The Mike Gillis Files – Part 1


Andy Clark/USA Today

With the upcoming game this Saturday between the Oilers and the Vancouver Canucks, it’s a good time to take a look across the Rocky Mountains and see what’s been going on at the other end of the spectrum.

The past few years, the Canucks have been the toast of the division. Steamrolling the likes of the Oilers, Flames, Avalanche, and Minnesota Wild, the Canucks barely broke a sweat cruising to two President’s trophy titles and four consecutive division titles. Going back even further, they have won 7 division titles in the past 9 seasons. Few teams in the league can boast that kind of consistent success over that period of time. All that success culminated in a marvellous run to the Stanley Cup in 2011, ultimately losing in the seventh and deciding game to the Boston Bruins. That 7 game series is one of the most memorable Stanley Cup finals in over a decade for a variety of reasons (riot, finger biting, etc). In that season, Mike Gillis was named General Manager of the Year, as voted upon by all other 30 general managers and some other people who may or may not be related to him.

Looking back at the tenure of Mike Gillis, it’s not surprising to see his name on the current list of gm’s on the hot seat. As successful (?) as that run to the finals was, the Canucks didn’t win. And unbeknownst to a lot of people in Vancouver, winning the Cup is the whole point. Can you name anyone that’s won the President’s Trophy since 2000? How about 5 years ago? Even last year? I couldn’t tell you.

I hang around with a lot of Canucks fans. I don’t like any of them all that much, and they don’t like me either. I like it that way. It’s a lot of fun to banter with them. Whenever they tell me how they are so much better, I yell out “5 STANLEY CUPS!”. The usual response is “stop living in the past, that was 20 years ago”. Well, to be honest, the Canucks are living in the never happened ever. Forever. Forever ever? Ever ever? They don’t even have a past. Or a present. Or a future….at least while Gillis is at the helm. Despite the Canucks having the same amount of playoff wins as the Oilers last year, there is much more urgency on the west coast to win now than there ever has been. And thus, brings us to the spotty tenure of one Michael David Gillis.

Back in his days as a player agent, Gillis was known as one of the most powerful deal-brokers in the NHL. With a list of clients that rivalled any agent in hockey, including Hall of Famers Pavel Bure & Mike Richter, Gillis had a strong tie to the Canucks with a number of his clients playing for the team at one time or another. A list that includes Russ & Geoff Courtnall, Pavol Demitra, Donald Brashear, Dave Gagner and long time captain Markus Naslund.

The story of how Mike Gillis became GM has been debated for what seems like centuries (couple years). As the ownership changed, Gillis was brought in to replace Dave Nonis. Nonis himself replaced Brian Burke a few seasons earlier. Last season history repeated itself as Nonis again replaced Burke as GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The current roster of Canucks is littered with quality players from the Burke/Nonis era, and spare parts collected by Gillis. Brian Burke, while loud and pompous as they get, is a highly underrated general manager. His bold moves that paid off in spades include the draft day swap of picks and players that led to the drafting of both Henrik & Daniel Sedin in 1998. The drafting of stalwart defenseman Kevin Bieksa and two-way centre Ryan Kesler coupled with the free agent signing of Alex Burrows from the depths of the ECHL laid the foundation for the next decade of success.

Dave Nonis replaced Burke at the end of the 2004 season. His history includes drafting Cory Schneider, Alex Edler, Jannik Hansen, Mason Raymond & Michael Grabner. Grabner bounced around Vancouver and Florida before breaking out in New York. Mason Raymond played a significant role for the Canucks but in recent seasons saw his play decline to the point that he was not offered a contract this past summer. Nonis took a flyer on Raymond again in Toronto and it looks to be working out well so far. The only notable free agent to have success under Nonis in Vancouver was veteran defenseman Willie Mitchell. With regards to all those, the signature move that Nonis is remembered by is trading the fading Todd Bertuzzi, Bryan Allen and Alex Auld to Florida for superstar goalie Roberto Luongo.

Gillis took over the reigns in 2008. Conveniently his star client Markus Naslund’s contract was up. An extension for the long time team captain looked to be a sure thing, however the first order of business for Gillis was to dump Naslund at the altar. Reminds me of that episode of Seinfeld where Elaine was dating a guy going through med school. She stayed with him through his struggles and finally when he graduates and becomes a doctor, he dumps her. “I’m sorry Elaine. I always knew that when I became a doctor, I would dump whoever I was with and find someone better. That’s the dream of becoming a doctor.”

