I woke up this morning to a Twitter time-line full of interesting tidbits from the Canucks end of year locker room clear out and press conference with GM Mike Gillis. As I toiled through 10 tweets of each and every comment given by a player and Gillis I rapidly lost the early morning awake-but-still-kind-of-asleep feeling. My cloudy head was blown clear by provocative, read between the lines style comments flying at me from just about everyone. By the time the #Canucks hashtag relented I was very much awake and very much equal parts intrigued and angered by what I read.
There were the not so unusual comments:
“We just weren’t good enough” – Ryan Kesler
“I need to be more consistent” – Alex Edler
“I really believe in this core group” – Alex Burrows
“What’s happened over the last two years suggests that maybe it’s not my time to be the starter here anymore” – Roberto Luongo
That last one hurts. I’m sorry Lu, I’ll miss you.
As well as those there were these gems:
“I tweaked my groin in the Chicago game and I couldn’t get it better in time” – Cory Schneider
What what WHAT? The Canucks lose the first two games in the series against San Jose and it wasn’t because of bad goaltending on the part of Luongo. The obvious choice is to allow Schneider more time to recover, to practice, to shake off the rust. Instead, Alain Vigneault starts an ice-cold, INJURED Schneider in game 3 who proceeds to let in 3 goals in less than 3 minutes in the 3rd period. BAM the Canucks are down 3-0 and looking entirely down and out. This could be the final nail in Alain Vigneault’s coffin. A ridiculous move.
“We need to get different” – Mike Gillis
“It’s quite clear the league is going in a direction we need to recognise and adapt to” – Mike Gillis
We’ve heard this one before, maybe not quite so bluntly though. In the past Gillis has bemoaned the changing game, how the NHL is moving from a speed and skill league to a grit and defense league. It first came up after the Stanley Cup Final loss to Boston, then again last year as the Canucks were knocked out in the 1st round by the eventual Stanley Cup Champion LA Kings. The Canucks are a team that was built to be fast, skillful and attacking. Playing to these strengths the Canucks dominated the 2011 regular season, winning the Presidents’ Trophy and leading the NHL in goals for and against and in special teams. The core of the team has remained the same, and therein lies Mike Gillis’ ultimate failure.
He has seen the tide turning in the NHL. He has seen big, defense first teams like Boston, LA and St Louis steam rolling oppositions and grinding out win after win over the past couple of seasons. He wants his team to compete with that and we’ve seen the Canucks transform from an attack first, regular goal scoring machine to a defense first, can’t score to save themselves style team. Did Gillis instruct Alain Vigneault to make the systematic change? Did AV push for it? Was it a mutual decision? We don’t know. All we do know is that it did happen. The Canucks dropped from 1st in goals for in 2010-2011 to 5th in 2011-2012 to 19th this season as they adjusted to their defense first system.
The problem is the Canucks have tried to play the same style of system as LA, St Louis and Boston but they’ve been trying to do it with a roster that was designed for an aggressive, attack first system. This is the key to the Canucks failure and it’s why I place the blame for the Canucks consecutive 1st round losses squarely on Mike Gillis’ shoulders. He failed to adjust his roster to suit his shifting philosophies. One wonders what the result would have been if Gillis was able to land Shane Doan, or shift Luongo for other big 2-way forwards.
“We’re not going to amend my principles because we lost a four-game series” – Mike Gillis
Ah, you did last year – after a 5 game series – and you’re talking like you’re going to right now.
The Canucks are chasing their tales here. In 2011 their potent power play received comparatively very few opportunities during the Stanley Cup Final. Their biggest tool, the one they relied on most to win games, was nullified. They adjust for that. They prepare to win games without their power play. Then this year the NHL changes their referring standards again. Even the smallest infractions are getting called during the playoffs. Their neglected power play can’t convert. They lose. The Canucks can not continue to chase the NHL refereeing standards in this way. The NHL can change the way they run the game overnight. You can’t change an NHL team’s systems like that.
