By his own admission, Vancouver Canucks general manager Mike Gillis knows he has a heavy workload ahead of him this summer. He has to try to make his team a Stanley Cup contender again after being bounced in the first round of the playoffs. But simply acknowledging the task doesn’t automatically mean it’s going to happen.
“We didn’t get the results we needed to get; we need to improve and we need to get different,” Gillis vowed at his season-ending news conference at Rogers Arena just days after the Canucks had been eliminated in four straight games by the San Jose Sharks. “And we’re going to do that.”
Gillis doesn’t have a lot of wriggle room under the league’s diminishing salary cap to make much of a splash in free agency, and the organization doesn’t have any prospects prepared to step into the lineup and make an impact. So if the Canucks are going to get better—particularly up-front—before they assemble for training camp in September, it appears that Gillis will have to explore the trade route. And if there are any black marks on the general manager’s record in his five years at the helm of the hockey club, they are his draft history and his ability to pull off trades that have significantly improved the Canucks roster.
As the architect of the organization since the spring of 2008, Gillis has had reasonable success adding free agents like Dan Hamhuis, Jason Garrison, Mikael Samuelsson, Raffi Torres, Chris Tanev, and, prior to his devastating eye injury, Manny Malhotra (who was a terrific addition to the Canucks leadership group and a face-off wizard). So adding key contributors from the open market to the core group he inherited hasn’t been the issue for Gillis.
Putting together trades that have helped the hockey club, however, has repeatedly been a roadblock. Acquiring seldom used defenceman Keith Ballard from Florida for Michael Grabner and a first-round pick on the eve of the 2010 National Hockey League draft has set the franchise back. His other high-profile moves, bringing in David Booth and Zack Kassian, have yet to pay dividends or make the Canucks appreciably better. Add to that list his disappointing deadline deals each of the past two seasons: picking up Derek Roy and, before him, Samuel Påhlsson. You can trace the sketchy trade history back to the first move Gillis made two months after taking the job in 2008, when he acquired Steve Bernier from Buffalo, hoping that the big winger would find a home on the team’s top line with Daniel and Henrik Sedin. Sprinkle in Andrew Alberts, Shane O’Brien, Ryan Parent, Nathan McIver, and Lawrence Nycholat and they are more of the same.
Trades have not been Gillis’s forte as a manager. His best move was bringing in defenceman Christian Ehrhoff when the San Jose Sharks found themselves in a salary-cap crunch in 2009. And Gillis had some success at the trade deadline in 2011 when he added Chris Higgins and Max Lapierre to round out the roster for the Canucks’ run to the Stanley Cup final later that year. But both Higgins and Lapierre are coming off disappointing seasons and both have disappeared in each of the past two playoffs.
And now Gillis finds himself under a league-wide microscope as he tries desperately to peddle the onerous contract of goaltender Roberto Luongo—a deal more than a year in the making—and he probably needs to make at least one other significant swap to bolster his not-so-talented talent pool.
“It will become clearer as we move through the summer and we see what’s available and we come to some conclusions on our existing players, and there will be some difficult decisions to make,” Gillis said. “I think the landscape is going to be very different this summer. There is very little supply of players out there, and we have players under contract. I think there are going to be greater opportunities throughout the summer.”
With a raft of no-trade clauses on his roster, Gillis has his work cut out for him. But it’s clear that returning the same core group and merely filling around the edges won’t make the Canucks better.
As difficult as it may be, this management group has to roll up its sleeves and get to work orchestrating a deal that will alter the look and feel of the hockey club.
“Sometimes risk works out in your favour and sometimes it doesn’t,” Gillis explained of his trade philosophy. “In assessing the risk, you’re always at the mercy of human frailty in this business. You do things to try to achieve and compete for the Stanley Cup that may not necessarily work out every time. But the ones that do work out are fantastic. In terms of bold moves, I think we’ve been prepared to act on every opportunity we’ve been presented. We’re not afraid of making decisions; I’m not afraid to make decisions in this business, but you do it with the understanding that some are going to work and some aren’t.”
During the past five years, Canucks fans have seen enough of deals that are oversold by the organization but ultimately underdeliver. In another sport, three strikes—Ballard, Booth, and Kassian—and you’re out. Sticking with the baseball analogy, Canucks management has to step up to the plate, swing for the fences, and knock a deal out of the park. It’s likely the only way the Canucks can improve over the summer.
Trades don’t happen as often as they used to in hockey, but they do still occur. And it’s time for the Canucks to wheel and deal.
A city, a franchise—and even Gillis’s job security—are all depending on it.