April 23, 2008.
On that day, current General Manager Mike Gillis, a former player agent, was hired after the firing of Dave Nonis. The Canucks that year had missed the playoffs and the team decided to fire the GM over firing coach Alain Vigneault. I remember watching Gillis’ first press conference and the one word that stood out to me the most was bold. He said the Canucks needed some bold moves to become a true contender to win the Stanley Cup. He stuck true to his word and the Gillis era has been full of bold moves, both trades and signings. Now, with his job potentially on the line after yet another early playoff exit, I’m taking a look at the job he did.
During the 2010/11 season when the Canucks had their best season ever and the franchise hit its zenith, there was a lot of talk about how former Canuck GMs Nonis and Brian Burke had a lot to do with Gillis’ success. That’s a true fact; Gillis inherited a majority of the core from the work of Nonis and Burke. Players like the Sedin twins, Ryan Kesler, Roberto Luongo, Alex Burrows, Sami Salo, and Alex Edler were already on the team and most had spent many years in Vancouver. Gillis inherited all these players, not as rookies, but as established NHL players. One could say his biggest impact on the team was not through acquiring the core, but being able to keep them together with reasonable contracts under the salary cap. The Canucks were always near the cap, but they had some room to add a piece or two come trade deadline.
Gillis entered the league when the Detroit Redwings won the 2008 Stanley Cup. The Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks were the next two champions. Gillis recognized that the league championship was being won by teams that played a puck possession game and scored a lot of goals. Special teams were also crucial, especially the power play. When Gillis inherited the team, they mainly played a defensive style of hockey. Luongo was the centrepiece and the Canucks did a lot of trapping because they did not have huge offensive weapons outside the Sedin twins. When Gillis was hired, he had a choice to keep Vigneault or not. He trusted that Vigneault could coach a high-tempo team if the coach was given the right parts and he was correct. Gillis’ philosophy was also very pleasing to the eyes and the Canucks iced some of the most entertaining teams in the NHL. This idea almost succeeded and was one win away from the ultimate goal. Unfortunately, when the Canucks lost to the Bruins, it also saw a shift in how a team won a championship. Gone were the days of high octane hockey and fast rushes out of the zone, now playing down-low on the boards and filling a team with huge bodies were winning titles. Gillis’ team had a policy they would respond to any physical attacks by scoring power play goals. However, the 2011 finals showed that if the power play can’t respond sufficiently, then the team would get bullied. Combined with referees calling fewer penalties deeper in the playoffs, the next two champions were big, bruising, physical teams. Gillis admitted to this shift in the NHL when the Canucks were eliminated by the Sharks, but it may be too late for this core.
The Gillis era was filled with many successful moves. I’ve highlighted what I felt were his best player moves as a GM.
- 2008 Draft – Drafted Cody Hodgson 10th overall.
Many people thought this was a steal and they were correct. After an injury riddled start, he developed into a productive player for the Canucks. More on him later.
- March 3, 2009 – Signed Alex Burrows to a 4 year, $8 million contract.
This was an absolute steal because Burrows became a top line player for the Canucks. His chemistry with the Sedins and clutch scoring, especially in overtime, were cornerstones to the Canucks’ success. Burrows scored 117 goals during that four year period, highlighted by 35 goals in 2009/10.
- August 29, 2009 – Traded Patrick White and Daniel Rahimi to the San Jose Sharks for Christian Ehrhoff and Brad Lukowich.
This may be his best move. White was one of Nonis’ biggest draft blunders; he was a huge bust and isn’t even a regular NHLer despite being picked in the first round. Gillis took this failure and traded for Ehrhoff, who transformed the power play into one of the league’s elite units. Ehrhoff was essentially a salary dump for the Sharks and it was a very smart move to take him off San Jose’s hands. When Ehrhoff left for Buffalo, it left a hole in the Canucks’ defence that is still there.
- May 26, 2010 – Signed Chris Tanev.
This also could be pointed as the best deal in the Gillis era mainly for the value. Chris Tanev is a key part of the Canucks’ defence and was signed as a college free agent. It cost the team nothing, but made a huge impact. Tanev is the future of the defence and his calm play is so reassuring to watch. The Canucks missed him dearly in this year’s playoffs.