This is where it becomes frustrating watching teams like the Sharks, Penguins and Blackhawks continue to be successful. They haven’t strayed from their attack first, goal scoring orientated systems over the years. They’ve stayed the course and added to their rosters according to their belief in what their style of hockey should be. Gillis preaches this but the proof his organisation doesn’t practice it is in the Canucks performance over the past two years.
“We’re going to hit the re-set button on a number of fronts” – Mike Gillis
This comment will leave coaching staff and players shaking in their boots. Today, Burrows was openly wondering when the no-trade clause in his new contract kicks in. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I don’t believe Alain Vigneault should take all the blame for the Canucks failures. It appears he might though.
The Vancouver Canucks are down 3-0 in the best of 7 series against the San Jose Sharks. After game 1 I felt the series was being played to a familiar tune and that tune has continued to haunt us much like Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah being covered over and over and over and over and over and over again for all eternity.
I will not dwell on what has happened. To quote that classic Bertuzzi refrain “it is what it is”. It is unlikely that the Canucks will come back from this deficit given that the Sharks are playing extremely well and there appears to be about as many good vibes in the Vancouver room as you’d find in Afghanistan right now. I also won’t give much thought to game 4. Thanks to injuries the Canucks have limited options when it comes to shaking the roster up. Vigneault isn’t about to change his game plan or systems. Whatever happens, happens, and could ultimately be nebulous.
Amidst all the “end of an era in Vancouver” talk instead I will go down the “start of a new era” road. The Canucks will be eliminated in the 1st round of the Western Conference Playoffs. Ok. Changes will occur in the Canucks organisation because of that. Ok. Fine.
But what should those changes be? The focus is on coach Alain Vigneault but there’s also assistant coaches, vice presidents, directors, assistant general managers and the general manager himself, Mike Gillis. Then there are the players. There are lots of options to shake things up and to kick off the new era of Vancouver Canucks hockey.
Alain Vigneault is the obvious “escape goat” but some questions must be raised about his assistants as well. The Canucks D has appeared unorganised for much of the season and the pairings have chopped and changed with the winds. Assistant Coach Rick Bowness runs the D and for mine he’s run it into the ground. Assistant Coach Newell Brown runs special teams and appears to have used up his bag of tricks because the Canucks finished this regular season with the 22nd ranked powerplay in the NHL. A PP that for much of the year inexplicably failed to use it’s biggest weapon from the point – Jason Garrison.
Whatever the assistants get up to has to go by the Head Coach and this is why Alain Vigneault is in trouble. Ultimately the coaching buck stops with him. Still, he can only work with the tools given to him. This is where the General Manager comes in.
The General Manager
I can see Mike Gillis falling on his sword this off season. It’s easy to fling dung on Vigneault but if you drop the cowpat and take a proper look at what has happened over the past few years with the Canucks it becomes a little more obvious that the dung should be hitting the fan in Mike Gillis’ office.
Going back to the end of the 2011 season where the Canucks were outscored and out-muscled in the Stanley Cup Final against the Boston Bruins, these are the highlights of GM MG’s transactions:
- Failed to re-sign Christian Ehrhoff, traded his rights for a 4th round pick. FAIL. Edler and the Sedins haven’t quite been the same since Ehrhoff left. Gillis has yet to find a suitable replacement to play the right side with Edler and for me this is a crucial weakness for the Canucks.
- Released Raffi Torres. FAIL. Since leaving the Canucks Torres has gained further infamy with his Jay-Z halloween costume and terrible hit on Marian Hossa, but his on ice value was obvious in Phoenix and now he’s playing extremely well for the San Jose Sharks.
- The Cody Hodgson situation. In hindsight it’s hard to look at this and think it was handled well by the Canucks. For me, the short term result of the trade is FAIL. Hodgson finished 2nd in scoring for the Buffalo Sabres this year and would have looked quite nice on the 2nd line for the Canucks while Kesler decided to keep hurting himself. Having him in the lineup would have negated the need to trade for Derek Roy (in itself a fail). Long term is another thing as Zach Kassian could still become a great player. But the Canucks are trying to win the Stanley Cup now. Kassian isn’t helping now. Hodgson could have. Arguments could be made that Hodgson’s lack of defensive instinct would never fit in the Canucks system but if a world class coach like Alain Vigneault isn’t able to adjust his lines, his game plan, to best utilise the team’s star 1st round pick and potential future captain, then there’s bigger problems.
