Mike Gillis, facing the phalanx of cameras, looked like a man who has not slept all season. His hockey team, the Vancouver Canucks, had lost four in a row to San Jose. It was Thursday morning. If Vancouver had not blown two late-game leads, it could have – in another version of history – been the day of Game 5, tied at two, at home. Instead, Gillis faced the question of what went wrong.
There are a lot of questions. The future of the coaching staff – head coach Alain Vigneault, associate coach Rick Bowness, assistant coach Newell Brown – is among the biggest. The decision will not be rushed. First, late next week, Gillis will present a plan for the year, and years, ahead to the team owners, the billionaire Aquilini family.
If something’s been decided, it was not revealed Thursday. Gillis spoke about a “reset,” as he did when he arrived five years ago, but at that time he stood by what he had, Vigneault, the Sedins, the core of the roster. Today, the roster core will remain intact, Gillis said, and he plans to “supplement” that core – which has produced a 1-10 record in its past 11 playoff games – with bigger, younger players. Gillis cited the seemingly permanent trend of a heavier style of hockey, one whose demarcation point he set as the Stanley Cup final against Boston that Vancouver lost two years ago.
At the end of a news conference that ran a little over half an hour, after a parade of players spit out PR-department-approved phrases for 45 minutes in the hallway, Gillis was asked again about Vigneault, the most successful coach this hockey team has had. Gillis said he had not even spoken with Vigneault after the Canucks’ playoffs hit the wall. He was planning to do so Thursday afternoon.
“It’s difficult when things end so quickly, and they end so negatively for all of us,” Gillis said. “It’s pretty emotional to go through it and you just need a little bit of time to sit back and make sure that you’re doing the right thing. We’re going to treat people fairly, like we always do, honourably – that’s not going to end because we lost four hockey games.”
Asked if he himself shouldered blame, Gillis said, “Of course. Of course I do.”
A year ago, when the Canucks lost in the first round in five games, both Gillis and Vigneault had a season remaining on their contracts. They both received extensions: Vigneault two years, Gillis five. Today, Gillis’s job appears secure. Vigneault, everyone presumes, will be fired – and most think he’ll find work very quickly elsewhere. What will actually occur could not be divined on Thursday.
On the roster, there is a bit more clarity. Gillis spoke about building around his core but did not sound particularly enthusiastic about re-signing the Sedins. Henrik, in a scrum, said he would accept an extension this summer if both sides felt the terms were good. It is doubtful that is coming.
The Roberto Luongo saga is probably close to over, with both Gillis and Luongo saying it was unlikely the goaltender would be here in the fall.
Otherwise, Gillis spoke vaguely. One can guess that unrestricted free agent Mason Raymond is almost certainly set to depart. Keith Ballard likely will be bought out, and possibly David Booth, too, though Booth fits the theme of younger/bigger that Gillis speaks about.
Because the Canucks are very tight on the salary cap – 17 players signed next year (Luongo among them) for $64.4-million on a $64.3-million limit, according to capgeek.com – Gillis was fairly explicit to say young players such as Nicklas Jensen, 20, will be on the roster come fall. And the only reason 22-year-old Jordan Schroeder wasn’t in the playoffs was a shoulder injury that probably needs surgery.
Local writers have placed a tombstone on this team. It is called an end of an era of excellence. It may be. The players, no surprise, believe otherwise.
“I think we’re close,” was the refrain of both Henrik Sedin and Ryan Kesler. Gillis, with little room to manoeuvre, perhaps has no other choice but to believe. A bounce here, a bounce there. Jannik Hansen hits an empty net in Game 2. The Canucks hold a lead in Game 4. And it’s 2-2, Game 5, Thursday night. What might have been is over. What might be will be determined by much of the same cast.