Archive for April, 2008

Retraction: Smooth Jimmy Apollo

“In predicting the Canucks going 6-2-1 in their final nine games, the analysis was off.  A failure to take into the account the wind, mascot attire and general lack of offense of the Vancouver Canucks”

Smooth Jimmy

“Well folks, when you are right 52% of the time you are wrong 48% of the time.”

“As far as the other series?  Sure.  Why not the Pens, Stars, Habs and Wings.  I predict ultimately a Habs Cup.”

Pass me the peanuts and Cracker Jack

Newly anointed Canucks GM Mike Gillis has evidently seen fit to address the concern, raised in various corners of the media and blogosphere, that he does not have the requisite experience or expertise in terms of drafting and developing young talent.

(As any Canucks fan can attest, this is a problem inextricably tied to the historical ineptitude of this franchise and, thus, an obvious point of concern with any new management personnel.)

In a candid interview with Iain MacIntyre of the Vancouver Sun, Gillis expounds upon his philosophy concerning the evaluation of player personnel (amateur and professional scouting as well as trade and free agent acquisitions).  Namely, his vision of applying sabermetrics, popularized by the management team of the Oakland Athletics and now used widely as a talent assessment tool in Major League Baseball (e.g., ‘Moneyball’), to hockey.

Essentially, the modus operandi is this: talent can and should be evaluated, comprehensively, based on rigorous analysis of objective statistical data, down to the most infinitesimal of statistical minutiae. In baseball, where the game itself tends to play out as a series of limited statistical possibilities in each and every situation of a game, the method is evidently compelling. Players can be assessed based on statistical breakdowns of performance under various conditions and according to certain variables.

In hockey, the import is less obvious, however. Although hockey players, like most professional athletes, are judged according to a variety of statistical output, the game itself is arguably less reducible to a (reasonably) predictable series of limited possibilities. Moreover, isolating sub-statistical data, e.g., what effect player A might have on a particular play in game situation X, may be questionable given the fact that the kind of binary scenarios that tend to play out in baseball games (e.g., pitcher vs. batter) are mitigated in hockey by the (potential) effects of other players on the ice. Now, this is not to say there is no import; only that the analytical force of sabermetrics may be reduced, to some extent, within the enlarged parameters of possibility within a hockey game.

At any rate, the question for Canucks fans is merely whether there is enough import for the team to markedly improve its historical failure in identifying, developing and capitalizing on player personnel.

Gillis has certainly done well to identify a plan and articulate a philosophy when it comes to team-building (something that never seemed to come to the fore with his predecessor). While it does not entirely allay my concern noted earlier, I must admit that I am impressed by his preparedness for the undertaking.

New blood

It appears as though the Canucks have their new GM all but confirmed.

Much to the pleasure of his Vancouver media cheerleader, Tony Gallagher, the Canucks are poised to announce “super agent” Mike Gillis to the post, as early as today.

This may come as a surprise to some, particularly if you made note of owner Francesco Aquilini’s stated commitment during his rambling press conference, announcing the dismissal of Dave Nonis, to bring in someone with experience. I suppose Gillis’ ‘experience’ as a player agent and former NHL player would count, provided you are comfortable with equivocation and verbal sleights of hand.

At any rate, the hiring of Gillis immediately invites two comparisons to recent hirings of otherwise inexperienced player agents: one, to the ill-fated experiment in Phoenix with Mike Barnett (total disaster); the other, to the championship-producing hire of Pierre Lacroix by Quebec (brilliant success).

The question for Canucks fans, of course, is which one Gillis resembles more.

My suspicion, for what it is worth, is the latter. Admittedly, this is chiefly due to my blinkered optimism that Gillis is, indeed, the brilliant hockey mind he is often credited as in the media. Moreover, I suspect that, if nothing else, he will be able to attract high quality players to Vancouver based on his credentials as an agent and his rapport with a large numer of current players.

My one concern, however, is his ability to assess young talent (i.e. drafting acumen). It is often said, rightly, in my view, that long-term, sustainable success in the NHL is built through the draft. (Consider, as the example par excellence, the Detroit Red Wings–when was the last time they were not a top-tier team?) Gillis has, due to his lack of experience, done nothing to indicate he is a shrewd judge of talent. True, any GM will rely heavily on his scouting staff for these assessments but, then, the Canucks are not exactly blessed with talent in that area, either. Order of the day for Gillis, upon starting this job, will be to put in place a scouting staff that assuages concern, on the part of people such as myself, about his ability to identify and develop young talent.

If Gillis can address this perceived unknown (or shortcoming, depending on how you judge his putative inexperience), then I think the Canucks may have made a wise decision here.

 UPDATE:

The Globe and Mail is reporting that the Canucks have called a press conference for 11 a.m. Pacific Time to announce Mike Gillis as GM.

Nonis canned

When the Canucks failed to qualify for the playoffs for the second time in three years, many hockey pundits and even more Canucks fans anticipated a change in personnel.