- July 1, 2010 – Signed UFA Dan Hamhuis to a 6 year, $27 million deal.
Hamhuis is the rock on the Canucks’ defence. He isn’t flashy, but is very effective. The Canucks don’t have a true, clear cut number 1 defenceman, but Hamhuis is as close as they have to one. He is trusted in all the important defensive situations and the penalty kill. Money well spent.
- February 28, 2011 – Traded Evan Oberg and a 2011 3rd round pick to the Florida Panthers for Chris Higgins.
Higgins was a drifter when he came to the Canucks. Once a very promising player on the Montreal Canadiens, Higgins was bouncing around the NHL, until he came to Vancouver. Higgins quickly became an essential part of the 2011 Cup run and is a versatile player. He could be put on the second line if there was an injury, or be slotted on the lower lines as well. A very useful and cheap pick up.
- 2011 Draft – Drafted Frank Corrado in the fifth round.
This is Gillis’ best draft pick as a GM because of the value. Corrado stepped in at the end of this season, despite only being 20 years old and never playing a NHL game. Corrado is comparable to Tanev because both play very calmly, usually make the right play, and are tremendous young assets with high value.
- December 19, 2008 – Signed UFA Mats Sundin to a 1 year, $8.6 million contract.
I don’t fault Gillis so much for singing Mats to this contract, I take exception to the other deal Gillis offered the Swede. The Canucks shocked the NHL world by offering Sundin a 2 year, $20 million contract. Vancouver narrowly avoided a disaster because if Sundin accepted the alternative offer, it could’ve had huge cap problems. No matter if Sundin played or retired for the second year (which he did), the Canucks would’ve been hit with $10 million against the cap. Imagine having Sundin retire, but still having his massive contract cripple the Canucks. Not a good move.
- September 2, 2009 – Signed Roberto Luongo to a 12 year, $64 million contract.
Now, let me be clear about this one. I’m not saying that Luongo is a bad player; he’s an elite goalie who gives any team a chance to win. He was also one win away from winning a Stanley Cup and a Conn Smythe Trophy. I’m putting this under bad moves because in this current situation, his contract makes him very difficult to move. His cap hit is very reasonable at $5.3 million, but the term is just so long. I’m judging this because of the current situation, it is not my disparaging of the player.
- June 25, 2010 – Traded Steve Bernier, Michael Grabner, and a 2010 1st round pick (Quinton Howden) to Florida for Keith Ballard and Victor Oreskovich.
Ho boy, this is the stinker of the Gillis era. At the time, it looked like a steal for Vancouver. They finally got a top four defenceman and it looked like Grabner was expendable. Nope. Ballard is the definition of disappointment, he didn’t even play a game in this year’s playoffs. He’s been a perennial member of the coach V dog house and looked better at forward than defence this season. He gives nothing offensively and is on the bad end of many plays. His biggest problem is he tries to body people off the puck, but instead the skater just blows by him and it usually results in a goal. He is a $4.2 million cap hit and is almost certainly a compliance buyout in the offseason. Although Florida screwed up and placed Grabner on waivers, he’s developed into a nice, speedy scoring threat for the New York Islanders and would’ve looked very good on the Canucks’ roster this season. Terrible trade.
- October 22, 2011 – Traded Mikael Samuelsson and Marco Sturm to Florida for David Booth, Steve Reinprecht, and a 2013 3rd rounder.
This trade is not as bad as the previous one for a few reasons. First, the Canucks really didn’t give up anything in this deal. Samuelsson was hurt and looked slow and Sturm was signed in the previous offseason and wasn’t working out. Also, Booth still has potential and may develop into the player the Canucks were hoping for. On the other hand, Booth hasn’t produced very much and spent most of this season on the injured reserved. He is a $4.25 million cap hit and is the other candidate for the compliance buyout in the summer. Despite the low cost in assets to acquire him, the cap hit and lack of production make this trade a failure.
