When Dave Nonis was rudely dismissed by Canucks ownership last summer, the word was he was fired for not getting the team deeper into the playoffs.
Enter Mike Gillis, the ownership's hand picked man. He added salt to Nonis' wounds by proclaiming he was inheriting a team that was "not close at all" to contending for the Stanley Cup.
Almost a year later, the Canucks find themselves in round two, convincingly beating the St. Louis Blues, and looking great doing it. Suddenly the Canucks are not just a team with a dangerous goalie. They are a veteran laden team, hungry for success and blessed with depth on defense and forward.
There are still areas of concerns, not unlike every other team though. The Cup is still a long ways away, but I think it is safe to say the northwest division champion Canucks are a contender. They are certainly closer than "not close at all."
The question is how much of their improvement is due to Mike Gillis?
A solid case could be built to suggest Gillis' additions are not the reason for the Canucks improvement. Let's take a look at it on a case by case basis:
Ryan Johnson - Johnson's late season and playoff play salvages a success rating. Granted a finger injury hindered him all year, but for much of the regular season he was a non factor.. He was not a notable upgrade as the advertised faceoff expert (see the finger injury) or the penalty kill.
But he's really upped his game in the playoffs, giving coach Vigneault improved penalty killing and trust in the 4th line to eat up some playoff minutes.
Kyle Wellwood - After an early season demotion to the minors, it looked like the Kyle Wellwood experiment was over before it began. But he came back quickly, and put up some points early, earning a spot on the team for the rest of the season, even when a mid-season scoring slump placed him back in the coaches dog house.
But Wellwood brilliantly reinvented himself as an effective third line center. He provides some offense while providing surprisingly solid and heady defensive play. This gave the Canucks a very solid third line, allowing the Canucks to come at teams in waves.
Jason Labarbera - Labarbera was brought in mid-season during Roberto Luongo's injury absence. With Curtis Sanford failing and rookie Corey Schneider not quite ready for the big time, Labarbera stepped in with a couple of big wins to calm the storm.
But ultimately his job is to take shots in practice and open the gate and hand out towels during games. Success, but to minimal benefit.
Steve Bernier - Bernier was brought in as a much publicized top line right wing candidate for the Sedin twins. Though given ample opportunity early in the season, Bernier never really clicked with the Sedins, largely because he never kept his stick on the ice while waiting for the Sedins to thread the puck to him. Gillis did not do his homework on this one.
Based on expectations, Bernier was a disappointment. But by playoff time he has found a nice role on the Canucks third line, accepting a physical and defensive role. So far during the playoffs he has been very good. Bernier has benefited from Taylor Pyatt's absence.
Still, ultimately, Bernier's failure on the top line is only forgiven because the Canucks did eventually find a top line right winger for the Sedins - Alex Burrows, who at the time was the Canucks third line left winger.
Shane O'Brien - I like Shane O'Brien. His physical game is a nice upgrade on the third D-pairing over the departed Lukas Krajicek. He showed some real nice mobility and puck moving, and a willingness to stand up for teammates.
But O'Brien was also prone to lazy penalties and occasional bad gambles with the puck. And while he was not added for offense, his 0 goals and 10 assists are hardly irreplaceable.
All of that led to strained relations with coach Alain Vigneault. At times the dispute boiled over into the media and threatened to distract the team.
Pavol Dimetra - Dimetra is a Gillis-loyalist, and was all too happy to come to Vancouver. But expectations were high, perhaps unfairly so given his age, as Dimetra was essentially replacing long time captain and offensive leader Markus Naslund. His 20 goals and 53 points equalled what Naslund would have provided.
I can't call this an out-right success though. Removing Naslund may have been a necessary move in terms of team culture, and replacing his production was necessary. But Dimetra's game offered nothing new. At this age he is a soft, perimeter player who scored the quietest 53 points in the NHL. For long stretches of time he was almost unnoticeable.
Darcy Hordichuk - I know a lot of people like him, especially coach Vigneault. And I understand he is a great guy in the dressing room.
But his on ice contributions were negligible. 4 goals and 1 assist - that's fine, that's not why he is there. He's there for physicality. As a fighter he is willing, but able only as a middleweight. Against the true big boys he is more of a wrestler than anything.
He was said to be more than a goon, and that he would be able to play some minutes. He can, and generally won't hurt the team. But when the team needed a real good energy shift, Hordichuk's lack of mobility keeps him from contributing with heavy forechecking and inspiring bodychecks.
He fills his role well, but it also would not be hard to find an upgrade.
Mats Sundin - The biggest failure has to be Mats Sundin. For a pro-rated $10 million for half a season, not to mention all the drawn out hype, Sundin has delivered almost nothing. He's struggled to keep up with the play, and has never found his timing. He failed to bring the power play to the upper echelon. And though his linemates have found some life, he personally has added little offensive presence, taking little pressure off the Sedin twins.
Gillis' biggest splash ended up getting a lot of mud on his face. I just thank the lord above Sundin only signed for one year at $10 million and not 2 years.
Rob Davison - Yeah, he is still with the team. He played 23 games and looked very much like an AHL defenseman. Thankfully Shane O'Brien came along to provide Davison's intended role and the team's blue line stayed relatively healthy.
Michel Oullette, Jason Krog, and Lawrence Nycholat barely played and delivered no returns.
Ossi Vaananen - A nice depth move late in the season. Vaananen has barely had a chance to play. When he has he is limited to small minutes, as coach Vigneault almost goes to a 5 man blue line. Vaananen really needed more regular season play to better fit in in these emergency situations.
So how much did Gillis' moves improve the team? For the most part his additions are largely replaceable puzzle pieces. This team's success very much depends on Roberto Luongo, the Sedin twins, Ryan Kesler, Alex Burrows and a deep blue line, all pieces Gillis inherited.
In fact, Vancouver's rise from "not close at all" to Stanley Cup contender has had more to do with the maturation of the Sedins, Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows and good health especially amongst the defensemen.
It's too bad Dave Nonis did not have that benefit.