Friends, board-regulars, brain-dead masses, I have something to say and it’s going to be a long one. If you can’t handle that, please feel free to skip away to another topic. TL:DRs won’t do this one any justice. Because of the length, I felt it made more sense to put it in its own topic, as a number of other posters have done.
This is one of those rants that would be a lot easier if I were more of a regular poster hereabouts. I mostly lurk. When I have posted, it’s usually because I’ve been pissed right off at a few posters around here and their constant brain-deadness. Usually, it’s mostly to tell RoyalDude that he should do himself a favour, join the army, and get a free trip to Afghanistan.*
Usually, I regret those posts as soon as my frustration cools. I don’t want to be known as the guy who only posts to bitch, and I understand that dumb people, for the most part, really can’t help it. Generally, I can’t stand posters who mostly complain about other posters, but here I am again, joining the foul-weather ranters. Maybe it’s because I quit smoking yesterday, so I’m in a bitchy mood. I don’t know. But this one feels different than other rants in the past. I’m not aiming this post only at the comatose segment of the board, but also at a number of posters who I respect. ‘Canuck nation’ has always been full of panicking idiots, but this year, it’s full of panicking usually-reasonable-people as well. There are, of course, exceptions – those who have stood tall in defense of rationality – but they seem to be the minority. This is the board I choose to read because, in the past, voices of reason haven’t been so few and far between.
Want to know another thing I can’t stand? I can’t stand people who believe that the second they get emotional, it is virtuous to forgo all rational thought and replace it with whatever their gut tells them is true. I can’t stand when those people claim that they are truer fans then their thinking brethren because of willful ignorance. I’m a life-long fan as much as anybody else on this board. I’m disappointed by this year as much as anybody else. When I was six years old and all my friends were driving their parents nuts by re-watching The Little Mermaid over, and over, and over again on VHS, I instead had a tape of my beloved Canucks beating the Jets like a drum. Flipping through old results, I’d bet it was the 8-2 win on Jan 13, 1988. Kids love a happy ending, and I took a special glee every time I saw those pitiful Jets slink their way off the ice, totally defeated. On the other side of the coin, my first crystal-clear memory was, as with many around my age, 1994. I was ten years old when game seven happened. I wore the jersey I had bought the previous September, which still hangs in my closet, which I still wear every time I go to a game. For the entirety of the overtime, I stood two feet from the TV. Nervous anticipation drove me to dance from one tiptoe to the other, as if I had to piss like a pint-sized racehorse. I was absolutely certain that we would win, that my hero, Pavel Bure, would score the winning goal, and I’d see a beaten-but-never-broken Trevor Linden accept the cup. My head didn’t tell me that; my gut did: a perfectly reasonable thing… for a ten-year-old. When Messier scored, I collapsed to my knees, covered my face with my hands, and cried, and cried, and cried. I remember it as if it were just last year. So, you see, I get emotional. I’m emotional now. I’m worried about my team. I’m fearful that this season may be a harbinger of things to come. But when I ask why this is happening, I remember that I’m now thirty years old. I use my brain, not my gut.
At times like this, I wish I was more of a regular poster here, rather than 98% lurker, 2% angry ranter. It would be nice to be able to, Thinker-style, quote myself for all the “here’s what I thought at the start of the year”, but I can’t. You’ll just have to deal with it, and take my word that these had been my thoughts.
I have a close friend who, more than with any other friends, I like to share my fandom with. On opening day, in what’s become a bit of a tradition, we hiked down to the pub to watch the game. We talked about our expectations for the upcoming season, and they went something like this: I said I was worried because I didn’t know what to expect. I figured that the most likely place we’d end up is between 5th and 8th in the conference standings – we were a good, but not great team, clearly better than half the teams in the league, and clearly worse than a quarter. But, for the first time since Gillis’ rookie season as GM, I believed that there was a reasonable chance we’d miss the playoffs. My friend replied that she felt that way every year because “fuck, it’s the Canucks, am I right?” I successfully resisted the urge to pat her on the head and say “D’awwwwww, isn’t that cute.” I’m often a condescending prick in the comfort of my own mind, but usually not out loud… unless I’m in the midst of nicotine withdrawal. Instead, I named two possible causes for the potential derailment of our team which had not existed in previous years. The first was that any time there’s a new coach and a new system, there’s a chance for things to go wrong. This is especially true when the previous coach had such a long tenure. Realistically, we had no way of knowing if AV’s systems and coaching style had helped or hurt the guys who had only ever had him as an NHL coach (or, like the twins, were just coming into their prime when he took over). There was no point of comparison. I liked the Torts hire, but regardless of who had been hired, replacing AV was a (necessary) roll of the dice. The second possibility was that our team’s greatest Achilles heel, our depth, would be exposed in a major way by injuries and/or individual sub-par performances.
