There is no official guidebook on firing a general manager - at least, I don’t think Gary Bettman and the NHL’s dusty group of owners have concocted one - but I’d say there are a few telltale signs that it might be time for someone to go.
Generally speaking, you don’t always want to bend to every whim of the unwashed masses (or, in the case of fans in most markets, the polished, moneyed people who can actually afford to pay for your tickets), yet it’s rare for a crowd to chant for the firing of a GM who has been doing a flawless job. Honestly, I cannot remember the last time a sport’s GM was given that serenade who didn’t at least slightly deserve to get his walking papers. (Detroit Lions fans practically rioted to get rid of Matt Millen, and they only seemed justified when the team he largely built became the NFL’s first and only 0-16 team.)
Beyond getting the “Fire X” treatment, I think an equally telling sign comes when you’re trying to oust a coach within the same 12 months - give or take - that you hired that fellow. (I still don’t know how Bryan Murray survived his almost hilarious array of coaching moves in Ottawa, although he’s actually been making tweaks that I agree with lately; it’s almost as if Murray switched brains with a far better GM in the worst spin on that “Freaky Friday” body swap movie gimmick that gets rehashed something like three times per decade.)
By most standards, it seems like now-former Vancouver Canucks GM Mike Gillis was a competent executive.
Seriously, throw out all the goaltending media narratives and consider the Canucks’ successes under his guidance. Gillis was hired on April 23, 2008 and fired almost six years later. In that time, the only season the Canucks won't make the playoffs under Gillis is this season. And for all the drama surrounding this team, they weren't that far off in 2013-14 (more on that in a moment).
The Canucks won the now-defunct Northwest Division five seasons in a row under Gillis (the Canucks probably still miss the Northwest). They won the Presidents' Trophy and came within one win of a Stanley Cup in 2010-11, won another Presidents’ Trophy in 2011-12, registered a .627 winning percentage and were generally in the mix every season until they started to sink these past two years.
I agree that Gillis benefited from some of Brian Burke's moves (hi, Sedins) and even Dave Nonis' tweaks (Roberto Luongo, until that was a curse disguised as a blessing later into things), yet there’s something to be said for opting to add spice to a good recipe rather than throwing out all the ingredients just to put your stamp on the whole meal. Sure, I’m not crazy about the Cody Hodgson trade, but Gillis has added nice defensive pieces, and often at hometown discounts. Even the goalie drama was probably largely a media construct, as the market might not have been very friendly for Roberto Luongo/Cory Schneider … and hey, their goaltending has actually been pretty good over the years.
We can quibble about any number of smaller moves, but if you compare Gillis’ successes to the great majority of other GMs, you get the feeling that this might be one of those instances in which people take things for granted like a forlorn 80’s hair metal band. Regardless, he’s gone now, so the question is what (or who?) is next?
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My gut feeling is that John Tortorella was in a square peg in a round hole in Vancouver. By that train of thought, it makes sense to part ways with Torts.
But much like with Gillis, perception can often overshadow reality. The possession stats argue that the Canucks have actually been a better team than many believed. This season, the Canucks have averaged 30.7 shots per game and allowed 28.5 per contest. While that's not San Jose Sharks and Chicago Blackhawks-level elite, it indicates that the Canucks have at least slightly outplayed their opponents.
Even the goaltending (.927 save percentage) has been generally solid.
With those stats and Tortorella’s staggering salary in mind, I think this becomes a tougher decision. Ultimately, it comes down to the new regime’s vision.
Now let’s look at some of the other considerations.
OFF YEAR FOR O
Henrik Sedin - For all his troubles, Henrik still tops all Vancouver scorers with 47 points in 67 games. That's not the point-per-game pace we've come to expect, but it's not like people are scoring like hot cakes this season. A lot of what I have to say about Henrik dovetails into Daniel talk, so let me move on.
Daniel Sedin - My general feeling is that a tough adjustment, bad luck, the Olympic grind and age teamed up against the Sedins. Some of that (especially age, obviously) cannot be help, but I wouldn't give up on either (in fantasy or reality, as his trade value has never been lower). The best part is that their bad year means you will probably be able to draft them lower than ever, and there’s at least a solid chance that they’ll provide profitable returns.
Two bonuses for picking Daniel over Henrik: he has 210 SOG in 70 GP (exactly three per game) and is a winger, so he can provide oomph in that slightly less talent-rich position.
Ryan Kesler - While the Sedins are a package deal and thus would be very difficult to trade, Kesler could be the key to either a full-fledged rebuild or more of a “reload.” You could call 2013-14 a down year in some ways (-17 rating, trade rumors, only 18 assists keeping his overall point totals modest), but Kesler still showed his value in goals, SOG, PIM and even hits. My biggest qualm with trading Kesler is that you won't find many players of his caliber who only carry a $5 million cap hit, yet the wear and tear he's dealt with is considerable.
Alex Burrows - What an awful, awful year for Burrows. Considering this flop of a season, I'd say he'd be an interesting final round pick in drafts, but I wouldn't make any larger of an investment. In all honesty, he may need a change of venue more than Kesler. Then again, maybe he just needs a summer of rest.
Christopher Higgins - This doesn't look like that special of a season for Higgins when you look at the totals, but if you take out a weak finish (five points in 17 games, -9 rating), I think that Higgins fits in well to what Tortorella likes to do. Consider him a very lite version of Ryan Callahan. I wouldn't draft him high (and maybe not draft him at all), but he could be a guy to watch when he's firing a lot of SOG.
IN THEIR OWN END
Goalies - The good news is that the Roberto Luongo/Cory Schneider drama has been totally dissolved for real this time, as both are (somewhat shockingly) gone. The bad news is that it’s difficult to imagine the Eddie Lack - Jacob Markstrom duo as anything but a downgrade.
At least they’re cheaper and (in the aggregate) younger, though. My guess is that Lack will be “the guy” since he’s been in the organization for much longer, yet if I were the Canucks, I’d make it a wide open battle between Markstrom and Lack. After all, Markstrom was considered a top goalie prospect for years, why not give him a real chance?
As of this writing, neither projects as a great option, though.
Defensemen - The Canucks’ D is a bit of a puzzle, which is odd since that used to be such a strength. If this season is a sign of the future, then Jason Garrison would be the most fantasy-relevant choice, with the solid variety of contributions he brings giving you a bit of everything. For some, Kevin Bieksa may be a better option, however, as he can gain respectable points, plenty of PIM, hits and even blocked shots.
Then we move on from a guy who went from promising to puzzling in Alexander Edler. Not only is he failing to score at his usual pace (his 21 points is a little short of last season's 22, which he reached in 45 games versus 60 this season), he also has an Ovechkinian -34 rating.
My guess is he’ll be better in 2014-15, but enough to draft in normal leagues? Maybe keep an eye on him, instead.
The ultimate takeaway, for me, is that the Canucks haven’t been as bad as the media coverage may indicate. There is a lot of room for rebound seasons, even if the cast of characters changes.
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