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Did Mike Gillis deserve to be fired by Vancouver?

Greg Wyshynski
Puck Daddy
Vancouver Canucks Introduce John Tortorella
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VANCOUVER, CANADA - JUNE 25: Vancouver Canucks General Manager Mike Gillis (R) introduces head coach John Tortorella during a press conference, June 25, 2013 at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)

Children rationalize the darndest things, and this is one of my favorites: That it’s OK to smash, bash, break and shatter toys if it’s their own toys they’re breaking.

The Aquilini family obviously feels the same way about the hockey team they own, the Vancouver Canucks. It’s their team, and they can do whatever the hell they want with it.

Never mind the style of hockey they’ve chosen to play isn’t what the most successful teams in the Western Conference are playing, or that the coach they hired to preach that style is preaching to a roster that doesn’t fit the style. Or that this is a coach whose teams don’t score in the postseason – which was the primary rationale for getting rid of the previous coach.

Who is, incidentally, preparing to coach in the playoffs.

The Canucks fired GM Mike Gillis on Tuesday, before the fan chants turned into jersey tosses or worse at the team’s two remaining home games. Francesco Aquilini said in a statement that “new voice is needed,” and we imagine he means that of a ventriloquist’s dummy who will parrot what the owners say and never go on the radio for line-in-the-sand interviews about how he knows better than they do.

Because it's their toys, you see.

Did Gillis deserve the axe? Ultimately he made some mistakes, as every general manager does, and they might have been egregious enough to cost him his job. But he was also a victim of circumstance and meddling.

Circumstance No. 1: The loss to the Boston Bruins for the Stanley Cup in 2011.

There are losses in championship rounds and then there are losses that feature (a) a Game 7 loss on home ice after which the city burned and (b) one team manhandling the other physically and (c) a starting goalie that gives up 15 goals in three games on the road and gets pulled twice while the other guy wins the Conn Smythe.

The dominoes tumbled in a few directions after that defeat. The David Booth and Zack Kassian deals – maligned for different reasons – added two power forwards to the mix. Questions about Luongo grew louder, and then the situation went nuclear in the Canucks’ first-round loss to the Los Angeles Kings the following season.

Circumstance No. 2: The new CBA.

As has been often mentioned, the new CBA turned Luongo’s contract toxic. He was untradeable. This was the catalyst for Gillis making a complete hash out of the goalie situation, where Cory Schneider was traded, Roberto Luongo was traded and the position was handed to Eddie Lack. It was pretty much pro sports’ most epic fumbling that didn’t involve a NY Jets QB and his linesman’s backside.

Circumstance No. 3: Realignment

Realignment was going to chance things for the Canucks. They entered the new Pacific as its fourth-best team, which meant Tortorella – who coaches to the bubble anyway – needed to find a way to get into a wild card spot. This after several seasons of division championships in the Northwest.

How did life change for the Canucks? A brief look back at the last six seasons for them, and the playoff representatives from each season in the Northwest.

PAC - 2014: 10-11-4

NW - 2013: 11-6-1 (Wild)

NW - 2012: 18-5-1 (None)

NW - 2011: 18-4-2 (None)

NW - 2010: 15-7-2 (Avs)

NW - 2009: 15-6-3 (Flames)

This could be a function of a really good team eating up points, or a function of a really good team eating up points in a less-than-stellar division … until they moved to a really good division, and then got eaten up.

(Here I shall note that the Capitals and Canucks may both shed their GMs in the first year of the new alignment, and leave it at that.)

Circumstance No. 4: Tortorella

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And here is where things go off the rails for Gillis.

This wasn’t just ownership bringing in a new coach, this was ownership bringing in a coach that was the antithesis of Gillis’ celebration of “skill over everything.” It was a vote of ‘no confidence’ in the style of play Gillis favored. It was ownership believing the money they were paying the players meant they were good enough to win, and that a change behind the bench would unlock that.

So they threw 5 years and $10 million to a coach still living off the fumes of 2004 and that owed the success he had in New York to Henrik Lundqvist, who in turn owed all of the playoff failure he had to the style of play Tortorella favored in the postseason.

It didn’t work. Gillis stepped up and stated his case that his style could still work. And the Aquilinis didn’t want to hear it … or fans chanting “FIRE GILLIS” or season-ticket holders deciding not to renew.

Don’t confuse any of this with Gillis being a victim of circumstance, although there are circumstances that led to his firing. His fumbling of the goalie situation alone could have been cause for dismissal – although one wonders how much ownership meddled with that as well. He probably earned the right to transition this franchise into its next phase, based on its success since he took over; but there’s a creeping sense that these are diminishing returns and it only would have gotten worse if the Gillis/Tortorella loggerheads continued.

So what now for Vancouver? Probably a franchise icon as the team president, with either Trevor Linden or Markus Naslund or both coming back for a photo op for season ticket holders. Probably a yes-man GM like Jay Feaster who can work with Tortorella and the owners. (Maybe Lawrence Gillman. OK, hopefully Lawrence Gillman.)

Unless of course it’s decided the slate is wiped completely clean and Torts is turfed, but we have $8 million reasons why that probably won’t happen. So this will lead to what happened in New York: Tortorella reshaping the roster in his own image. And lord knows where that takes us.

The Mike Gillis Era will be one remembered for tremendous achievement for the Canucks, but not the highest one; for a contract that sucked and a mishandling of a goaltending quandary that sucked more; and that moment when ownership took back its toys so it can smash them as they see fit.

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