For all the sleep science and other forward-thinking philosophies that Mike Gillis introduced to the Vancouver Canucks, the primary job of any NHL general manager is grounded in an old-fashioned reality – deliver championships to his city and to his ownership group.
For better or worse, this is how the business of professional sport works, and this is how it differs from other industries. In the real world, you can operate a profitable oil company or a fast-food franchise and your success does not necessarily prevent a rival from succeeding as well.
But in the NHL, it’s a different story. In any given year, there are 29 degrees of failure and one Stanley Cup champion.
It means, forebodingly, that in a 30-team league, every team should land in the winner’s circle about three times per century. Not a lot, in other words, and hard to do. But pro sport demands a standard and a level of accountability that few of us are subject to in our civilian lives. That is why they earn the big dollars, every one of them – managers, coaches, players.
There is also an ebb and flow to pro sport that requires a team, when it is at the apex of its competitive cycle, to seize the moment, because the moment can pass quickly. Colloquially, this is known as the window of opportunity, and it can close fast. In the case of the Canucks, it appears as if their moment in time, with the current incarnation of the team, has passed them by.
A pity, really, because the opportunity was there two years ago, and the Canucks should have won then, in the 2011 Stanley Cup final against the Boston Bruins. They had another chance last year when they were steamrolled in the opening round by a Los Angeles Kings team that unexpectedly caught a wave and made casualties of a lot of good teams.
But this year, to lose in four consecutive games to a merely decent San Jose Sharks team sends a more definitive signal. They are gradually inching back to the pack, no longer on the list of Stanley Cup favourites, just another team in the indistinguishable middle class.
They are a collection of 30somethings in a young man’s era. The Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel, the franchise cornerstones, will be 33 at the start of next season. Alex Burrows and Kevin Bieksa are 32, Chris Higgins 30. With all of his injuries, Ryan Kesler looks like an old 29. What the Canucks need is what the Sharks have – a dynamic up-and-comer in Logan Couture, someone to share some of the scoring burden with veterans Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and the rest.
Sadly for the Canucks, they have little to get excited about in the player-development pipeline after trading away draft choices and prospects for years, to rent the likes of Derek Roy, imported from Dallas to provide a top-six scorer. Roy contributed just a single unremarkable assist in these playoffs.
Vancouver has been compared to the Calgary Flames of a few years ago, when they too couldn’t see the writing on the wall and stubbornly clung to the belief they could extract one last glorious hurrah from a team built around a couple of fading stars, Miikka Kiprusoff and Jarome Iginla. Calgary changed coaches a couple of times and moved a few parts around on the periphery and never came close again.
Given that the alternative is major surgery on his roster, however, you can predict with a fair degree of certainty that Gillis will follow a similarly conservative course of action. He will move out goaltender Roberto Luongo, shift a few players around, but keep the same essential group together for at least another year.
There’s a touch of irony in that because, for all their new-age sensibilities, the Canucks will fall back on a long-standing procedure from the standard NHL operations manual, which instructs you that it’s far easier to get rid of one guy behind the bench rather than 20 players in the dressing room. Substantive change is hard. Cosmetic shuffling is easy. And as any general manager in survival mode understands, when in doubt, there is really just one overriding solution to any problem.
Fire the coach.