Rattle off a laundry list of all the things Mike Gillis has fumbled in the last 12 months or so, and you're going to come up with a lot of items.
Many of them are contingent upon the ongoing illusion in Vancouver that this was a team well-suited for the rigors of the newly constituted four-division NHL; in which the Canucks now had to play more, and more important, games against titans like the Kings, Sharks and Ducks on a regular basis. A look at the roster the Canucks brought in to start the year, and the coach they thought would guide them back to a Cup Final, should have been a pretty good indicator that things were about to take a hard left into the rough part of the Pacific Division neighborhood, populated already by two other Western Canadian teams, but still they pressed on.
There was some thought, and I must admit to sharing it, that John Tortorella could coax a better performance out of this team; not because they had the personnel to play his style (they didn't and don't), but because he seems to have an ability to bend rosters to his will. It doesn't always work overnight, but historically, it has always worked.
The Canucks, perhaps the most veteran team Tortorella has ever taken over as an in-progress group, largely rejected what he espoused. “'Hard' hockey? Blocking shots? All set, thanks.” But the makings of this wreckage of a franchise, ruined by their pursuit of the Cup that eluded them just a few short years ago, were already in place.
Gillis's first and greatest mistake was letting the goaltending drama stretch on longer than your average kabuki play, complete with astonishing transformations and plot twists no one could have ever seen coming. And while it was never quite revealed that Roberto Luongo or Cory Schneider's pads were made from the skin of anyone's parents, the fact that it was Schneider flying away after all that nonsense was definitely a jaw-dropper. The return Gillis ended up getting for a relatively young, career .927 goaltender — the No. 8 overall pick — was perhaps the best he could have done, but when it comes to taking Bo Horvat with it, not so much. Especially because that left him with a goaltender who was good, but old, expensive, and certainly about to decline hard over the next few years, and who carried a contract which essentially made him valueless in a trade.
That Gillis got anything at all out of Florida is a minor miracle.
That said, though, people have criticized the Canucks for ending last season with a goaltending tandem of Luongo and Schneider, and now being on their way to ending it with a duo of Eddie Lack and Jacob Markstrom. This is, by any measure, a notable downgrade, but it indicates a judicious stewardship of the team in one respect:
Gillis is totally prepared to blow up this roster; and while Canucks fans will be loath to hear it, is the best thing that could happen to it.
Here are the simplest two questions to divine whether the Canucks should start dismantling perhaps their best roster ever:
1) Were they likely to compete for a Stanley Cup?
2) Were they likely to get better?
The answer to both questions is an effusive “no,” and thus Gillis, having made his most crucial misstep in dealing Schneider, was at a crossroads.
On the one hand, he could make like his forebears in Calgary and Edmonton, and try to milk a few more seasons of feckless playoff appearances in which his team wins a game or two but ultimately doesn't come close to being in any way threatening to one of the top teams in the West, before inevitably bottoming out in embarrassing and difficult-to-watch fashion. On the other, he could sell what he could, while he could, and potentially start the team back onto the path to success in a handful of years while still keeping its “core.”
He chose the latter tack, which by the way is the smarter one.
It is also, though, the less popular one, and the one less traveled by. In hockey we're used to seeing many of our more dynastic teams (if you want to call the Canucks that; they certainly held significant considerable sway over a garbage division for years but had little in the way of tangible success outside the Presidents Trophies) run slip slowly but inevitably under the black waves, rather than explode spectacularly like a Nazi blimp over Lakehurst.
Make no mistake: The Luongo situation was handled with a kind of magnificent and almost admirable lack of grace, and to do it over a period of a few years shows a real commitment to the art of pissing off your franchise netminder. But the trade had to happen for more reasons than just Luongo wanting out. Gillis saw where this franchise was headed and steered into the skid.
It is, however, going to cost him his job. Probably costs Tortorella his as well. All the indication you need in this arena, beyond that 1-8-1 stretch ahead of the trade deadline, one supposes, is those reports about Gillis not having authorization to deal Ryan Kesler, which he ultimately did not accomplish on Wednesday, whatever the reason may have been. He will almost certainly be moved prior to next season, probably at the draft, and if they're smart, so too will anyone else with some tread left on the tires and something in the way of remaining value but who likely aren't going to be serviceable when the team is once again ready to compete again (Dan Hamhuis, Kevin Bieksa). The rumors about trading Alex Edler were a little curious, given how long he's locked up, and how affordably, unless Vancouver plans to really and truly blow things up, which seems doubtful.
It's difficult to be convinced that “rebuilds on the fly” actually work, especially when the two star forwards around whom you plan to build are 33 years old. And it's certainly not something that Gillis is going to see through to the end; he could have tried to pick up a rental or two, squeeze into the playoffs, and get creamed, then say he accomplished something.
But in starting the process, he did the right thing for the long-term good of the franchise. That's not a job many general managers would probably do, but it is admirable and praiseworthy.