The first move Gillis makes as GM? How about I offer 38 year old Mats Sundin a 2 year, $20 million contract making him the highest annual salary in the entire NHL. For real. That actually happened. Mats Sundin luckily for Gillis signed for one year at a pro-rated $8.6 million deal. The salary cap being so low at the time would have meant that Barney Gumble and Chief Wiggums would have been his linemates. Attract any other impact UFA’s? In 5 years, only one UFA of note, that being Dan Hamhuis. Any others? Pavol Demitra. Jason Garrison. La-di-fricken-da. He did however sign Marco Sturm to a deal, only to trade him 2 weeks into the season. How would you like to be Mrs. Sturm on that one? Sign a contract, move to a new city, and a couple weeks after your kids start school you have to pack your bags and move again. Signing in Vancouver sounds appealing, doesn’t it?

Well, he struck out on unrestricted free agents. Lots of GM’s do. Fair enough. What’s another way to judge his tenure? The draft? Great idea. Let’s take a look: In 5 years, only one draft pick has made a significant impact at the NHL level. And he’s doing it for another team. Earlier this summer the Buffalo Sabres re-signed Cody Hodgson to a 6 year contract. As the rebuild goes on over there, they have identified their future at the centre position. Any other picks? None. Not a single one. 2009 first rounder Jordan Schroeder finally saw some NHL action last season, but it would be a stretch to say he can contribute anything significant towards this team. The jury is still out on Bo Horvat / Cory Schneider debacle.

Trades: Gillis did well bringing in Christian Erhoff for spare parts. Everything else was a complete dud. Grabner, Steve Bernier & a 2010 first rounder to Florida (see a theme here?) for Keith Ballard and Victor Oreskovich. Oreskovich is playing in Europe while Ballard never saw the light of day during his tenure in Vancouver. All he basically did was eat up $4.5 million of cap space from the press box nightly. Mikael Samuelsson & Sturm for David Booth & spare parts. David Booth has played only 65 games in between killing grizzly bears and mountain goats, and is signed for another 3 years @ $4.25 million per. The Cody Hodgson trade will be debated for a long time, but so far Zach Kassian has turned out to be a nothing more than an axe wielding goon. When he isn’t swinging his stick wildly and breaking guys jaws, he’s been a healthy scratch during playoff games and benched for partying on game nights. He has size and speed, however time will tell if he pans out. Some people say he might turn into the next Cam Neely. Right now he’s looking more like the next Brad Isbister. Lastly, the Cory Schneider trade for the 9th overall pick Bo Horvat. Widely panned as a panic move, this deal stinks from every angle imaginable. Although Schneider has much to prove, he has all the makings of an elite franchise goalie. Bo Horvat may turn out to be a quality player, but being ranked in the low teens by Central Scouting, the Canucks made a reach here to get him. It will take years to find out what they really have here. Schneider will pay immediate dividends for New Jersey and he is just entering the prime years of his career. As always, time will tell.

The last item to rank a GM’s talents are to judge his contract signings. Here is where the real strength of Gillis lies. His years of battling for contracts on the players’ behalf has paid off in his role as a GM, however there is a caveat. The Canucks are currently in salary cap hell. Maxed out with an aging roster and several important UFA’s this summer (the Sedin twins), there isn’t much wiggle room to improve. Gillis should be given credit for signing players under market value, but that is offset by the sheer amount of no-trade clauses he’s been handing out. On Halloween, players show up at his house and he gives them a couple of chocolate bars and a NTC. Those NTC have been an anchor in moving players. The 7 highest paid players all have no-trade clauses worked into their contract. None more famously than Roberto Luongo, and we all know how that contract has been working out so far. Same goes for Alex Edler.

In conclusion, despite winning GM of the year in 2011, Gillis’ tenure with the Canucks has been a complete failure. That award basically was given to him for a team he didn’t create, but added two depth players in Max Lappiere and Chris Higgins. The entire core was inherited by previous regimes. The Sedin twins, Kesler, Burrows, Luongo, Schneider, Edler, Bieksa, and coach Alain Vigneault were already in place when Gillis took over. An impressive line-up that just needed some tinkering, is now on the verge of decline with no way to move players and transition into a youth movement. On a standpoint of his actual transactional history, Gillis gets a D minus minus score for the current state of the Canucks. Plus he has a very punchable face.

Follow me for part 2, where I take a deeper look at Gillis the person and the thoughts about him around the league.

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