Gillis’ downfall as Canucks GM was loving his players too much

Adam Proteau
Mike Gillis John Tortorella Francesco Aquilini (Rich Lam/Getty Images)

As NHL GMs go, Mike Gillis was as aloof as they come. There was no room whose temperature he couldn’t lower simply by entering it. And that’s why it’s so ironic why he’s no longer employed as Vancouver Canucks GM: he loved his team too much.

Gillis has to be credited for getting the Canucks within one win of a Stanley Cup championship, but GMs earn their keep as much for building a winner as they do for maintaining one. And in that sense, the former player agent proved to be a victim of his own largesse. Gillis threw out long-term, big-dollar contracts like he was getting Air Miles for them. He further hamstrung his organizational flexibility by attaching no-trade clauses to most of those contracts. Worst of all, he overvalued his goaltending in a weak marketplace and wound up with one of the more spectacular top-talent botch jobs in recent NHL memory.

There’s no doubt the Canucks have issues that run deeper than Gillis. Owner Francesco Aquilini has been rumored to be heavily involved with major team decisions, including the hiring of John Tortorella last summer. If he leaves Tortorella for Gillis’ replacement and their players to deal with next season, the odds of a proper rebuild worsen in a big way. It will suggest one of two things: (a) Aquilini believes Vancouver can seriously contend for a Cup in 2014-15, even after they trade Ryan Kesler in the off-season; or (b) Aquilini believes Tortorella can work with a young team stripped of expectation.

Neither of those options should be especially comforting to Canucks fans. If Aquilini brings in, say, Jay Feaster as Gillis’ replacement and reunites the duo that won a Cup in Tampa Bay a decade ago, Vancouverites have every right to be enormously upset. They deserve a team that starts fresh, from the head of hockey operations on down. They deserve candidness about the state of the franchise, not cooing in their ear as the on-ice product stalls and overheats and younger, more talented teams leave them in the dust.

In the end, they didn’t get that from Gillis, who would’ve celebrated his sixth year on the job April 23. Ever since Vancouver’s 2011 Cup Final appearance, he’s asked fans to believe him and not their own lying eyes as he held onto Luongo too long – all the while claiming he had a plan in place – and then dealt Cory Schneider to New Jersey at the 2013 draft. He could’ve lowered his asking price on Luongo well beforehand and avoided that deal altogether. But rather than make the difficult personnel decisions that would’ve changed his team’s core to a certain degree, Gillis kept virtually everyone around. And on the contractual front, he took the control out of his hands and put it in the hands of his players.

If that sounds like a confident thing to do, it is. But it certainly wasn’t practical. It was Gillis’ downfall and the end result of a GM who rewarded too easily, who treated a conference champion as if it were a brilliant college professor deserving of lifetime tenure.

He should’ve known few in the hockey world ever get tenure. But Gillis had that lesson underscored for him Tuesday.