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Mike Gillis' very bad, very uncharacteristic year

Photo from Flickr/spazzbot

If there’s a word which summarizes the Mike Gillis and Laurence Gilman philosophical approach to running a sports franchise it would be this: Control.

Not in the sense of micromanagement or outright tyranny — but in terms of mitigating catastrophic risk and weighing the dice for sustained group success.

This year — this calendar year — that strategy has been on the ropes, if it’s even been in the mix at all.

Essentially, ever since he took over the General Manager reins in 2008, Mike Gillis has attempted to build a team which would be more or less impervious to the rigours and hazards of an 82-game NHL season: Injuries, slumps, fatigue, contract squabbles... anything which could — by itself — derail the ability of the team and organization to succeed over a significant period of time, or significantly curtail its options going forward.

Loosely summarized, the pillars to this approach have been positional redundancy, outside the box thinking (such as the use of advanced stats and sleep doctors), and an unwavering commitment to a long-term plan. No lazy thinking, surprises, or panicked decisions allowed.

It’s been wildly successful, but the cracks are starting to show, and some mystifying decisions which run counter to everything this organization has guided itself by since Mike Gillis took over have been popping up over the past twelve months.

Injuries and circumstance have knocked this team to the mat this season, and those mystifying decisions have left it staggering slowly back to its feet. Two years ago they’d have come up swinging, usually with a quick put-down and knockout. But this season they’re punchless and appear distracted, bored, indifferent, perhaps even — in some respects (see: faceoffs) — incapable. 

It starts with Roberto Luongo. Twelve months ago he was the unquestioned franchise starter. Cory Schneider had played more games that season than anyone truly expected, but the reasoning was that this would keep Luongo fresh for the playoffs.

We know what happened. The set-in-stone, long-term plan — with Luongo as the centerpiece of the franchise for the next ten to twelve years — was thrown out the window two games later.

Correct decision or not, it came out of left field, at least publicly. Even if there were conversations happening internally, long beforehand, it’s equally haphazard to think that the tipping-point was the two games against the LA Kings, where Luongo was far from terrible. There wasn’t a shred of a long-term strategy at play here.

The shift seemed driven largely by circumstance, but in a fun-filled twist, it was the curious circumstance of Cory Schneider simply living up to the potential which the Canucks predicted he had all along.

So figure that train of thinking out.

Could it have been anything other than a complete lack of confidence in their own internal player evaluation abilities? Or was it the sheer ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ stuff which it appeared to be?

Upon anointing Schneider as the new number one the Canucks broadcast to every GM in the league that Luongo and his ridiculous contract had to go, meaning Gillis was quickly acquainting himself with the broadside of a barrel.

The approach from that point forward? Make a reasonable trade to get Roberto off the team and in a place where he could continue on with his career? With part of the return being that the Canucks get to keep Cory Schneider?

No: They sought a high return for a player which (at the time) no other team in the league felt certain the Canucks could afford to keep for too long.

It’s no wonder the drama has stretched this far.

Another series of strange decisions revolves around the center position.

This team entered the offseason (prior to the lockout) with the knowledge that Ryan Kesler wouldn’t be healthy for an October start.

The projection at that point was a return in December. The team also knew there was a strong chance that they would be permanently shutting down Manny Malhotra ten or so games into the season. They had grown concerned about the severity of his eye injury, and informed him he would have roughly that amount of games to prove he wasn’t putting himself in danger.

Facing a season without their lone defensive faceoff specialist (a lynchpin in Vancouvers advanced-stat approach and previous success) and two to three months without their second line center, and arguably their best all-around player, the Canucks stood pat.

Control of this problem was left to a sudden, miraculous change in the impact of Malhotra’s eye injury and to Ryan Kesler’s recovery time. Not to mention how effective Kesler would be, starting the season late after two off-season surgeries.

Mike Gillis knew there was a strong probability his team would be playing a large portion of the season with just two NHL centers: Henrik Sedin and Max Lapierre.

There’s a decay here in the proactive, risk-averse strategy the Canucks management team has pursued since 2008.

It’s not Mike Gillis’ fault that injuries and setbacks struck Kesler and David Booth, that Malhotra showed no significant improvement, or that other General Managers weren’t willing to take on Roberto Luongo’s contract for the prices being asked.

But it is a sign that the measures of control which Mike Gillis has sought to have over the trajectory and options for this team have been ceded away — willingly — to luck, both good and bad, and to other league executives.

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