In the 1970s, the great Ray Davies produced a Kinks album called Give The People What They Want, which is also doubling as the new blueprint for NHL front offices. Give the people the popular, telegenic, ex-star and quiet and immediately disarm an angry fan base that in Vancouver on Monday, chanted “Fire Gillis” as the Canucks lamely went down to defeat against the playoff-bound Anaheim Ducks.
Well, firing Gillis is a moment of emotion makes no sense, but firing Gillis for a spotty, six-year track record as NHL GM made a lot of sense. The Canucks made it official Tuesday, relieving Gillis of his duties as GM after the Canucks missed the playoffs for the first time in six years.
Think back to June of 2008 when the Canucks first introduced Gillis, the former player agent, as their new GM.
Gillis made it plain that first day he was inheriting a mess and that the Canucks had a long way to go until they became a competitive team. That mess, by the way, included all the key pieces that got the Canucks to consecutive Presidents’ Trophy victories and one win away from the 2011 Stanley Cup final. The Sedins, Ryan Kesler, Alex Burrows, Alex Edler, Roberto Luongo, even the young up-and-coming goaltending talent, Cory Schneider, were all already in the Canucks organization, when Gillis took over from Dave Nonis, who had previously replaced Brian Burke.
The Canucks had missed the playoffs that year after tantalizing fans with a 105-point season the year before – and the mood then was the same as now: How to keep a disenchanted fan base happy. The Aquilini family can’t be happy to see all those empty seats in the lower bowl for the last couple of games and if that’s a sign that season-ticket renewals aren’t as robust as in previous years, then that’s worrisome.
But most worrisome of all has to be the reality of Gillis’s moves as a general manager. He failed repeatedly to fill in the necessary supporting pieces, when the primary tools were already in place. What exactly will be his legacy? Signing Pavol Demitra, one of his former clients, as a free agent back in 2008? Signing Mats Sundin? His signature moment has to be one of two transactions – getting Dan Hamhuis to leave Nashville and sign with the Canucks as a free agent in 2010, or acquiring Christian Ehrhoff in a San Jose Sharks’ salary dump in 2009. But Hamhuis wanted to come home, so that transaction needs an asterisk. It’s the same as Zach Parise and Ryan Suter wanting to go to Minnesota for family reasons or Scott Niedermayer joining the Ducks in 2005 so he could play with his brother Rob. That’s an accident of geography, not astute planning. In Ehrhoff’s case, they got two good seasons out of him before the Canucks let him go for salary-cap reasons of their own.
And that really was it.
On the other side of the ledger, he managed to take a position of strength, goaltending, and turn it into a position of weakness. The moves to acquire, among others, the likes of David Booth, Derek Roy, Max Lapierre and others or sign Jason Garrison to a big-money contract blew up in his face. And the net effect of the passing of the years without a championship is that the Sedins got older, Burrows and Kesler became more brittle, Edler seems to have lost his confidence and Luongo and Schneider are playing for the Florida Panthers and the New Jersey Devils respectively. And the only player they’ve drafted in the past six years playing regularly in the NHL is Cody Hodgson, who they traded away to the Buffalo Sabres for Zach Kassian, still a work in progress.
It is not a record that exactly conjures up images of Sam Pollock or Bill Torrey, and the only problem is that there won’t be a quick fix for whoever happens to come in next. The reality is, Gillis actually inherited a very good situation, was a decent steward for a while, didn’t do enough to make it better and in the past month or so, watched helplessly as it all went up in smoke. Messy – and when it gets messy like this, all you can do is what the Aquilini family did Tuesday. They gave the people what they wanted.
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