless of what one knows or doesn’t about back room realities — has managed to gut/or not replenish the system, trade away assets for a loss, and failed to adequately surround core talent with enough complementary parts.”

      Bang on.

      The media stuff (whether it be TSN or Friedman) has nothing to do with why this management team needs to be removed at season’s end.

      6 years of mismanagement should not merit a 7th year…

  • andyg

    Gillis has to be on thin ice. He has to realize he has very few vets that other teams may covet (Kes, Edler, Hammer). Who knows if these guys waive the NTCs. Wait and see, folks! We all know the Canucks want to keep their youth so that leaves you with dealing their NHL players and free agency.

    The free agent market is thin and players will probably get more than they’re worth. Gillis can still get good returns on Kes, Edler, Hammer etc but not for much longer. Our window for the Cup has closed. Now our windown to turn over good assets is closing.

  • andyg

    How do you think Bo Horvat (or, longer shot, Brendan Gaunce) factor into the Canucks plans regarding Kesler moving forward, Cam? In other words, do you think they’re thinking if they do trade Kesler, they need to get a centre in return, or might they count on one of Horvat/Gaunce/Santorelli/Schroeder/free agent signing to step up to that position, giving them more flexibility? (or might they keep Kesler and roll those guys through the 3C position and 2C when Kesler is inevitably hurt, playing it safe?)

      • andyg

        I don’t think Horvat and the other prospects can be counted on. You never know with prospects. I’m sure the Canuck GM (whoever that may be)will want top 6 types in return. You build around centres. I am sure the Canucks will want top 6 forwards in return and that package needs to include a centre.

        You also have other assets that could be dealt such as Edler. Maybe Hammer too.

        Lots of options for the GM. The plan should be to ask for blue chip prospects with one or two of them ready to play for the Canucks. Maybe deal Kes for a few prospects; Edler for a couple and so on.

    • Mantastic

      I think Gaunce and Horvat are still a ways away. They might be your #2 and #3 centres of the future. We don’t have a #1 centre of the future.

      I’d look hard at trying to trade for next year’s #1 overall draft pick and grab McDavid. I’d deal the likes of Corrado and Tanev to get your future franchise centre but that’s next year.

      Also, prospects often fail to make it to the NHL so there is that risk as well. Canucks can go in a number of directions.

      • andyg

        “I’d look hard at trying to trade for next year’s #1 overall draft pick and grab McDavid. I’d deal the likes of Corrado and Tanev to get your future franchise centre but that’s next year.”

        Hahaha

        • Mantastic

          Look who’s here! Sh!tForBrains00! He’s here to educate us all..again!!! It’s like I won the lottery! Only someone with your stupidity would respond in such an articulate manner. You are a keeper!

          I guess your AKA, ManStupid, are on the same page. Brilliant. Special Needs High must’ve just let out! 🙂

          Anyway, yes, I’d throw a lot of our vets/blue chip prospects to get McDavid.

          • Mantastic

            Oh right…my bad. You’re the be all and end all of hockey evaluation. My bad! Hey! Everyone! Moron00 says it would be impossible to deal for the first overall pick! Therefore it’s a done deal!

            Honestly, I would love to note down some hypotheticals…how about if we draft a few spots below…dealing some assets and trading picks would be realistic…there are many scenarios. You’re just far too stupid to realize the options. It’s OK. You make the rest of us look like geniuses.

          • Mantastic

            i hope you understand that turning the 3rd/4th overall pick into the 1st in the 2015 draft would require an asset like Eberle or someone like that. so the 3rd/4th overall pick + eberle for the 1st overall, do you think there is an asset on the whole team that could nail you that 1st overall? short of winning the lottery, i don’t think so.

          • Mantastic

            well it’s kinda true, i’ve been following the draft for 8 seasons. know a lot more than the people who think they can just move up willy nilly with no assets of value.

          • Mantastic

            Really?

            I told you at the beginning of the year not to wear yourself out.

            And here you are stretching the discussion from asset values to “the draft” in a feeble attempt to be clever.

            Why even bother at this point?

          • Mantastic

            Gee. Go figure that. You told someone something and they totally disregarded it. Shocking!

            Oh, also, maybe look up and read your post. That’s right. It makes no sense. Maybe ask your mom to proofread it prior to posting, Idiot00.

          • Marsh

            Thanks. I’ll keep that in mind. I’ll still take the freebie though. If discussing sideways moves with impossible trading partners has become your thing, carry on.

          • Mantastic

            That’s just it…you’re thinking. You should stop. It doesn’t look good on you.

            So, if we get pick 3 or 4 and add in some assets…it won’t happen? It may not but you’re delusional to write it off completely. It also sounds like the top 2 picks will be something special for 2015 so maybe we go after pick 2 and give up a bit less than we would for pick 1.

            The Canucks have not had too many elite centres in their history. They’re hard to come by so if there’s a chance then maybe take it.

            I will also maintain the current Canucks team is not really as bad as they seem. The last couple months have been a nightmare and you know the team is capable of more. Changes need to be made but we’re not the Oilers of the Flames…yet…

          • Mantastic

            You’re the most consistently rational commenter on here.

            Not that the Canucks have an asset as valuable as Eberle.

            But the fact that you can be realistic about what it would take to land the McDavid pick instead of resorting to homeristic fantasy trades is quite refreshing.

            Don’t get sucked into Ted’s notion of logical…

  • andyg

    It must have been quite challenging to argue against the strawman in the title.

    On the year, the Canucks have a middle of the pack PDO.

    Don’t expect it to get back to the levels during the contending years now that the Canucks have given up their save percentage advantage.

    There’s no guarantee the increased 5v4 shot rate remains for 2014-2015.

    It could go back to the 2013 rate and there’s little reason to expect goals to simply start going in for the PP unless Gully finds his fairy dust.

    We’ve seen 6 years of Gillis either blundering draft selections, giving young players away (Grabner, Hodgson, Schneider, Connauton), and/or not giving young guys a chance after suggesting it was an integral part of his disastrous reset.

    Aside from possibly ownership & management, everyone knows the Canucks are rebuilding and are nowhere near a contender.

    Why would ANYONE want Gillis in charge of a rebuild after he ran this franchise into the ground?