- The David Booth trade. FAIL. This was a bet that Mike Gillis lost. In theory it was a great acquisition but the reality is that Booth was not a proven, regular, goal scorer and his inconsistency has continued in Vancouver.
- Signed Jason Garrison. FAIL. Oooo controversy. The Canucks desperately needed a right side specialist to play alongside Alex Edler. They still do because instead of getting one Gillis invested $4.6mill in cap space to Jason Garrison, who as good, not great, as good as he is, is not a right side specialist. For me it came down to having to get that right side guy to play with Edler (ala Ehrhoff), or they had to trade Edler. Instead they have Garrison forever plus Edler forever and no one to play alongside him.
- Which brings me to the bag full of no-trade and no-movement clauses Gillis has happily thrown into player contracts. Luongo, the Sedins, Kesler, Burrows, Higgins, Bieksa, Hamhuis, Garrison, Edler. All have a clause preventing them from being traded and/or waived. That’s over $45 million against next season’s $64.3 million cap committed to 10 players on a 23 player roster. If you’re lucky enough to get a player to agree to a trade then their big contract becomes a road block to said trade (Luongo’d).
- The Luongo situation. The less said about that the better, but still FAIL.
- There’s also a plethora of other little moves Gillis has executed over the years that haven’t quite worked out. The Volpatti waive, releasing Rick Rypien, extending Mason Raymond, the Sturm signing, the Pahlsson trade, the Malhotra situation (questionable), letting Sami Salo go, burning a year of Frank Corrado’s entry level deal…
Things don’t look so rosy for Michael D. Gillis. He’s made a tonne of moves and had some success (not complaining about those Presidents’ Trophies) but if you focus on the moves that have hindered this team you discover there are a lot of them. The GM should be a victim of some finger pointing.
No matter what the coaches and GM do it ultimately comes down to how the players execute on the ice. The Canucks have not been executing. Goals have dried up. Soft goals have been let in. Defense has let everyone down. There will be changes to the roster before next season, not just because of performance but also because of the salary cap squeeze that will affect the Canucks more than most teams.
For me the following current roster players are untouchable:
- Daniel Sedin
- Henrik Sedin
- Alex Burrows
- Jannik Hansen
- Dan Hamhuis
- Kevin Bieksa
- Alex Edler
- Cory Schneider
I would also not be trading Nicklas Jensen or Brendan Gaunce.
Beyond these guys I would be willing and happy to trade every single other player on the roster. Yes, that includes Ryan Kesler. I’m not a Kesler fan. As good as he can be he’s also fickle. His chirping and diving are an embarrassment and have acted as motivation for the opposition rather than for his own team (just ask the Blackhawks and the Bruins, who I would bet said something along the lines of “we are NOT losing to THESE GUYS. Anyone but THESE GUYS” at some point during the playoffs). Also, he would draw a massive return in any trade. Trade Kesler.
Ultimately whatever happens this off season it will be a different Vancouver Canucks team taking to the ice at the beginning of the next NHL season.
If it was up to me, I’d retain Alain Vigneault, I’d jettison his assistants, I’d jettison Mike Gillis and I’d give AV and the core mentioned above a new group of guys to play with. Trust in some rookies. Look to get some heart, soul and guts back into the team. It’s time for an identity change.
In the immortal words of Dewey Cox: “Goddamnit, this is a dark fucking period!”
After the loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets (which may not be as bad as we thought) the Canucks stooped even lower today, going down 4-2 against the Minnesota Wild in a very, very lackluster display. For the first time in what seems like forever Vancouver has relinquished the lead of the Northwest Division and has a record of 3-4-3 in their last 10. They sit 6th in the Western Conference with a goal differential of -1. They have the 24th ranked powerplay in the NHL and the 17th ranked penalty kill. Their team face off percentage is 48.5%, only good for 22nd in the NHL.