Less anticipated, perhaps, was that GM Dave Nonis would be the first to go. With few details available yet, it has been confirmed by TSN that Nonis has been fired.

I suppose the move makes a modicum of sense. After all, Nonis has been GM for the aforementioned three seasons. One playoff appearance in three years for a team that routinely spends at or near the salary cap is unacceptable. Moreover, Nonis must shoulder a large portion of the responsibility for not addressing this team’s painfully obvious shortcomings (i.e. a lack of offensive talent / scoring ability).

That said, it is important to remember that Nonis made arguably the best trade in Canucks history: acquiring Roberto Luongo and Lukas Krajicek for Todd Bertuzzi, Bryan Allen and Alex Auld. Also, it is worth pointing out that the 2005-2006 team, which missed the playoffs, was for all intents and purposes his predecessor Brian Burke’s team. Finally, a case could be made that Nonis lacked sufficient financial maneuverability to acquire the offensive talent this team needed due to his being saddled (or saddling himself) with Markus Naslund’s six million dollar cap hit (at the time it seemed like a much better move).

Still, at the end of the day, the inescapable fact is that this team took a considerable step backwards this year. That should not have happened.

The Aquilini ownership, who, let’s be clear, did not hire Nonis in the first place, have determined that accountability for this starts with Nonis.

I say, who can blame them?

Spare a thought and word of thanks for Trevor Linden

linden4.jpg

On Saturday night the Canucks play what might immediately appear to be an utterly meaningless game against Calgary. With the Canucks now firmly ensconced as a non-playoff team they have nowhere to go but down the standings (and up the ladder to a higher draft position); meanwhile, Calgary having already qualified for the playoffs means that the Canucks will not even be able to play spoiler in any meaningful sense.

Notwithstanding this obvious fact, Vancouver fans should pay mind that this game more than likely represents Trevor Linden’s last in the NHL.

Scouring all manner of hockey blogs the last few days serves to reinforce that fans in other Canadian cities (particularly the seemingly endless supply of self-championed super fans in Calgary and Edmonton) love to rip Vancouver for its lack of historical success and the lack of star players to remember fondly. While there is not much to say to acquit the Canucks on either count, we Canucks fans at least can cherish the memories that our erstwhile captain brought to this city; the hope he invigorated in a franchise that had been utterly bereft of any before he was selected second overall in the 1988 NHL entry draft.

Trevor Linden may not be judged a superstar over the course of his career but one thing he was unfailingly is a leader. He took this team to within two goals of winning that elusive Stanley Cup in 1994, a year no one who has ever followed the Canucks will forget. (The picture above really does say it all.) He stood accountable for everything this team did and did not accomplish during his time in the city. Most of all, he took this team into the community and made fans feel like the team meant something to the city. (Trust me, growing up in the 1980s in Vancouver the team had little to no marked presence in the city.)

I would like to share a personal memory of Trevor Linden, as my own tribute to the man and what he means to the city of Vancouver and Canucks fans in particular. When I was about 11 years old (this is 1991), Trevor made an appearance at the local Safeway in Coquitlam and my mum took me and my brother to go see him. After waiting in line for a solid hour, we eventually walked up to the table where Trevor was seated. To this day I remember vividly how young he looked (he was 21 or so at that time). I remember also being completely in awe. I asked him to sign my Trevor Linden rookie card and a copy of Breakaway (the old Canucks program) with his photo on the cover. Trevor happily obliged, of course, but he also asked me whether I played, who my favourite player was, etc. He was, as he is now and always has been, a genuinely nice man, even as a 21 year old kid. I asked him if he could make sure the Canucks would finally win the Stanley Cup. He said he would do his best.

It makes me profoundly sad–and I mean this with the most sincerity and feeling I can muster–that Trevor never did and now never will (at least not as a player) lift the Stanely Cup wearing a Canucks sweater. As much as you can say this, he deserved it. We deserved it.

I hope one day, when the day finally comes for Vancouver fans to celebrate a Stanley Cup, Trevor Linden is there to experience and share in that victory.

So long, Trevor.

The bitter morning after

For the second time in the last three seasons, the Vancouver Canucks have failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs.

This time, opportunity was there for the taking. The Minnesota Wild did their part, defeating Calgary; all Vancouver had to do is beat Edmonton, setting up a game Saturday night between the Canucks and Flames where the Canucks could make the playoffs by beating Calgary in regulation.

What do the Canucks do with these fortuitous circumstances? Piss them away. This is, of course, the modus operandi for this season. Leads? Piss them away. Opportunities to win games? Piss them away. Opportunities to make your team better? Piss them away.

To some extent, then, it would be disingenuous of me to declare shock or surprise at this outcome. In fact, as much as I would like to have been proved wrong, I had a prescient thought about this very possibility back in early March. I called the game on March 4 against Colorado a ‘statement game’ and, unfortunately, the Canucks’ pathetic effort that night was a harbinger of things to come over the course of the last month of the season (capped off with the Canucks losing six of their last seven games, all against Northwest division rivals).

