In the gun of every NHL general manager lies (at least) one bullet. Sometimes, there are two. For Glen Sather, there have been four (and counting).
But every GM has at least one, usable (at their discretion) to remove an acting head coach in favor of “their guy”. In many cases, it’s used immediately.
Yet, after taking the organizational reins in April 2008, Mike Gillis kept his bullet. He waited, and retained Alain Vigneault through five additional seasons (and three contract extensions), watching Vigneault guide the Canucks to five Northwest Division titles, two Presidents’ Trophies, and Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals.
But in May 2013, after a first round sweep by the San Jose Sharks, Gillis fired the bullet.
In doing so, he arguably laid the foundation for his own dismissal just eleven months later.
In this ten-part story, Vancity Buzz breaks down the seminal moments of Gillis’ reign, offering pertinent insight into the defining moments of the franchise’s brightest period. We’ll take a look at it all: the good, the bad and the awkward.
In April 2008, Alain Vigneault’s future in Vancouver was murky, at best.
Despite being just ten months removed from a Jack Adams Trophy (and a franchise record of 49 wins in 2006-2007), the Canucks failed to reach the 2007-2008 postseason, effectively costing Dave Nonis his GM position. With the addition of the innovative (and seemingly unorthodox) Gillis, many felt Vigneault was next.
Yet, ignoring the pressure to start anew, Gillis demonstrated incredible patience in engaging and assessing his coach, undertaking extensive meetings with Vigneault to determine a collective vision for the team.
In the end, Gillis was certain he had his guy. A contract extension swiftly followed.
“My first priority when taking over the job was to meet with Alain and ensure we shared the same philosophy about building an elite level team for now and for the future. Alain has done a very good job in his two years in Vancouver and I am confident that will continue.”
Gillis’ patience and foresight was rewarded, as Vigneault would amass five consecutive Northwest Division Titles, two Presidents’ Trophies, a Jack Adams nomination in 2011, and a Game 7 appearance in the 2010-2011 Stanley Cup Finals. En route, he’d become the winningest coach in Canuck history (with a record of 313-170-57), while establishing a close bond and respected reputation amongst the roster.
When he came in here, he made everybody accountable… Star players were not treated like star players. Rookies and fourth-liners weren’t treated like that. Everybody was treated equal.
Guys respected him and he respected the players… He was a good person, and I had no complaints at all
With Vigneault’s unparalleled success came related expectations from ownership, management and fans. After the Canucks’ unexpected first-round elimination in the 2012 postseason, rumors persisted that Francesco Aquilini sought to make Vigneault accountable, demanding his removal.
“I feel very comfortable with Alain as a coach,” said Gillis. “I don’t know why you wouldn’t want somebody back that has done an excellent job and has the results to show for it. It gets exasperating sometimes. A lot of teams that are envious of where this team is in a lot of different ways and having a good head coach is one reason they’re envious.”
“Alain has built a foundation of winning with this franchise and I feel he can continue to build on that foundation to achieve our ultimate goal.”
But after an unexpected four-game sweep at the hands of the San Jose Sharks in the 2013 postseason, Gillis quickly fired Vigneault, and began the search for his replacement.
In the wake of Vigneault’s firing, local media and fans latched onto the idea of a “country club atmosphere”, facilitated by the head coach, being responsible for the team’s under-performance. Oddly enough, this clashed with (positive) comments Daniel Sedin would later make about Vigneault’s approach.
“[Vigneault] didn’t come in and yell that much,” said Sedin. “Early on, he did. But these last four or five years, he left it up to us players to control the room, and I think we did a good job of that.
In firing Vigneault, Gillis could hold someone else accountable for the team’s regression, deflecting attention from his inability to develop NHL players and improve an anemic offense that had scored just 24 goals in its last 16 playoff games (an average of 1.5 goals a game).
In fact, Gillis called for a complete “reset” – a process that would include trading team MVP Cory Schneider and buying-out peripheral defenceman Keith Ballard.
But most importantly, by firing Vigneault, Gillis married himself to whoever the Canucks’ next head coach would be. In hockey terms, this was “his guy”.
In bringing John Tortorella to the fishbowl of Vancouver, Gillis demonstrated a clear desire for an authoritarian figure to cull the laid back, passive atmosphere seemingly responsible for the Canucks’ recent failures. The signing caught headlines, and represented a stark departure from Gillis’ understated, progressive nature.
Ten months later, the Canucks would sit 12th in the Western Conference. Henrik Sedin would have his lowest full-season point total since 2003-2004, while Daniel would have his lowest since 2002-2003. Roberto Luongo, after being denied the opportunity to play in February’s Heritage Classic, would be a Florida Panther. Ryan Kesler, stripped of his assistant captaincy, would want out of Vancouver. The team would finish the year with its lowest full-season point total since 1999-2000, and their season-ticket-waitlist would effectively vanish.
Less than three years after receiving the NHL General Manager of the Year Award (and two years removed from consecutive Presidents’ Trophies), Mike Gillis would be fired on April 8, 2014. A month later, with four years remaining on his contract, John Tortorella would follow.
Alain Vigneault, meanwhile, was preparing the New York Rangers for a playoff run that would take them to the 2013-2014 Stanley Cup Finals.
Sadly, Gillis could only blame himself.
Local media quickly pegged the Aquilini family, rather than Gillis, as the impetus behind the Tortorella hire (a fact the Aquilinis have vehemently denied).
But even if the Aquilinis were largely responsible, this still falls on Gillis.
By firing Vigneault, Gillis had to know that the next hire would determine his future. Without absolute certainty of who that person would be, Gillis was effectively operating without a plan. He was firing Vigneault to protect himself, rather than improve the team with a better coach.
Simply put, without the Vigneault firing, there is no chance for the Tortorella debacle. Gillis’ move set the table for the events that followed. The logic of “the team simply needed a change” falls short if there is no clear blueprint for the future.
If Tortorella’s disastrous tenure proved anything, it was that Gillis didn’t have the pieces to succeed at an elite level. As such (and noting much of the roster’s regression in 2013-2014), there is a compelling case that Vigneault actually maximized the production of the Canucks’ core and remained the best person for the position.
But how many players actually thrived after Vigneault’s departure? How many regressed?
When you do the math, maybe Vigneault knew this team better than Gillis.
Featured image: Sportsnet