I think many people around here drastically under-estimate the degree to which the cap reduction had handcuffed our team. Personally, I was shocked when the new CBA was released and the cap had been reduced by nearly 10% without any corresponding rollback in existing contracts. The previous CBA had been parcelled with a rollback, and while I can see why the players fought so hard against a similar deal this time around, this deal had the effect of actively punishing teams who had locked up their cores to multi-year deals – which is, under normal circumstances, a good thing. Out of all teams in the league, the Canucks were hurt the most. Last off-season was painful to watch, but I found it hard to argue with the moves Gillis made. I think there was one key decision point which dictated the direction of every subsequent move: Was it better to hang onto as much of the core as possible, despite the obvious depth problem that would be the result of having zero flexibility in signing complimentary players? Or, was it better to trade away some high-salary pieces in order maintain the depth? Both options were gambles, and Gillis chose option #1.
Was it the right decision? Obviously, hindsight suggests it might not have been, but I’d argue that it was the decision that made the most sense. I mentioned that the Canucks were badly hurt by the new CBA, but we were far from the only team in cap-crunch mode. This resulted in a dramatically skewed trade market, both during the off-season and also at last year’s deadline among non-rental players. With the exception of top guys, the free agent market was the cheapest it had been in recent memory, as a bunch of UFA contracts were signed that, any other year, would have been home-town discounts at best. Teams with space who were looking to upgrade could sign new players to fair contracts without losing assets. As a result, players previously signed to “fair-market” contracts saw their trade value shrivel up like George Costanza in the pool. Players with iffy contracts, which would have normally lowered their value, instead made them unmovable pieces. Lots of posters talk about how we’re in danger of becoming the Calgary Flames, but the real story of the Flames has been their unwillingness to move veteran pieces when value was high. If we had moved pieces last off-season, value would have been at an all-time low. It would have been our equivalent of the Phaneuf deal. Would that have really have made us LESS like the Flames?
And this, ladies and gentlemen, is the reason why Luongo had some value a month ago and negative value nine months ago. It’s the reason our great ginger hope was traded at the draft. Once the decision had been made to hang onto the core, there was no chance of being able to retain two goalies at 4mil+ each, and no chance of Lu being the one to go. It sucked, but to paraphrase a certain former Canuck, it was what it was.
Roughly 1,500 words in and my preamble seems to be at an end, which brings me to everyone’s favourite topic: who’s to blame? “Gillis!!
” scream the idiotic masses, unified in one voice, dripping with vitriol, hatred, and the fear that our team will spend the next decade doing their best impression of the 1970s Canucks. But is that reasonable? Some people seem to figure it’s a foregone conclusion. After-all, Nonis was canned by Aquilini because he missed the playoffs, right?
Wrong. Nonis was canned because, in a three year tenure, he missed the playoffs twice, and because he traded away a large number of long-term assets in a failed attempt to avoid failing. During that time, he had acquired a depressing number of players who never again made an NHL squad. After this season, Gillis will have spent six years in charge of our beloved franchise, in which time he will have missed the playoffs only once, but will have won two president’s trophies and reached a cup final. These records are not the least bit comparable.
But… but… but… what about this year? Surely, Gillis’ fall from grace was sharper than Nonis’ during his last year, right? Wrong again. Success in hockey, as with all professional sports, is partly about good planning and partly about good luck. The best decisions can have terrible results because of luck, or vice-versa. Gillis could have traded Ryan Kesler for a 6th round pick, drafted this generation’s Pavel Datsyuk with that pick, and it would be an positive result. Would that make it a good trade? Hell no. The only way to evaluate the performance of a GM is to examine the root causes of a team’s struggles and successes, not to see a team struggling, then knee-jerk kick the decision-maker square in the nuts, as so many non-thinking fans are doing to Gillis.
So, let’s look at root causes.
As I mentioned above, Gillis had a big decision to make during the off-season. Both paths required walking through a minefield. If he had chosen to make a bunch of trades in a weak market, it would’ve been a gamble made with the odds stacked against him. So, he didn’t do that. Instead, he tried to do something that has historically been a near-impossible task: filling out his depth-chart without the ability to take on salary and without giving up future assets. This was certainly easier with the weak free-agent market, but in a situation where $800,000 is too much and $600,000 is pushing it, even a weak market prices out any player that other teams feel would be an upgrade to their squads. Gillis had to build NHL depth out of players that were considered borderline NHLers, at best.
I remember Dave Nonis trying to do the same thing while the team shouldered the weight of under-performing contracts such as Naslund and Morrison. The result? During Nonis’ last season, our roster included pickups like Richie, Isbister, Cowan, and Shannon. If you ask me, Gillis looks pretty good in comparison with Richardson (1.15m, the big splurge), Weber (650k), Santorelli (550k, league minimum), Stanton (550k), and Dalpe (550k). Santorelli and Stanton in particular look like coups. To get those two guys for free, both of whom look like strong members of the team, both of whom are young, and both of whom make league minimum, is a very impressive accomplishment in the face of adversity.
