Commentary

Canucks fire GM Gillis to save brand

With Vancouver fans turning back on team, owner acts to save sinking ship

Updated: April 8, 2014, 8:25 PM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

One of the reasons there were so many reports hinting at John Tortorella's demise as Vancouver head coach over the past couple of weeks, including one from me, is that it was clear that's exactly what the Canucks front office wanted.

General manager Mike Gillis made that abundantly clear last week in a radio interview on the Team 1040 in Vancouver when he essentially threw Tortorella under the bus when speaking of the team's style of play.

It was as much a message to ownership as it was to anyone else: The GM wasn't going to move along with the same coach in place.

It was akin to an ultimatum to his owner: Pick me or the coach.

I suspect that radio interview did not sit well with Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini, and it might have been the last straw. But it certainly wasn't the main reason for Gillis' firing Tuesday.

To me, Gillis had become a lightning rod in the Vancouver market for angry fans who have turned their backs on that franchise, highlighted by the "Fire Gillis" chants during Monday night's loss to Anaheim.

I view this mostly as a business decision by the Aquilini family, needing to hand Canucks fans a scalp to stop the downward plunge of the Canucks brand.

While the future of Tortorella remains murky as well -- one assumes the new GM will have a say in whether he wants to keep Torts -- the Canucks owner spoke loud and clear Tuesday: It was time for new leadership on the good (sinking) ship Canucks.

Will part of that new leadership come in the form of former Canucks hero Trevor Linden? My TSN colleague Darren Dreger speculated Tuesday morning that Linden could be a fit as team president, much like the Colorado Avalanche had Joe Sakic return in that capacity.

Linden on local TV in Vancouver on Tuesday morning denied having spoken to the Canucks about any such opportunity, but then again, what's he going to say until there's any such news. He would have to stay quiet if indeed those talks were underway.

I know this: Hiring Linden would be a smart PR move at the very least, helping to heal what appears to be a fractured marketplace that's become disillusioned with the franchise. There needs to be trust again between the fans and their team. Right now, there isn't, as underlined by all those empty seats at Rogers Arena on Monday night.

This is an aging roster that's gone stale. It needs a facelift, of that there is no doubt.

Assistant GM Laurence Gilman was spared the ax Tuesday, ownership indicating to him that it wanted him to stay on. For how long, who knows, but he's a guy who is well-respected in the NHL community, and given that he has three more years on his deal, if I were Canucks ownership I would give Gilman a serious shot at the vacant GM job. He deserves it. He's paid his dues.

Regardless, firing Gillis was a tough financial pill to swallow for Canucks ownership, who still owe the GM four more years on his contract.

Tortorella also has four more years on his deal at $8 million in total, which makes you wonder if that alone, now that Gillis must be paid out, won't be enough to keep the coach on at least another year.

As for the next GM, he inherits a roster that, while aging and devoid of true depth in terms of high-end prospects, does have core players signed to reasonable, cap-friendly contracts (especially Ryan Kesler's six-year deal at $5 million a season), which was Gillis' best talent as a former agent. That should help the new GM in moving bodies out, although many of those players have no-trade clauses so it will take some stickhandling.

It was just three years ago, meanwhile, that Gillis was on top of his reign as Canucks GM, his team in the Stanley Cup finals and a Vancouver market electrified by the run of its team.

But from the moment of that Game 7 loss at home to Boston in 2011, a gradual downward spiral began for Gillis, his team unable to get out of the first round in 2012 and 2013 and this year missing the postseason outright for the first time in six seasons.

There were trades that backfired, to be sure, such as picking up David Booth and Keith Ballard in separate deals with the Florida Panthers.

But the dramatic playing out of Roberto Luongo's exit from Vancouver likely will be viewed as Gillis' greatest error in judgment, waiting too long to pull the trigger, trading Cory Schneider in between and finally sending Luongo packing early last month for not a whole lot.

That Luongo saga cast a giant shadow on Gillis and the franchise.

No doubt we'll hear whispers and anecdotes that will paint Aquilini as a meddlesome owner who didn't make the Luongo/Schneider situation any easier to deal with.

But at the end of the day, it's Aquilini's team, he can do what he wants with it, and on Tuesday he did just that.

For better or for worse.

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