It’s no secret that after two first round series exits, Mike Gillis is on the hot seat. He has fired his coach and any future failures will be on him. But lets not lose perspective here.
The Canucks have undergone their most successful time (by a lot) in the time that Mike Gillis has been the general manager. This hasn’t happened by accident.
Columnists like Ed Willes continually blast Gillis for his moves as Canucks general manager. I believe guys like Willes have a bit of a personal vendetta against Gillis. They were big fans of Dave Nonis, didn’t like the way he was let go, and don’t like Gillis’ demeanor.
If these reporters were blaming Gillis for his moves in the last 2 seasons, then I could understand where they are coming from. But when I see the same people blaming Gillis consistently for years while the team has enjoyed as much success as they have, I wonder what else is behind it.
A week ago, I outlined Mike Gillis’ trade history, which has been subpar. A couple of months ago I wrote that the Canucks drafting under Gillis has not been a disaster, but still not fantastic. So why have I continued to be in Mike Gillis’ corner? The main reason has been the contracts that he has been able to sign.
Below is a list of the most important contracts that Mike Gillis has been able to sign. I’m not going to bother mentioning the less significant deals like Mason Raymond in 2010 (only $2.55 million after a 25 goal season) or Jannik Hansen before he had proven himself in 2010 ($825,000). My focus is on the big contracts, good or bad.
Mats Sundin (1 year, $8.6 million prorated):
Mike Gillis made a big splash in his first season as Canucks general manager, signing perhaps the most coveted free agent available, Mats Sundin. Sundin was old (37), but was coming off an excellent season with the Leafs. Getting Sundin was a real shot in the arm for the Canucks, who hadn’t exactly had a long history of attracting the league’s top free agents. While Sundin didn’t exactly light the world on fire during the second half of the Canucks season, he wasn’t the disaster many people think he was. He still managed 28 points in 41 regular season games, while trying to find his legs. In the playoffs, I contend he was pretty good. He had 8 points in 8 games, leading the Canucks’ second line. Yes, he was far from a disaster, and in a year in which there weren’t many good free agents available, Sundin for one year was a good idea. More importantly, it signaled to the rest of the league that the Canucks have arrived as a club that is serious about winning.
Pavol Demitra (2 years, $4 million/season):
Another contract that people unfairly criticize is the contract of the late Pavol Demitra in 2008. Remember that the Canucks were coming off a brutal year in which they missed the playoffs and weren’t exactly a destination spot for most. Believe it or not, Demitra was one of the better free agent options available for Vancouver that summer, and were able to sign him to a 2 year deal (this is key). Sure, guys like Bryan Rolston signed elsewhere, but he signed a deal until he was 40. Demitra was 33 and put up 53 points in 69 games in 2008-09. Demitra was injured for most of his second season in Vancouver. Demitra wasn’t a home run for Gillis, but he was an offensive player signed for reasonable money when the Canucks were having trouble filling in their roster.
Daniel and Henrik Sedin (5 years, $6.1 million/season):
A lot of people seem to forget that when Mike Gillis signed Daniel and Henrik Sedin to 5 year deals back in 2009, nobody thought they would become the players they became. They were both 28 years old, coming off a year as point a game players. There was still very much debate as to whether or not they could be first line players on an elite team. A significant number of Canucks fans would have been happy if they signed Marian Gaborik and Mike Cammalleri instead of the Sedins at the time, who were also free agents in the summer of 2009. For reference, Gaborik signed a 5 year, $7.5 million deal with the Rangers while Cammalleri signed a 5 year, $5 million deal with the Canadiens.
The Sedins have been an absolute steal since this contract. They have 2 Art Ross Trophies, a Hart Trophy, a Lindsay Trophy, and they have developed into leaders on a powerhouse team in the NHL. As it stands today, Henrik and Daniel have the 42nd and 43rd highest salaries in the league!
Alex Burrows (4 years, $2 million/season):
During his breakout season in the league, Mike Gillis was able to sign Alex Burrows to a 4 year contract worth a measly $2 million per season. During those four years, Burrows has simply been the best bargain in the league. Immediately following the contract, Burrows scored 35 goals.
Mikael Samuelsson (3 years, $2.5 million/season):
Samuelsson, depth player on the Red Wings, was a home run signing for Gillis. Samuelsson’s best season with the Red Wings saw him score 23 goals and 45 points. In his first season with Vancouver, he scored 30 goals and had 53 points. In the playoffs in his first year, Samuelsson was red hot, notching 15 points in 12 games. Samuelsson had a 50 point season in the year that followed that but ran into injury trouble. He missed most of the Canucks run to the Stanley Cup final, and wasn’t great in the games that he played. Still, Samuelsson at $2.5 million was a steal.