“Okay,” some of you will say without thinking it through, “if Gillis’ decisions were so damn reasonable, how come we’re going to miss the playoffs?” If you ask me, there are three factors that have caused the team to be around five wins short of where I expected to see us. First, the production of the twins and Burrows didn’t merely decline as some had predicted; they fell off a cliff. Second, we have suffered an unprecedented number of injuries, with only Garrison playing every game. Third, our coach suffered a bout of temporary insanity and was suspended for a month just as the injuries were catching up to us, debatably turning a weak stretch into a tailspin. Is that enough to account for a five win difference? Damn right, it is. Were any of these three things predictable? Not unless Gillis moonlights as a psychic.
I mentioned how I was worried at the start of the year that our lack of depth would catch up to us if we suffered heavy injuries, or if we had unexpectedly poor individual performances among our stars who would be counted on more heavily without support from depth players. Guess what? Both of those happened to a far greater extent than I had imagined possible.
Many criticisms of the team, some of which appear perfectly reasonable on the surface, point to our abysmal record during third periods this season. Posters have pointed to a million different (mostly imagined) causes for this: everything from our players being too soft (or too European), to our coach losing the room (again), to our star players being mad at the GM and… losing on purpose… or something. But the most obvious factor has been missed in almost every post. Teams that lack depth tend to fade late in games. They rely on top guys too much, and have them playing too many minutes with too much responsibility, leading to a tired group by the third period, or during a busy stretch of the schedule. Guess what? That’s exactly what’s happened. Add in some random variation within a statistic that is of a relatively low sample size, add the fact that every team
has a let down from time to time in such a balanced league, add the effect of an understandable collapse or two by a rookie goaltender (as in the infamous Isles game), and suddenly the weak third periods seem to make sense. Don’t get me wrong, it’s bad enough to raise an eyebrow and wonder about the cause, but not anywhere near enough to draw sweeping conclusions about heartlessness and a need to blow up the core, as many fans and posters have done.
To get us back to our main topic, if GMing is partly about good luck and partly about good management, where does Gillis fall? Luongo’s cap-recapture penalty suddenly being a thing two years after signing the deal? Luck. Injury, after injury, after injury? Luck. The Twins and Burrows falling off a cliff and struggling to score after years of consistency? Luck. It’s almost as if the Canucks couldn’t buy a break this year. But wait, that’s literally true. They had no cap-space with which to buy anything this off season – least of all, to buy enough depth to absorb the ludicrous number of injuries they’ve sustained.
I thought Gillis made a very telling comment during an interview following the Luongo deal. He said that the cap space he cleared by running with rookie goalies would allow him the freedom to pursue options at the trade deadline or during the off-season. In other words, he took a step to ensure he’d be able to rebuild our team depth next year. He realised, as I realised, as some other intelligent posters realised, that despite doing a surprisingly good job of repairing our depth using a stick of bubble-gum and a piece of string, he was going to need some actual cap-space if he was going to return our team to contention – something that I sincerely hope he’ll have a chance to do so because I have far more confidence in him than I would have in the vast majority of NHL GMs.
Now, I bet I can guess what the dumbasses of the board are thinking. It involves something about me drinking Kool-Aid and claiming that Gillis can do no wrong. It’s true that I have focused largely on what he’s done well, but that’s because I’m trying to counter your idiotic posts. You
know who you
are. He has certainly made mistakes, but most of those mistakes appeared to be good moves at the time that only appear to be failures in hindsight. One great example is the Booth deal, which was praised around here for being a rare trade that would help the team win now, while also helping the team get younger. Another example is Luongo’s back-loaded contract, which, at the time, was the only way we would have been able to hang onto him while staying under the cap, without offloading other salary. And yes, some moves he’s made can be pointed to as true errors. However, to expect perfection is completely unreasonable, especially when luck plays as much a role as skill in the equation that determines good GMing. Running a team for six years with a perfect record of success in every transaction is a near impossibility. There are a few criticisms that do hold water, such as his handling of the goalie controversy from a communication standpoint, but those are the exceptions.
One criticism I find especially ridiculous is Gillis’ “failure” to trade some of our star players for picks and prospects at the deadline this season. This particular deadline, as with the off-season, was highly unusual compared to historical norms. Every other recent season has seen a seller’s market, with sellers receiving far better packages than they could’ve found in the off-season. The Flames, to use everyone’s favourite comparison, have been guilty of refusing to deal players at the time when value was the highest because of holding onto unrealistic hopes of sneaking into the playoffs. But this year was very different. There’s a reason that the only big name to move was Vanek, and that was only because Snow’s hands were truly tied in the matter. The value was simply not there. If Gillis had forced a deal during such an obvious buyer’s market, that would have been a true “failure.” He did not.
The average level of intelligent thought behind posts on this board has declined every bit as fast as the team’s play. I’ve become too fed up with it to keep playing “quiet lurker”, hence my spiel. I’m sure most of you won’t like it. That’s fine. I don’t like your Chicken Little rants either. * I hear the human organ black-market is thriving there in the wake of the occupation and RD might be able to get a great deal on a new brain, his old one clearly having suffered catastrophic organ failure years ago. He would come back much improved: a new man, you might say (or a new woman trapped in a man’s body, if that’s the brain he happens to receive – still an improvement, although his wife might disagree).