- 2008-20012 Drafts
Gillis’s weakest aspect of his era is his drafting. Except for Hodgson, Jordan Schroeder, and Corrado, no other Gillis pick has spent regular time with the Canucks. Plus, there’s a lot of doubt if Schroeder, who bounced between the minors and the NHL this season, can survive in the NHL because of his lack of size. He’s supposed to be a scorer, but wasn’t able to provide consistent offence. Other first rounders Brendan Gaunce and Nicklas Jensen are still very young, but aren’t seen as top flight prospects and it’s not a guarantee that they will be regular NHLers someday. Gillis’ inability to get any value past the first round is his biggest wart on his résumé. Players like Anton Rodin, Yann Sauve, Patrick McNally, and David Honzik haven’t even been close to making the NHL roster. The Canucks are an old team and there are not many young players to push for roster spots and fill voids. You can’t just get by with first rounders, you need to find value in the later rounders. Corrado is a perfect example of it, but Gillis hasn’t done it enough. His failures to find any value in the 2nd and 3rd rounds are his biggest failures and have cost the Canucks.
The Big Mystery
I remember watching the last few minutes before the 2012 trade deadline and the Canucks had done nothing. Then all of a sudden, I was shocked. The Canucks traded Hodgson and Alex Sulzer to the Buffalo Sabers for Zack Kassian and Marc-Andre Gragnani. This is without a doubt the most controversial move in the Gillis era and fans are still talking about it today. Hodgson was an absolute gem for the Canucks, their best first round pick since Ryan Kesler. He was a star for Canada at the World Juniors and was quickly developing into an offensive threat. Unfortunately, there were internal problems between Cody and the Canucks. Hodgson wasn’t happy how the Canucks caused his back injury and their approach to it, both medically and publicly and he also saw himself trapped behind Henrik Sedin and Kesler as the number 3 centre on the team. He wanted out and Gillis obliged. This trade hurt so much for Canuck fans because Cody was young talent, a fan favourite, and had a knack for scoring big goals. In the 2011/12 season, he scored the game winner at Boston, the biggest regular season game for the Canucks that season:
Just look at that shot!
Hodgson got his wish and now plays big minutes in Buffalo, usually on their top line along big gun Thomas Vanek. He scored 34 points in 48 games and is a number one centre. I really don’t know why the Canucks didn’t try Kesler on the wing with Hodgson, especially when the club did the same thing with Derek Roy this season. The Canucks don’t have a lot of young scoring and Cody would’ve been a huge part of the future. In return, the Canucks got Kassian, a big body player who has a lot of learning to do on and off the ice. It was rumoured that Kassian was assigned to the AHL at the tail end of the season for disciplinary reasons because he was seen partying down town when he should have been nursing a back injury. Acquiring Kassian was a sign that the Canucks wanted to get bigger, while maintaining a high level of skill. However, Kassian hasn’t shown much offensive punch except for a five goal outburst to start this season. He’s a year younger than Hodgson, but is much more behind in his development. One reason for this is coach V’s refusal to give him consistent ice time on an offensive line. He’s usually stuck on the fourth line, playing under 10 minutes a game. I’ve said before that in order for Kassian to develop into the player the Canucks are hoping for, they need to let him play. He’ll make mistakes, there’s no doubt about that, but that’s the only way he’ll learn. He’s shown to have some chemistry with the Sedins so that should be where he starts next season. I like how he sets up in front of the net and pushes off players to create some space, much like Todd Bertuzzi in his prime. There’s promise and if he is able to develop into a power forward, then it will be a win for both teams. I’m not decided if this is a good or bad move for Gillis because both players are so young and it will take a few more years to see the clear answer. However, this trade has the potential to haunt the Canucks for many years.
If the Canucks won the Cup in 2011, there would be no doubt that Gillis did a great job. I would’ve lauded him as the best GM in franchise history and he would’ve been untouchable for at least a few years. But that didn’t happen. He’s now led a team that’s been bounced out of the first round in consecutive years and he’s on the hot seat. When he started his tenure, he said he would be making bold moves and he’s kept that promise. I feel his draft history is his biggest downfall and most of his successful moves have been through trades and signings. If I had to put money on it, I’d say he will be looking for a job soon, but I have no idea who would replace him. I am sure of one thing: the Gillis era was very interesting and was almost great.