These are all areas of the game that the Canucks have been strong at for the last few seasons. For a team that was meant to be a contender things are not going well at all.
So what to do with the Vancouver Canucks?
Fire coach Alain Vigneault? I like AV but my feelings on this have not changed since last year’s playoffs. He’s a very smart coach and he has a great record however with the way the Canucks backed into last year’s playoffs and the way the team has played this year the question must be asked – has Alain Vigneault “lost the room”? Another question that needs to be asked is “has AV used up his whole bag of tricks?” Opposition teams appear to see the Canucks coming these days and when things go wrong mid-game he rarely seems to have the ability to pick his team up and drag them out of their funk. It may be time for Alain Vigneault to go. However given his tenure with the Canucks, his record and the fact he has a while to go on his contract I can not see him being fired any time soon.
Do they fire Mike Gillis? It’s fair to say he has made a number of moves that have not panned out. He traded for Steve Bernier. Then matched a silly offer sheet on him. He let Ohlund walk. He let Salo walk. He waived Volpatti. The Ballard trade. The Booth trade. The Pahlsson trade. The Luongo contract. The Hodgson trade (debatable). The Garrison signing added another left handed left side playing defensemen to a blueline that desperately needed a right handed right side guy. He has a questionable drafting record. On the plus side he’s also developed a winning culture in Vancouver, where second best isn’t good enough. He crafted a team that made it to game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final and that may have won if they had remained healthy. He’s signed a number of players to “discounted” contracts. On top of that he got a contract extension last year as well so it’s unlikely he’s going anywhere.
The trade option seems the most likely. The Luongo situation is still simmering, Ballard is still in AV’s doghouse and the Canucks are about to get squeezed hard by the NHL’s lower salary cap for next year. With the team struggling and in obvious need of center depth, powerplay scoring and a blueline kick in the ass, why wait until the off season to fix these issues? I can see Gillis making a trade or two before the deadline that will go some way to addressing all these issues while assisting in the salary cap situation next year. I will be surprised if Keith Ballard is still a Canuck on April 4th and I will be absolutely blown away if the Canucks have their current goaltending duo after the deadline.
As fans there is nothing we can do about the Vancouver Canucks other than sit tight, trust in AV and MG and above all else, don’t expect the unexpected. AV isn’t going anywhere, Gillis isn’t going anywhere and believe it or not the team will be in the playoffs. Whether they go far in the playoffs is another story and it could depend on what the Canucks do prior to April 3rd – the NHL trade deadline.
Luongo has started the season hot. Not something any one has ever said since he became a bona-fide starter in the NHL. His October’s are famously terrible. Of course it’s January right now, but it’s still the start of the season so don’t tell Luongo. “Bobby Lu” has successfully booted Cory Schneider off the starters mound for the Canucks, with 2 wins, 2 shootout losses, 1 shutout, a GAA of 1.46 (good for 2nd in the NHL) and a save percentage of .944 (also good for 2nd in the NHL). If the skaters in front of him knew how to stretch out 2 goal leads he would have 2 more wins to his name. It was revealed today he would start in Edmonton tomorrow.
With Luongo’s strong performance and with the relationship between he and Schneider remaining positive and supportive (at least to outside eyes) folks were starting to believe that we wouldn’t see Luongo shipped out of town until after the season is done. All it took to shatter that belief was one tweet from Mr. Elliotte Friedman:
@FriedgeHNIC Spotted at PIT/WASH today: Mike Gillis and assistant Laurence Gilman
Instantly thoughts of Luongo staying on for the season were out the window. It’s been an hour and we’ve already had Marc Andre Fleury arguments, Vokoun arguments, Backstrom speculation, OVECHKIN speculation, discussion on the pros and cons of Brouwer and Neuvirth..
