It began with a question from our friend in Vancouver radio, David Pratt, to the general manager of the Vancouver Canucks, Mike Gillis: “Do you expect John Tortorella to be back next season?”
“David, I’m not sure if I’ll be back,” began Gillis, ripping the top off a cauldron that will bubble through the final 11 days of this dysfunctional season in Vancouver. It’s been boiling for a while now, and finally on Thursday, it became an every-man-for-himself game.
Three weeks ago, at the general managers meetings in Boca Raton, Gillis had his coach’s back when asked about Tortorella’s possible firing. “For me to comment on it would lend some degree of credibility to it, which is not something that’s good for anybody,” said Gillis. “I think right now we have to get behind our team and behind our players and behind our coaching staff and try and win some hockey games.”
Well, that didn’t happen. So on Thursday Gillis unveiled Plan B: The team isn’t a playoff team because his vision is no longer the guiding light.
“I’m tired of chasing a moving target,” Gillis told the TEAM 1040 on Thursday. “We’re going to get back to the fundamentals and principles that I believe in, and that’s how we’re going to play. If people don’t want to comply… We did this six years ago. We made hard choices. Those hard choices are going to come again if we don’t see people get on the same page.”
Six years ago though, those “hard choices” fell to Alain Vigneault. It was the defensive-minded former Canadiens coach who, after just one year behind the Canucks’ bench, was asked to open up his game and play Gillis’ preferred style. He complied, kept his gig, and it worked out pretty well for the next seven seasons.
Then came Tortorella, who coached a style that is nothing like the one Gillis laid out for public consumption on Thursday. And the result?
“Players have severely under-performed. Our team has under-performed,” Gillis said.
“Our problems are far reaching, and they will be addressed. If people don’t want to get onside with how I view this team and how it is supposed to play, then they won’t be here.”
Write this date down, Canucks fans, because April 3, 2014 was the day that Gillis officially and purposely distanced himself from Tortorella. Gillis’ words said to ownership that his vision as GM wasn’t being carried out, and by extension, that’s why there are no playoff gates at Rogers Arena in the coming weeks.
So either the Aquilini brothers fire Gillis at the understood rate of $2 million per season for four more seasons, or they fire Tortorella at the same price. It’s a deal that Gillis can’t lose: Either he gets to hire a new coach — and no one really knows how much of a say he had in hiring the current one — or he gets relieved of his duties with full pay.
On Thursday Gillis also positioned himself with the fans, telling them exactly what any fan base wants to hear. The Canucks will play more exciting hockey, and win while doing it.
“I want us to play upbeat, puck possession (hockey). Move the puck quickly, force teams into mistakes, (play a) high transition game,” Gillis said. “I think we have the personnel to do it. If we don’t … they’ll be changed. That’s my vision. That’s how I believe you’re going to win in the Western Conference.
“The top teams play that way. That’s the way we played.”
It all sounded quite appetizing compared to the current fare, as it reverberated around the West Coast on Thursday. When you’re losing, and playing dull hockey, any promise of changing that to exciting, winning hockey is going to be well met.
But here are the realities. Vancouver can’t beat Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose these days because those teams are bigger, deeper and play a more physical game. Plus, they draft better, and have over time developed far more good NHL players.
Gillis still has nine No Trade Clauses on his roster that inhibit trading, and even if they didn’t exist, Gillis’ trade record is poor. And don’t even talk about getting big, Top 6 forwards or sturdy top-pairing defencemen on the free agent market, because you’d have a better chance of finding a pterodactyl in the birdbath on your deck.
Then there’s the question of whether the Sedins still have the foot speed to play this wide-open game of which Gillis speaks. Or, if the goaltending tandem of Eddie Lack and Jacob Markstrom can hold water behind a more freewheeling system.
Gillis covered his derriere well on Thursday, distancing himself from Tortorella considerably. He’d likely do the same with the GM that put the Canucks in this mess.