Alex Edler (4 years, $3.25 million/season):
Edler was 23 and coming off his first full good season in the NHL when he signed this contract. Since then, he has developed into undoubtedly one of the Canucks’ top defencemen. While he has been inconsistent, he appeared in the NHL All Star Game in 2011, has been a big minute logger, and a high point producer. He has his critics, but only because people want to see him develop into a $6 million d-man. At $3.25 million, he’s a beauty.
Roberto Luongo (12 years, $5.3 million/season):
Here comes the controversy. Without a doubt, the Roberto Luongo contract has not been a good contract for the Canucks’ organization. Cory Schneider has developed into a star, while Luongo’s game has slipped faster than anticipated. Luongo’s value has bottomed out, because of his contract. But lets not lose perspective here.
Had Luongo (then 31) signed a 5 year deal instead of a 12 year deal, his cap hit would not have been $5.3 million. At the time of signing the deal, Luongo was viewed as one of the top goalies in the NHL. He would have commanded the type of money that the other top goalies were making at that time, so about $6.5 million per season. Say what you will about the 12 year deal, but it did help them spend $1.2 million more to try to win the Stanley Cup in 2011 (and they came pretty darn close).
The Luongo deal was also hurt by this past lockout, in which the rules of the game were changed on large back-diving contracts. In the worst case scenario under the old rules, the Aquilini family would swallow Luongo’s contract in the minors. With that loophole gone with the new CBA, Luongo’s contract is a lot less palatable to other teams, and that has hurt his value.
Ryan Kesler (6 years, $5 million/season):
Kesler has been good value for the Canucks. He’s a Selke Trophy winner and one of the best second line centres in the league.
Dan Hamhuis (6 years, $4.5 million/season):
To sign one of the most coveted free agent defencemen to under market value when the likes of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are in high pursuit not only says something about Mike Gillis as a negotiator, but it says something about the desirability of the Canucks organization before the 2010-11 season. Sure, Hamhuis wanted to come home to BC, but I’m sure he would have come home for $6 million as well. Since signing the contract, Hamhuis has been the team’s best defencemen in my opinion.
Manny Malhotra (3 years, $2.5 million/season):
When Malhotra signed this deal, most fans and pundits had the same opinion of it. Malhotra would be a good defensive centre, and a good fit on their 3rd line. He was also being overpaid a bit. Well, Malhotra proved in his first season that he was a bargain. Malhotra was a better fit than anyone could have imagined and a big reason that the Canucks became the toast of the NHL in 2010-11. He actually finished in 5th place for Selke Trophy voting that year too. Year 2 and 3 have not been great with Malhotra, but that is because of the freak eye injury he suffered. Nobody in their right mind would pin that on Gillis, and the Malhotra signing has to be seen as a win.
Kevin Bieksa (5 years, $4.6 million/season):
Bieksa was undoubtedly signed to below market value when he signed a $4.6 million deal immediately following an impressive playoff run. There’s no doubt that if Buffalo was willing to throw a ridiculous amount of money after Christian Ehrhoff that summer, someone would have thrown similar money at Bieksa. But Gillis was able to get Bieksa for below market value.
Jason Garrison (6 years, $4.6 million/season):
A few eyebrows were raised when Mike Gillis signed Garrison, a player that was relatively unknown just a couple of years ago, to big money and a long term deal. If year 1 is any indication, Garrison will be good value for Vancouver. Garrison lead all defencemen in goals (despite seeing mostly second unit power play time) and became a fixture on the team’s shutdown pairing with Dan Hamhuis.
Cory Schneider (3 years, $4 million/season):
Schneider proved in year 1 as the team’s starting goaltender that he could handle the pressure of being a number one goalie. Schneider was 4th in save percentage and 7th in goals against average. It’s too bad we didn’t get to see what he could do if he was 100% healthy in the playoffs.
Alex Burrows (4 years, $4.5 million/season), Alex Edler (6 years, $5 million/season), Chris Higgins (4 years, $2.5 million/season):
It’s too early to analyze these three contracts, as they don’t kick in until next season. For now, the outlook is pretty good on them. I’m a little bit nervous about the Burrows contract, but at worst, he will be a good 2nd/3rd line checker that can score. Edler might never become the player we want him to become, but $5 million for a top 4 d-man is reasonable. Higgins has shown good versatility and grit, so his deal should be ok as well.
Mike Gillis has his critics, and they’re as loud as ever in the last few weeks. He has made some mistakes, but you can’t deny the success that this team has had under his reign. The biggest reason for that success is that he has been able to identify the right players to sign to long term contracts, and he has done it for reasonable money. Of all the big money contracts outlined above, only one has been a mistake. The vast majority of his deals, especially the big money deals, have been home runs and there just simply aren’t a lot of GMs in the league having this kind of success.
The success of Mike Gillis has been in the contracts he has handed out. He has been able to convince players to sign in Vancouver at under market value because of his negotiating skills and the desirability to play in Vancouver, both of which are a credit to him.