The Vancouver Canucks’ firing of GM Dave Nonis and their equally startling hiring of player agent Mike Gillis as his replacement raised significant questions about the team’s potential off-season moves.
Prior to the Nonis firing it was assumed the Canucks would be in the market for scoring depth this summer – via trade and free agency – and would cut ties with team captain Markus Naslund.
Gillis, who enters his new role with no prior management experience, suggested during his introductory press conference with the Vancouver media that bolstering the offense would be a priority, but how he addressed it could differ from what his predecessor might have had in mind.
Gillis takes the reins of the Canucks at a crucial period. Nonis was convinced one or two additions could have made Vancouver a Cup contender, but Gillis might believe a whole new direction is in order.
His moves this summer will be expected to pay immediate dividends next season, particularly for all-star goaltender Roberto Luongo, who was distracted by personal issues this season and was worn down from carrying an injury-depleted Canucks club.
Luongo has two more years remaining on his contract and if Gillis hopes to retain the talented netminder after 2010 he’ll have to prove to Luongo he’s serious about building and maintaining a Cup contender.
The management change had an instant negative impact on the club’s negotiations with Swedish star Fabian Brunnstrom, who was believed to be on the verge of signing with the Canucks, but decided to entertain offers from other clubs after Nonis was fired.
Behind the bench, coach Alain Vigneault and his staff remain in limbo as Gillis evaluates their future with the club. Vigneault won the Jack Adams Trophy in 2007 as the NHL’s coach of the year, but Gillis could be mulling a change in the Canucks’ style of play from their defensive system to a more offensive style, which could result in replacing Vigneault.
It was also rumored Naslund had previously told Gillis he wouldn’t return with the Canucks if Vigneault remained as coach, a story Gillis denied, but made interesting fodder for the rumor mill.
Gillis’ status as Naslund’s former agent also raised the question of the latter’s future with the Canucks. It can no longer be assumed the 34-year-old winger will depart via free agency.
The knock on Naslund was his inability to carry the Canucks offense, but it has also been speculated he could perform better on a club with more scoring depth.
Reports out of Vancouver suggest Gillis didn’t rule out the possibility of Naslund returning next season, which could mean he will attempt to convince Naslund to remain with the Canucks (albeit for less than the $6 million per season he made on his last contract) with promises of bolstering the offense.
Gillis also raised eyebrows with his comments on the Sedin twins, saying he considered them first line players, but didn’t know if they’re the players Vancouver would build around going forward – although that evaluation would continue in consultation with the coaching staff.
The Sedins led the Canucks in scoring the past two seasons, but they’re heading into the final year of their current contracts and will be eligible for unrestricted free agency in the summer of ‘09.
Gillis could attempt to re-sign the twins this summer rather than have their contract status become a distraction throughout next season.
His comments about their future value for the franchise could also suggest a possible trade, although such a move would involve dealing both in a multi-player swap and such deals are rarities in today’s salary cap world.
Gillis must also consider the future of center Brendan Morrison, who, like Naslund, can become an unrestricted free agent this summer.
Morrison was hampered by injuries the past three seasons and made $3.2 million per year on his last contract. Given the lack of quality centers potentially available on this summer’s UFA market it might be worth retaining Morrison, albeit for less money and a shorter term.
Gillis also has the option to tap into the Canucks’ blueline depth as trade bait for scoring help. Willie Mitchell, Sami Salo and Mattias Ohlund have no-trade clauses, but Lukas Krajicek, Kevin Bieksa or youngster Alexander Edler could be marketable trading chips.
Gillis could also shop one of his prospects, such as goalie Cory Schneider or defenseman Luc Bourdon, either separately or in a package offer.
Nonis had resisted the temptation to shop his top prospects and youngsters such as Edler, Ryan Kesler and Mason Raymond, but Gillis may opt to use one or more as bargaining chips.
Although Gillis does have a decent roster in place to work with, he’s facing challenges as a neophyte GM, which could have a considerable impact on the club’s future.
Canucks fans are hoping he makes the right moves.
Rumor Roundup appears Mondays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Foxsports.com and Eishockey Magazine.