Apr 262009

There’s been a lot of discussion these past few days about whether Mike Gillis or Dave Nonis (or even Brian Burke) deserves the most credit for the success of this Canucks team.

I don’t think anyone will disagree that Nonis left Gillis with a good core of players. After all, he traded for Luongo and signed the Sedins, Kesler and most of the defense to good contracts. For all these, Nonis deserves proper credit. (And while we’re at it, also credit to Mike Keenan for trading Trevor Linden to get Todd Bertuzzi, which allowed Nonis to get Luongo, and to Brian Burke for drafting the Sedins… but I digress.)

Ultimately though, I think Gillis deserves the most credit for building this team. In one season, he was able to surround Nonis’ good core of players with a proper supporting cast – something Nonis himself couldn’t do. And he did it without handicapping the team’s future in terms of cap space or draft picks.

In hindsight, Gillis simply made smarter decisions.

Nonis re-signed Markus Naslund and Brendan Morrison to 3-year deals with a combined cap hit of $9.6 million; Gillis then let Naslund and Morrison go, and signed Pavol Demitra and Mats Sundin to shorter-term deals. Last year, Naslund and Morrison combined for 80 points (34G-46A) in 121 GP (0.66 P/G). This year, Pavol and Mats combined for 81 points (29G-52A) in 110 GP (0.74 P/G). Some argue that Gillis had cap space to spend, but so did Nonis; Gillis just spent his on different players.

I agree with Sean’s assessment about the Sundin signing. I think this was one of Gillis’ most important moves. With Sundin in the lineup, the Canucks are a team with balanced scoring. He’s not the fleetest of foot, but he draws defenders towards him and creates space for Kesler and Demitra. Also, with him in the lineup, teams can’t afford to always send their best defenders against the Sedins and we’ve seen what effect that has had on the Sedins’ game. Personally, I think the Sedins’ success the last couple of months is equal parts their maturation and Sundin being able to draw away some of the attention. Is that worth his pro-rated $8.6 million contract? Probably not, but Sundin on the ice looks a lot better than $5.2 million in Acquilini’s savings account.

On Nonis’ team, Taylor Pyatt, Brad Isbister and Jesse Schultz were top-six forwards. Gillis gambled on Kyle Wellwood and traded for Steve Bernier. Granted, neither ended up on the top-six either, but even while getting mostly third line duty, Wellwood scored 18 goals and Bernier’s output (32 points) almost matched Pyatt’s from the last two seasons (37 points).

And we can do this comparison throughout the lineup. Nonis signed Marc Chouinard and Tommi Santala and then let them go. (Chouinard had to be bought out.) The players who, IMHO, actually did their jobs well were multi-purpose Josh Green and Jan Bulis and Nonis replaced them with Byron Ritchie; Gillis then replaced Byron Ritchie with Ryan Johnson, now the team’s PK and faceoff specialist. Nonis brought in Jeff Cowan and rewarded him with a two-year contract extension after what essentially amounted to a hot streak; Gillis brought in Darcy Hordichuk, who has been tougher and more reliable.

One area Gillis was particularly more adept at was identifying talent and determining their value. While Nonis gave up multiple 2nd round draft picks for guys like Bryan Smolinski, Eric Weinrich and Brent Sopel, Gillis only gave them up (or was willing to give them up) for Bernier and David Backes. Gillis got Kyle Wellwood and Ossi Vaananen for free, Shane O’Brien for oft-injured Lukas Krajicek and backup Jason LaBarbera for a 7th round draft pick.

Being a GM is about building a team. Nonis left Gillis with a lot of good pieces, but Gillis was able to complement them with better pieces. In a cap world, GMs have to make better decisions about what to pay and what to give up for which player. IMHO, Gillis has done that better. The Canucks aren’t a perfect team by any stretch, but they’re a more complete team than any other version we’ve seen in their history and they’ve already matched the postseason success that Nonis had in four seasons as GM – Gillis deserves credit for that.

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