April 23, 2009

The Gillis Effect: Are The Canucks Any Closer?

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:

Successes

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.

Draws

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.

Failures

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.

Inconclusive

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.

Conclusion

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.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Totally off base. The Sedins delivered almost exactly what they delivered point wise last year and they had Roberto as well ( not injured for two months I might add). As for Burrows and Kesler - maybe the addition of depth allowed them to thrive - they certainly didnt thrive on the one line team Nonis developed - I think their development is more of a result of having Sundin, Demitra, Bernier, Wellwood rather than Isbister, Cowan, Bullis, Choinard et al. Complete joke on Nonis' part. Make no mistake if Gillis dosen't overhaul this team the Canucks are on the outside this year looking in. Give credit where credit is due.

Bob Roberts said...

Are the Canucks any closer? Well, yes and also we'll have to wait and see. Yes in that they've won a round (4-0 which they've never done before = more confidence and some momentum), and that they have time off to rest and heal (which always comes up as an important piece of the puzzle in a discussion as to factors necessary for a good playoff run); and wait and see in that we don't know who they'll face in the next round so it's hard to speculate how they might do.

Re: Gillis

First, I have to say I can't count the number of times I've seen a GM or coach come in and have success after his predecessor didn't do well. Sometimes he makes lots of changes, sometimes few or none. Sometimes he has opportunities the other guy didn't have.

That being said, I for one thought the Canucks were not going to do well to say the least with a former agent who had no experience taking over. I was wrong.

I think that if the cards fall right they could go to the finals.

They'll need the rest of the list of things you have to have (like bounces, health, the right opponents, surprise contributions and all the rest), but wouldn't it be something to see Roberto pick up that mug?

Anonymous said...

One thing that I've heard a lot of lately is the idea of the Sundin acquisition being a failure. This really bugs me.

Are you suggesting that given a time machine the Canucks should go back and not sign him? Where would that leave them? Yeah, Francesco would be $5 mil richer, but what do I care about that? Sundin was a no-risk signing, ANYTHING that he contributes to the team is gravy. Anybody who would rather have the Canucks' current thirteenth forward than Mats Sundin is high on something.

I look at him and Demitra the same way... they are not putting up points but their presence on the second line gives the team balance. Whether they're scoring or not teams are going to have to commit a lot of defensive effort to that line, because everybody knows that Demitra and Sundin both CAN burn you. And the bottom line is that the team is winning with them.

Hordichuk was a big part of making this team tougher, so I don't count him as a failure. Bernier wasn't as expected in the regular season but played really well in this series.

Joe Pelletier said...

Well we'll never know how Nonis would have shaped this team this season. Remember, he had a lot of room to revamp with Naslund and Morrison's contracts off the books, two names conveniently left out of the argument by the opposing side here.

The Canucks success lies in the maturing pieces of the puzzle that were already here pre-Gillis, plus good health, a good schedule, and some nice bounces.

The nice thing is it seems to becoming together all at the right time. With some more friendly cards from the deck, the Canucks have as good a shot as anyone.

Anonymous said...

"Well we'll never know how Nonis would have shaped this team this season. Remember, he had a lot of room to revamp with Naslund and Morrison's contracts off the books, two names conveniently left out of the argument by the opposing side here.

The Canucks success lies in the maturing pieces of the puzzle that were already here pre-Gillis, plus good health, a good schedule, and some nice bounces."

The problem I have with that argument is that you could make similar arguments about pretty much every GM that gets replaced. Mike O'Connell left the Bruins with Lucic, Krejci, Kobasew, Axelsson, Stuart, Sturm, Boyes (a good player who was traded for Wideman), Kessel, Bergeron, and a whack of cap space to sign Savard and Chara. That's from a guy who's seen as one of the worst GMs in recent memory and Chiarelli gets most of the credit for turning that team around.

Unless you are a completely inept GM you're going to leave a team with a solid core group of players. It's how you support and supplement that core with depth so that the core can succeed that makes the difference between a good and a bad GM. And in a single offseason, Gillis did a better job of building a team that plays like a single unit rather than a group of individuals than Nonis did in his 4 years/3 seasons.

Sean Zandberg said...

There were pieces in place, yes. But I don't know that Nonis could have got Sundin here. Gillis never let up on Sundin, plus he promised a winning atmosphere. He has delivered. Kesler would not have done so well without Demitra and Sundin.

rsm said...

I think that without addressing the management and philosophy changes as well as what Aquilini might have known of Noonis' plans for the off-season that this analysis doesn't work very well.

I also think your comment on Sundin is off-base, but I don't see how that can be settled with stats. As far as I can see he has provided something in the locker room, as well as on the ice, that fits with what AV and Gillis wanted to change. But it's very hard to quantify what that is or how significant it is.

Anonymous said...

Thank god for MG. No longer do we have to hear Nonis rave about "team toughness" while we watched Jeff Cowan get ragdolled and the twins get abused with no retaliation. We do know what Nonis would have done, altho he said otherwise (I didn't believe him) a month or so into the season, Naslund would have been regigned, who else to play with Brunnstrom? Morrison also, so a great team to battle in the SEL, but nowhere near an NHL playoff team. Thats why he was fired, Aquilini figured out that with that team the string of sellouts would have ended abruptly.

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