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Management positions in the National Hockey League, or any professional sport, boil down to a fairly complex relationship between tools and practitioners.
For instance, an owner gives a general manager the tools of money with which to construct his team, and the surrounding personnel and authority to pursue those ends as he sees fit.
Obviously, this takes place to varying degrees. Some owners, like Charles Wang, are stingy with money and overly involved in the day-to-day operations of the team he owns. That's his right, of course, since he's the one signing checks for everyone from the team president to the assistant equipment managers, but that doesn't make it easy for Garth Snow to do his job.
At the other end of the spectrum, though, are larger-market teams, ones that draw crowds and generate significant revenues and for which the owners have little interest in telling the hockey people they're paying to run a hockey team what they should be doing in the running of it. It leads one to wonder why Wang, or any other meddlesome owner, doesn't just make himself the GM, cut out the middle man and save a million bucks a year.
The point, though, is that from the above relationship springs another, similar one. Just as the GM can only do so much with the tools he's given by his owner, so too can the coach only do the best he can with the tools his boss gives him.
This was the problem Alain Vigneault faced this year, and what ultimately led to his being fired despite the fact that he is far and away the best and most successful coach in franchise history by just about any metric.
Mike Gillis, it should be said, probably didn't feel to great about having to fire Vigneault after the team he put together crashed out of the first round in spectacularly embarrassing fashion for the second straight season, after that time they lost in the Stanley Cup Final to a juggernaut.
Not that he didn't feel good out of any great loyalty to his longtime coach — hockey is business, after all, and business isn't personal — but more because the firing was the last bullet in his gun that he had to save himself, and might consequently find himself in a similar position if his new hire doesn't work out posthaste. The tools Gillis gave Vigneault, and will soon give someone new, are woefully inadequate in achieving the results the GM so desperately believes the team should produce.
Let's be honest: It's tough to foresee whoever succeeds Vigneault as the Canucks' bench boss working out any time soon because it's hard to make sand go back up into the top of the hourglass.
Vigneault's biggest mistake this year was not winning that Game 7 two years ago. That was always going to characterize his time in Vancouver, because his team straight-up got its lunch bagged up and handed to it by the Bruins on its home ice.
But ironically, it was that Cup run that also married Gillis to the idea of what this team could be in theory.
Much like the Calgary Flames in the post-2004 Red Mile delirium, Gillis determined not to look for meaningful ways to improve his team this year by making real changes after that five-game pantsing by Los Angeles last time around, but rather to more or less stand pat and hope everything worked out for the best with an aging, oft-injured core.
Of course, the biggest mistake Gillis made this summer, as everyone with half a brain understands, is that he didn't find someone — literally anyone — to take Roberto Luongo off his hands. The reason for this is obvious: He dramatically overplayed his hand, thinking there'd be a line around the block for a goaltender who was by that point 33 and now a full year older than that and whose contract, by his own admission, is borderline untradeable.
Trying to hold him for a ransom of picks and prospects and roster players despite the fact that only one team seemed even especially interested was foolish, and probably what ultimately doomed the Canucks this year. Whatever the package might have been last summer, you can bet the market this time around (if there is one) dictates the return for Luongo is significantly diminished, but the good news is the turnip that looks kind of like Nazem Kadri when viewed at a certain angle won't carry much of a cap hit.
That Gillis had the temerity to sit there in his press conference announcing the coaching change and say goaltending wasn't an issue is ludicrous, and untrue, and disingenuous.
Vigneault is just the latest victim of a GM who couldn't figure out what the hell was going on in the NHL in 2013.
