With the Canucks season ending in a resounding thud Tuesday night, there was reason to take pause (for at least a day or two) and let the results soak in and the explanations for such a letdown be examined. But now that some time has passed, it is time to stop looking backward and begin looking to the future to assess what the Canucks need to do to climb back to a Stanley Cup final.
But before the coach or any of the players can be evaluated, it is important to start at the top with General Manager Mike Gillis and assess his five years at the helm of the Canucks’ front office, and determine if he is the man to lead the franchise forward.
In a press conference Friday, Gillis granted that he made some mistakes as GM this season.
“Our ability to do things in this messed up season was really limited and hindered by a lot of factors. So we tried, we tried to get things done, but for various reasons it wasn’t to our satisfaction and we need to do better.”
Gillis admits the front office did not do what was needed to ensure success this season. Looking back over the past five seasons, Gillis has had his share of both successes and failures. Looking at both sides of the coin will help determine if Gillis should stay or go.
The case for Mike Gillis
The Canucks have enjoyed an unprecedented run of success since Gillis took over as general manager. Since replacing Dave Nonis in 2008, Vancouver has won five straight Northwest Division titles. Even though the division has not been particularly strong over that period of time, it is still an impressive achievement to attain that kind of consistency.
During that time period, the team reached the conference semi-finals twice, the Stanley Cup Finals once, and won two Presidents’ Trophies for compiling the best regular season record.
Since Gillis did inherit a lot of the talent responsible for this success, it is only fair to examine his key transactions to see how the franchise has evolved under his leadership. Four of his best additions were summarized in a Thomas Drance tweet:
Although Ehrhoff was a salary cap casualty, Gillis has added the core of a very successful defensive unit during his tenure. Add Frank Carrado to that group, (and the streaky Alex Edler), and the Canucks look pretty good on the back end going forward.
Up front, his greatest success has been in maintaining strong forwards at reasonable prices. The Sedins, Ryan Kesler, and Alex Burrows have all stuck around at salaries that are friendly to the salary cap. He has managed to maintain a steady diet of complementary forwards to supplement the core group. Keeping a core together is not easy in the salary cap world, and Gillis has managed to tie up most of the team’s best players at numbers that allow additional pieces to be brought in.
If you prorate this season’s total over 82 games, the Canucks have averaged 105 points per season during Gillis’ tenure, an impressive mark. For context, Detroit has averaged 103, Chicago 109 (including this year’s ridiculous pro-rated 132) and Pittsburgh 107 (with an adjusted 123 this season). Vancouver has been consistently among the best teams in the league, and despite the playoff disappointments of the last two years, have a solid cadre of players going forward.
The case against Mike Gillis
Although Vancouver has had a good run of success, most fans (and members of the organization) will tell you that first round eliminations are not acceptable, especially with the top shelf talent on the team. Perhaps what is more distressing is the perception that this is a team in decline without the reinforcements available on the farm (or the cap room) to halt the slide.
True, the Canucks have achieved great regular season success, but a lot of that is attributable to a bad stretch of play from its division rivals. One playoff game victory in two years looms larger than past successes.
Additionally, many perceive the Canucks’ window of opportunity to be closing. The Canucks core, especially at forward, is aging, and Gillis has failed to produce a single young star from the draft during his tenure. Gillis has failed to build from within, a critical component of a team that wants to succeed in the long term with the shrinking salary cap.
Gillis has also orchestrated some well-publicized flops on the player acquisition front. The trade for and subsequent inability of Keith Ballard to stay in the lineup (despite a large salary) has been well-chronicled. Barrels of ink (and blog inches) have been spilled on Gillis’s failure to trade Roberto Luongo. The Hodgson-Kassian trade may pan out in the future, but has yet to pay dividends. Derek Roy disappeared in the playoffs. David Booth has been injured and unimpressive. Most of Gillis’ moves in the last couple years have failed to improve the team or provide for the future.
There are certainly good reasons to call for Gillis’ firing. But he has earned the right to see this transition through. Gillis had the right tone and message in Thursday’s press conference, recognizing the shortcomings of the current roster while still exhibiting his trademark confidence.
Give Gillis the chance to trade Luongo this summer and provide the support the Sedins, Kesler and Cory Schneider need to make another run at success. Gillis has shown he can make successful moves and he should be given the opportunity to atone for recent mistakes.
Another consideration to keep in mind is whether there would be a strong replacement available that would be able to immediately improve the team. If the window is in fact closing, bringing in a new boss who wants to put his own stamp on the team might in a drawn out transition with no guarantee of success.
Changes need to be made to this Canucks team before it is too late. Mike Gillis provides the best chance to make the right changes to propel Vancouver back to the top, though it will be no easy task.
Glenn covers the Canucks for The Hockey Writers. Follow me on twitter @glennkuper for opinions about hockey, the Canucks, and Seattle sports.