In the immediate aftermath of the Canucks’ exit, it is difficult to apportion blame for this disaster with any precision. The problems begin at the top and filter all the way down to ice-level.

  • Dave Nonis refused to acknowledge this team’s offensive shortcomings in the off-season or at any point during the season. He stocked this team with players like Mike Weaver, Byron Ritchie, Brad Isbister, et al instead.
  • Alain Vigneault lost the room early in the season. When you have a team that plays a system that succeeds only when each and every player buys in enthusiastically, this is a recipe for a disaster. Calling out a veteran leader like Willie Mitchell, who is loved by his teammates and who’s heart is beyond reproach, early in the season was not only puzzling, it was inexcusable. Vigneault was also vividly exposed for his lack of imagination behind the bench this season. This team simply didn’t look capable of getting in games on far too many nights and that is ultimately down to the coach, in my view.
  • Markus Naslund played better than he did last season but he was exposed for his paucity of leadership. A team needs to rely on their captain, to look up to their captain for inspiration (whether it be words or deeds) in order to be successful. Naslund didn’t and doesn’t provide it.
  • The Sedins were exposed for the limited offensive players they are. Stop the cycle, you stop them. It’s just that simple.
  • The much vaunted Canucks defence corps was nowhere near as good as I, nor most pundits, expected them to be. Salo was once again injured and recovering from injury for most of the season; Ohlund showed glimpses of his quality but he is no longer the player he once was; Bieksa was shockingly awful when he did play and missed most of the season anyway due to injury; Krajicek took a huge step backwards this season and was also injured for a long time as well; and Edler, despite a lot of deserved praise in the first half of the season, was poor to average on most nights during the second half.

Make no mistake these are only the main problems. But problems abound when it comes to this team and it is hard to find anyone on the team who can escape accountability for the Canucks’ poor season. (Even Roberto Luongo, outstanding as he was on many nights, was not at his best in many games where the Canucks needed him to be.)

The question confronting the Canucks this off-season: What needs to be done to address its myriad problems?

My suggestions (feel free to add yours in the comments):

  • Fire Alain Vigneault. Quite simply, this team will not get better with him behind the bench. It is striking how similar his two seasons in Vancouver have been to his time in Montreal.
  • Do not, under any circumstances, re-sign Markus Naslund, even at a ‘home town’ discount, for his sake and ours. To be sure, he can still contribute offensively and score goals. But he simply can’t provide what is expected of him here and that shadow will not be removed as long as he plays in this city. He represents a period of elevated promise and sub-standard results for this team. Time to turn the page.
  • Explore the possibility of dealing the Sedins. Listen, I have defended the Sedins as much if not more than most, right up until the end of this season. But it is now time to confront some hard truth–namely, that these guys are tremendously one-dimensional hockey players. Moreover, their astonishing inability to break open a game when the Canucks need it most is more proof than anyone should ever need that these two are not frontline offensive players in this league.
  • Failing a deal involving the Sedins, they must be relegated to second line status. As per my comments above, they are not first line players, at least not on a team with aspirations to make it far in (let alone in to) the playoffs. In either scenario, the Canucks need to establish a potent first line threat. Due to the paucity of UFAs who fit this description (excepting Marian Hossa), it seems as though a trade is the most appropriate means of addressing this issue.
  • Stop over-valuing our prospects. The Canucks need to be more prepared to face up to the limitations of players being brought through the system and, accordingly, prepared to deal propsects when the opportunity arises to acquire players who address glaring team needs. If you need to give up an Edler, Bourdon, Schneider, etc. to acquire a first line offensive talent that you think will be an integral part of this team for years to come, then you do it.

Let’s hear what the rest of you think.

Dream big

A lot of the talk surrounding the Canucks dwindling playoff hopes centres on the fact the Nashville Predators (who currently sit eighth, one point ahead of Vancouver) face two weak opponents to finish the season whereas the Canucks play Edmonton (who would love nothing more than to eliminate Vancouver) and Calgary (arguably the Canucks’ biggest rival). In other words, in the Vancouver-Nashville race for eighth, the Canucks are in a position of disadvantage.

Lost in all of this, however, is another, perhaps more promising scenario for Vancouver. If the Canucks happen to beat Edmonton tonight, which they likely need to anyway to keep pace with Nashville, and Calgary happens to lose tonight to Minnesota in regulation (considering Calgary is playing almost as poorly as Vancouver lately, an eminently plausible scenario), then Vancouver would only need to defeat Calgary in regulation on Saturday night to make the playoffs (ahead of the Flames).

As a Canucks fan who has witnessed the Otto side foot in OT in Game 7 of the 1989 playoffs, the Pavel Bure OT winner in the 1994 playoffs and countless other battles between the two teams (not to mention the intense rivalry between Canucks and Flames fans), I would dearly love to have the Canucks make the playoffs at the expense of Calgary.

If you are going to dream (make no mistake, we are in dreaming territory right now), then why not dream big, right?

Go Wild. Go ‘Nucks. See you in Vancouver on Saturday night with all to play for, Calgary.