Devils and Gillis Are Made for Each Other

There’s not a lot going on when it comes to the New Jersey Devils, as the NHL remains on pause due to the coronavirus. But we did get a bit of an update on the team’s search for a new general manager:

Slap Shots has learned that New Jersey ownership has in fact looked elsewhere. League sources report former Vancouver GM Mike Gillis has been interviewed twice, both times believed to have been before the March 12 shutdown. 

Via Larry Brooks of the New York Post

A few weeks ago, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported Gillis was the first person to interview for the opening. And with Brooks mentioning Gillis has already had a second interview, it seems he may be a frontrunner to land a job with the Devils. With that said, a gig as their new GM may not be the best role for him. Here’s why. 

The Best of Gillis

It’s been a while since Gillis has had a front office role with an NHL organization. He was let go by the Vancouver Canucks in 2014 and has stayed out of the spotlight since then. But he wasn’t letting his time away from the NHL keep him out of hockey. Over the last five-plus years, he’s traveled to different parts of the world, seeing how different hockey teams built their organizations. 

One thing that interests Gillis most is sports science and analytics, which has grown plenty since he was last in the NHL. When the Devils parted ways with Ray Shero in January, there were rumors of discord between him and the organization’s analytics team. And given the analytics staff Devils’ owners, Josh Harris and Dave Blitzer, have built with the Philadelphia 76ers — whom they also own — it’s no surprise to see them interested in Gillis.

Vancouver Canucks General Manager Mike Gillis
VANCOUVER, CANADA – JANUARY 19: Vancouver Canucks General Manager Mike Gillis stands in front of the bench during their season-opening NHL game against the Anaheim Ducks at Rogers Arena January 19, 2013, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

But there’s much more that goes into building a team than analytics. Gillis had an impressive track record with the Canucks, which included a GM of the Year award in 2011. There’s no doubt he walked into a good situation there (it doesn’t hurt to inherit the Sedins and Roberto Luongo). But he also had a knack for acquiring NHL talent that turned the team into a Western Conference powerhouse. 

Among those acquisitions included trading for Christian Ehrhoff for almost nothing from the San Jose Sharks. He also signed Mikael Samuelsson and Dan Hamhuis to affordable contracts in free agency, as well as Manny Malhotra (From ‘Former Canucks architects Mike Gillis and Laurence Gilman should be considered for any vacant NHL GM job,’ The Athletic – 3/21/19). 

Related: Devils’ Draft Fortunes Could Be Boosted by NHL Suspension

All four of those pieces would be significant contributors to the Canucks’ Stanley Cup run in 2011. So while it may have helped to inherit talents such as the Sedins and Luongo, Gillis did his part in getting the right complementary pieces to make them contenders. But for as quick as they became a powerhouse, things unraveled almost just as fast. 

Gillis Botched an Elite Goaltending Duo

It’s pretty rare for a team to have two elite, starting-caliber goalies, but that’s what the Canucks had in Cory Schneider and Luongo. Unfortunately, that’s what ultimately became a big part of their demise, and it was no fault of theirs.

After the Devils’ Stanley Cup run in 2012, it was clear they needed a succession plan in net. Martin Brodeur was 39 years old and was well into an age-related decline, despite the team making the Stanley Cup. It’d take a year for that come to fruition, though, as the Devils traded for Schneider in exchange for the ninth overall pick at the 2013 Entry Draft. 

Cory Schneider New Jersey Devils
Cory Schneider was one of the Devils’ lone bright spots from 2013-2016 (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Schneider ended up being one of the best goalies in the league from 2013-2016. And that wasn’t a surprise, given his play backing up Luongo. At one point, Schneider had even overtaken Luongo as the Canucks’ starter in the 2012 playoffs. And that’s where tensions began to rise between Luongo and the Canucks — that’s when he reportedly first asked for a trade out of Vancouver.  

Things eventually came to a head in 2014. The Canucks traded Luongo to the Florida Panthers in exchange for Jacob Markstrom and Shawn Matthias. That trade ended up working out in hindsight, with Markstrom becoming a reliable starting netminder for the Canucks down the road. But the damage was already done. The organization would fire Gillis after being eliminated in the first round of the 2014 playoffs, just a month after trading Luongo. 

Gillis’s Draft Record a Concern

It’s obvious the mishandling of Schneider and Luongo played a significant role in Gillis getting the boot. But his draft record as Canucks’ GM is also shaky, at best. The organization hired him in April 2008, meaning he oversaw their drafts from 2008-2013. And during that time, not many of his selections turned into NHLers. 

They had five picks in 2018, with only Cody Hodgson playing in more than 200 NHL games. They had a full slate of picks in 2009, but Jordan Schroder — their first-round selection — never developed into the forward they hoped. The only draft choice to play in more than 200 games from that class is Kevin Connauton, and he never played a game for the Canucks. 

Things wouldn’t get better in the following years, either. Between 13 picks in the 2010 and 2011 classes, the Canucks’ draft choices combined for a total of eight points in 130 games played. It doesn’t take a lot to figure out that’s a pretty poor success rate, and eventually, that catches up to any NHL team. 

Bo Horvat Vancouver Canucks
Bo Horvat was of Gillis’s lone draft successes with the Canucks (Photo by Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports)

If there’s a draft pick Gillis should be lauded for, it was using the ninth overall pick, which they acquired in the Schneider trade, to select Bo Horvat. He’s still 24 years old, is one of the Canucks’ top point producers, and is signed to a long-term contract. But other than him, none of Gillis’s picks emerged as NHL regulars for the Canucks. 

From the Devils’ perspective, this has to be a concern if they’re considering him to succeed Shero. But on the other end of things, scouting has changed so much since he was last an NHL GM. There are plenty more resources available now to make the process, so the hope is it’d translate into more draft success if he were to become GM. 

Gillis for President?

Given the reported friction between Shero and the team’s analytics department, it’d make sense to have someone who oversees the entire front office. That’s where bringing in a President of Hockey Operations makes sense. And it appears Gillis may be looking for a similar title, as he’s not interested in being a GM again. 

Related: 5 Candidates Who Could Replace Devils’ Shero

There’s a compelling case for the Devils to hire Gillis in that role. Sure, his draft record is sketchy, and his handling of Luongo and Schneider was as poor as it could’ve been. But his overall body of work is impressive, and his progressive thinking is just what ownership seems to be seeking. The fact he’s gone through two interviews shows he’s getting a serious look, as well. And at a time when analytics is becoming a crucial factor in making personnel decisions, that makes Gillis a perfect to be the Devils’ President of Hockey Ops.