Joe Sacco got fired because, since making the playoffs in a total freak accident two years ago as a rookie head coach, Greg Sherman did absolutely nothing at all to make his team even remotely better in the interim. If anything, things have gotten worse; the Ryan O'Reilly saga was an embarrassment, and he hasn't made a trade for even one roster player with anyone, to my knowledge, in more than a year (unless you want to count Tomas Vincour's two games with the Avs this year, in which case he's wheeling and dealing). The same is true of Glen Gulutzan getting canned in Dallas after Joe Nieuwendyk drove that team into the ground and had to be replaced. Guy Boucher is out in Tampa because Steve Yzerman is a very assured rookie general manager who tasted success too early and now thinks himself infallible, though he's proven time and again to be anything but.
The trend isn't new, but it does seem to be getting sillier.
Not that you can ever expect GMs to fire themselves, and yes it's true that sometimes coaches aren't right for their jobs given how things with a given team are going, but Gillis especially seems like an innocent bystander caught in the crossfire of an organization unsure of the direction in which it wants to go. The time to fire him, if you were looking for one, which you shouldn't have been, was last year. Not this year.
Yeah, a sweep is bad, obviously, but what was he supposed to do? The team was so thin on the blue line that Andrew Alberts got four games in the playoffs. He didn't have his starting goaltender for half the series. And when he did his starting goaltender played like anything but.
There's a cloud hanging over the Canucks franchise right now because the guy running it lost whatever magic he used to get all the guys under the vaguely affordable contracts to which they are signed. The Sedins will be 33 by the time next season starts. Alex Burrows, who led the team in playoff scoring, a surprising 32. Ryan Kesler is 29 and maybe never reliably healthy again.
It's no mystery why this team lost ground in the Western Conference this season after winning two straight Presidents Trophies. It was because, in much the same way the Capitals' success was probably only ever the result of a bad Southeast, the now-dearly-departed Northwest actually improved over the summer. The Wild got better. The Oilers got better. The 24 easy divisional games a season the Canucks were able to count on got just a little bit harder, and a combination of that fact plus Gillis' inability to adapt is, ultimately, what got Vigneault pink-slipped.
I found it interesting that Gillis, in his presser, said, "We're in a results-oriented business and if you look at the last two playoffs we've been in, we were the higher-seeded team but lost. There comes a point in time where the message has to change and we have to be better. We simply didn't get the result that we expected, and in this business you have to get results."
Right, and that indicates that he finds himself to be in no way culpable. He blamed the shortened season for his not being able to improve the roster, but not the fact that Vigneault couldn't guide the team Gillis put together to better results. Even if, in saying that, he tacitly acknowledges it was at least in some way flawed. That takes a peculiar type of cognitive dissonance, doesn't it? The ability to say, "I was not able to put together the best team I could," while also saying, "This coach was not able to do what I wanted him to with that team," is one that must be inherent to general managers of professional sports teams.
Because anyone on the outside sees that type of logic as being so full of holes that it could have substituted passably for Cory Schneider in these playoffs. Not living up to unreasonable expectations is a crime now? Put Schneider on the trade block, then.
Gillis also blamed the persecution of the local media for making his and Vigneault's jobs harder the last two years, so maybe the necessity to change the message doesn't reach as far as his desk.
Another thing Gillis said: "I think we're well-positioned to continue to improve and get better and I'm excited about where we're going to go from this point forward."
This is what I'm talking about when I say he has unreasonable expectations. In what way are the Canucks well-positioned to improve? He cratered Luongo's trade value, so the team's not going to improve there. He tied an anchor around his own neck with a payroll that's already above the cap for next season — already-filled-out compliance buyout paperwork for David Booth and Keith Ballard notwithstanding — and a bunch of roster holes to fill. His best players are too old to be relied upon for more than one or two more years. He has one of the weakest prospect pools in the league. And he's moving into a division next season in which at least two and maybe even three of the teams contained therein (depending upon how legitimate you feel the Ducks' success this year to be) are better than his.
Oh, but I guess he's got a great solution for all those problems tucked into a desk drawer, and he's only waited on for the purposes of dramatic tensions.
All brilliant GMs do. Now he just needs a coach to sort it all out.
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