Let’s take a deep breath and look at this a little more closely…
Firstly, let’s look at what the Canucks need right now. Their immediate needs are a solid 2 way centre (even with Ryan Kesler skating at practice he’s a while off) and a veteran backup for Schneider. They could also use a right-handed shot on the blue line (emphasis on the word ‘shot’ – Tanev doesn’t count) and maybe another scoring winger.
Gillis and Gilman are taking in a Pittsburgh/Washington game.
Washington need a goaltender. Neuvirth isn’t taking his game to the next level and Holtby is still young and inconsistent. He may well be an elite level goalie one day but right now he isn’t and right now the Caps need elite level goaltending. Having Luongo in their net would not only make them immediately better, it would give the locker room a sorely needed boost. That Caps team is down in the dumps and who better to bring a smile to the room than @strombone1?
They have the cap space to take on Luongo’s contract – currently $6.3mill spare according to Cap Geek - but do they have the assets Mike Gillis and Laurence Gilman want in return? You can rule out Ovechkin, you can rule out Backstrom and despite his struggles you can probably even rule out Mike Green. Not only do I doubt the Caps desire to blow up their core but the Canucks have just $800,000 in cap space – Luongo’s cap hit is $5.3mill so they can’t be taking on big contracts in return.
Looking at the Canucks needs vs what the Caps may have to offer and there are few options. One is Neuvirth, who could be a reasonable backup to Schneider. He has a friendly cap hit, he’s an RFA this year and he now has 113 NHL starts with 52 wins. The other option is Troy Brouwer. He’s a Vancouver native, he’s got size and grit, he can score a few goals and play well defensively. He’s a right-handed shot. He’s also won a Stanley Cup. With Chicago. He hates the Canucks. The Canucks hate him. Would that even work? Beyond that, he’s a winger, not the center the Canucks need. To me, he’s effectively Jannik Hansen with a higher cap hit. Word is Gillis likes him and has been interested in the past but do the Canucks need him right now?
A package of Neuvirth and Brouwer for Luongo would make sense but given the apparent interest in trading for Luongo across the league, can the Canucks get a better return somewhere else?
Let’s not forget the Penguins. On the surface they aren’t an obvious destination for Luongo. They have a Stanley Cup winning goaltender in Fleury who is signed for another 3 years. They have a solid veteran backup in Vokoun. Do they need Luongo? Well… I think we all remember Fleury’s performance against the Flyers in last year’s playoffs (4.63 GAA, .834 save percentage) and he hasn’t started well this year – 5 games, 3 wins 2.54 GAA .897 save percentage.
At this point I’d like to go back to Mike Gillis’ interview with Cam Cole of the Vancouver Sun on January 21st:
“We have a potential deal in place with one team that has to do something with another player that they have — and it’s not who anybody thinks it is — and so we have to wait.”
Pittsburgh is certainly a team that nobody would have picked as a genuine destination for Luongo. They have a goalie right now that they have soured on that the Canucks would not want in return. It kind of fits.
Speculation overdrive: ENGAGED.
The Penguins have the cap space – $8.5mill of it according to Cap Geek. You can forget the mega deals involving Malkin, Crosby or Letang – ain’t happening. What the Penguins do have is forward depth and a couple of decent defence prospects. Not to mention Vokoun, who could be the perfect backup for Schneider.
I would not be surprised if Luongo became a Penguin. Fleury gets shipped out elsewhere, Luongo comes over in a deal involving say, Tyler Kennedy, Olli Maata (or Scott Harrington) and a pick. I would prefer if the Tyler Kennedy part of that package were Brandon Sutter but I’m trying to be realistic here.
As I wrote this word on Twitter from Stephen Whyno (Washington Times reporter) is that the Capitals have had no talks whatsoever with the Canucks re: Luongo…
The gold medal winning combo of Crosby and Luongo back together? Don’t rule it out.
My latest post for Get Real Hockey, in which I dissect some of Mike Gillis’ comments and throw in a bit of Lu for you too.
The Cody Hodgson issue has been beaten to death over the past little while, especially today, so I decided not to touch on it and just let MG’s comment stand on its own.
(In reality I’ve been awake since 4.30am and I neglected to write about it in this post :/ )