Today is a big day in the career of Mike Gillis; he will finally meet with Canuck ownership to review this past season. And for the reigning NHL Executive of the Year, they will be discussing much more than that as Gillis is entering the final year of his five-year contract. So clearly in the coming weeks, the team will need to offer him a contract extension or simply cut him loose. So what should happen? Does Mike Gillis get to retain his job (does he even want to)?
We present for your digestion the highs and lows of the Mike Gillis era:
Upon his arrival in Vancouver as the replacement for Dave Nonis, Gillis promised a bold and innovative approach to running this team. Indeed, this would not be business as usual, but fresh-faced out-of-the-box thinking. And it was also clear that no matter what you thought of Gillis, he thought plenty of himself.
Early in his tenure, he certainly delivered with the shocking $20 million two-year contract offer to the aged Mats Sundin, one that the Swede thankfully declined, settling for a half season of indifferent play at a prorated sum. But the message from Gills to the rest of the league was clear, Vancouver was serious about attracting the best.
The appointment of Roberto Luongo as his captain in the wake of the departure of Markus Naslund was another striking move. In the end, the burden of the captaincy was a distraction for him, the team and, certainly, the media. While many will call this a failed initiative, it was, in fact, a clever inducement to retain the ultra competitive and sensitive Luongo for the long-term.
Which brings us to the Luongo contract, one that many will declare as Gillis’ albatross. But that’s not fair. Nor true. At the time, as the best goalie in regular season franchise history, retaining him for the long-term at a manageable salary cap hit was seen as a most significant coup. And the structure of the deal clearly pushed the envelope of what was acceptable under the new collective bargaining agreement. It was clearly the right move at that time. Gillis could not have foreseen Luongo’s playoff histrionics nor the emergence of Cory Schneider as a potentially elite keeper. This summer, we expect that Roberto and his contract will be quite tradeable, with some significant assets in return.
Easily his biggest claim to fame in this market has been the retention of key core players that he inherited from the previous regime. To a man, he’s been able to convince them that Vancouver, despite the intense media scrutiny, is the place to play and all have accepted discounts from market to do so.
But in terms of proactive management of his team in terms of player development, trading record and free agent acquisitions, Gillis has had little notable success.
As a franchise that had suffered significant criticism of its scouting department and drafting record, Gillis made some changes in staff at the senior levels of scouting though the most veteran staff (Ron Delorme, Stan Smyl and Thomas Gradin) retained their jobs. The inaugural pick of the Gillis era was Cody Hodgson, who was to be the poster boy of the Gillis era in player development. Of course, he apparently turned into a problem child (or was grossly mishandled by the Canucks) and was given away for a sack of hammers, Zack Kassian. Outside of Hodgson and Yann Sauve (five games played at the NHL level), none of Gillis’ draft picks have seen any NHL action. Though in complete fairness, many draft picks were traded away and the 2011 crop is far too young to judge.
As an ex-player agent, it was expected that Gillis might be able to deliver some decent free agent signings, but he has failed mostly miserably in that department. From the opening Sundin belly flop to the mostly ineffective and overpaid Pavol Demitra to the bizarre Marco Sturm signing, the road is littered with disappointment. Even at the peak of his mostly one-dimensional game, Manny Malhotra has never seemed worth $2.5 million per season. The signing of veteran defender Mathieu Schneider was a bust. And while Raffi Torres’ one year deal seemed like money well spent, he left after one season and his physicality was not replaced (so says the Sturm signing). The signing of Mikael Samuelsson, the cagey Cup winning veteran, seemed like a good one at first, but he was unable to remain healthy when needed most and was dealt away for the one-dimensional David Booth. The only impactful signing has been that of steady defender Dan Hamhuis.
It is Gillis’ trading record that perhaps hurts most of all. The stealing of Christian Ehrhoff from San Jose was certainly a cause for celebration. But the near simultaneous acquisition of aspiring power forward Steve Bernier was not. And the subsequent repackaging of Bernier along with Michael Grabner and a first round pick for Keith Ballard and his atrocious salary was a move whose ill effects will continue to be felt until Ballard is dealt or his contract expires. The deadline deals to acquire both Chris Higgins and Maxim Lapierre were vital in the team’s run to the Stanley Cup Final and their subsequent re-signing appeared prudent. But this year’s deadline deals, the acquisitions of prospects Zack Kassian and Marc-Andre Gragnani along with veteran checking center Samme Pahlsson, did not seem a good fit for a team that was supposed to be loading up for another run at it all. And clearly, the jury is still out on the acquisition of David Booth for two veterans that will likely not play another NHL game. Booth, clearly has speed to burn, but not much else except for a gaudy long-term salary.
In the end, the cynics would say that Gillis has done the most by doing nothing. The core of this team (the Sedins, Luongo, Schneider, Alex Burrows, Ryan Kesler, Mason Raymond, Kevin Bieksa, Alex Edler, Sami Salo, Jannik Hansen) were players he inherited. Even head coach Alain Vigneault was a Dave Nonis hire. None of Gillis’ bold moves have had any measurable impact. In essence, he’s taken Dave Nonis’ car for a drive.
Others would say that Gillis has brilliantly managed the salary cap constraints, retaining all the core players at a significant discount to market - perhaps the most important accomplishment in today’s NHL. Further, his team’s success speaks for itself - his squads have won back-to-back President’s Trophies and were one win away from the ultimate prize last season.
In the end, when the Aquilinis assumed ownership, they vowed that regular season success was not enough. The team had posted plenty of that in the preceding years. The goal was the Stanley Cup. And that’s where we have to wonder somewhat about Gillis’ efforts this season. The moves made spoke more of a team that was restocking its shelves (the trading away of Cup winning veteran Samuelsson for the young, but one-dimensional Booth and the acquisitions of prospects Zack Kassian and Marc-Andre Gragnani for an emerging player, Hodgson, that could have clearly contributed now). Maybe the Aquilinis are happy with regular season success, capacity crowds and a handful of playoff dates every season, but they promised more than that.