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The New Mythology

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I find it interesting to read tales of greatness.  Often we are given glimpses into the stepping stones, skill sets, and strengths of those conquering geniuses of sports management whenever they reach the pinnacle of their craft.  The local and national Canadian media are likely to fall all over themselves to anoint Mike Gillis the second coming of Conn Smythe, Al Arbour, or Glen Sather (old school Edmonton Glen Sather... not the guy in NYC).  He's built a great team they'll say.  He's done it on HIS terms they'll tell us.  This may or may not be reality, but has he done it the way they describe? 

Well we're going to get our chance in the short term because there's a hiatus until game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals.  So let's take the opportunity to explore what the Globe and Mail has to tell us about the Genius that runs the Canucks.

In today's Globe & Mail sports section, Gary Mason pens a piece that is titled "Mike Gillis Sticks To The Plan".  It's nice to think he's planned everything to a ridiculous degree, but the irony here is even Gillis admits a lot of this result is luck:

"In Detroit, I realized it stemmed in large part to how they treated their players. How thoughtful they were. The atmosphere they created in the organization allowed them to knock on the [Stanley Cup] door every season. After that it’s often just luck. Sometimes the puck hits the post and goes in and sometimes it hits the post and stays out. But it’s the opportunities you get that counts."

- Mike Gillis

Apparently what Gary Mason gets out of that statement is that Mike Gillis planned to get to the Stanley Cup Finals by making damn sure his players were happy?  What I get from it is that Gillis controls the parts he can control, and puts the best possible team together, but then after that it's mainly luck.  Otherwise how would one explain Detroit not being in the Stanley Cup Finals? I mean they're the team Gillis is imitating (openly I might add) and they aren't in the big dance.

Does this mean that the team Gillis is emulating has a worse plan? Of course not... it just means that Mason wants us to think Gillis planned as good as the other best teams do, and thus the Canucks are now just as good as they are.

Luckily for me, the irony doesn't stop there.  Let's review a few other key points Mason presents.

The Canucks aren’t in the Cup final without some of the savvy moves that Gillis made early on in his tenure. Some of them have been previously documented. For instance, he made an intensive effort to sign the core group of players he would build his team around – at discount prices.

He was able get the Sedins, Alex Burrows and Ryan Kesler to ink deals that paid them less than what they could have fetched elsewhere by persuading them that the savings would be used to get players that would help them win the Stanley Cup.

Well, I hate to break it to Gary, but signing RFA players doesn't particularly require a lot of savvy.  Ryan Kesler was an RFA when he signed his most recent $5 million dollar contract.  He's also signed to a 6 year, $30 million contract, so I'm not sure that's quite the hometown discount Mr. Mason wants us to think it is.  Kesler actually cost the Canucks $68,493 per point this past season.  That makes him slightly more expensive on a per point basis than Mike Brown of the Leafs.  It also makes him more expensive than Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin, and Clarke MacArthur.  Basically what I'm getting at is, nobody should really be calling Ryan Kesler's deal a "discount" deal.  He's making the same amount as Zach Parise, Johan Franzen, Patrik Elias, Mike Ribeiro, and Mike Cammalleri.  All of whom have either won more Stanley Cups, put up more points in a season, or done both.

Burrows is on a deal with a $2 million cap hit, which is frankly far more affordable. At $41,667 per point, Burrow's 26 goal, 48 point season is pretty solid production.  He ranks 66th in the NHL amongst forwards to play 65+ games and not be on an entry level contract in terms of point-per-dollar value.  His peers in that regard would be Todd Bertuzzi, Nikolai Kulemin, David Backes, and Mark Recchi.  He's doing a good job.  Of course he's still expensive in comparison to the likes of MacArthur, Ville Leino, Blake Comeau, Brian Boyle, Tyler Kennedy, Sean Bergenheim, Alex Tanguay, or Curtis Glencross... but hey I guess we should start calling the GM's of Detroit, St. Louis, Toronto, Philadelphia, the NYI, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, and Calgary Geniuses right?

It's not like Vancouver has any bad contracts though, so we'll give them that.  Almost every player was pulling in the right direction.  So what else did Gillis the genius do this season to finally make things work?

But to create an organization like Detroit, one that is always challenging for the Cup, Gillis needed to build his pool of good young talent. And once he signed these players he needed to develop them.

But it wasn’t long after the Canucks were employing dieticians to devise meal plans for the players, and sleep doctors to advise the team on everything from when players should be taking naps to whether they should immediately fly home after a road game or leave the next morning.

"We have people whose job it is to monitor the player’s energy levels and build them up for certain segments of the schedule that are particular demanding,"

Ah yes, the true marks of an elite team: sleep doctors and dieticians. I'm not mocking the fact that teams monitor when players sleep or work to help organize what they injest, I just find it absurd that Gary Mason thinks that Vancouver is unique in this regard.  

I also assume the Canucks pay other types of doctors, personal trainers, and heck perhaps even employ people that are responsible for scheduling the Canucks day to day lives.  If pro-sports franchises AREN'T doing these sorts of things I'm pretty sure they're out of touch with the current state of the game.  That doesn't mean the teams doing it are far ahead of their competition.

Now we're getting somewhere though.  Mike Gillis' plan entails making sure players eat and sleep right, and that he pays them appropriately.  This is what champions are made of, and luckily as far as I can tell, Brian Burke is doing the exact same things here in Toronto (minus the whole reasonable contract thing, but we have lots of cap space so that shouldn't really be relevant).

What else is Gillis doing to round this juggernaut into form?

The team’s legendary captain Stan Smyl, for instance, was in player development. Meantime, one area the organization was completely ignoring was young, undrafted players in college or junior hockey in North America or Europe. Players who might have developed late in their young careers but had a huge upside. There were diamonds in the rough to be found and Gillis put a reluctant Smyl in charge of searching for them.

In short order, the move paid huge dividends. Players such as Chris Tanev, who was found playing hockey in upstate New York for a little known college, were signed. Thanks to Smyl the team found Aaron Volpatti from Brown University and Darren Archibald, an undrafted player from the Barrie Colts. The 21-year-old Tanev, meantime, played in the Western Conference final and will likely find a spot in the lineup next season.

Huh?  He's assigning former captains to scout College Hockey and European leagues?  This is supposed to be revolutionary?

No offense to Chris Tanev, but adding a guy that played one year in the AHA conference of NCAA hockey with R.I.T. who posted 10 goals and 28 points in 41 games isn't earth shattering stuff.  He posted 1 goal and 9 points in 39 AHL games with the Manitoba Moose this year, and then had 1 assist in 29 NHL games with the Canucks in a checking role.   He's now played in 2 NHL playoff games, and has no points.

*Correction - and apologies to the Canucks faithful - I was under the mistaken impression Tanev was a forward, but he's a D man.  That makes his point totals less relevant, but not his numbers below*

Tanev has a Corsi Rating of -40.27 in those two playoff games.  During the regular season he was a far more respectable +9.34, but he's been dominated in his brief NHL playoff stint.  This is NOT the second coming of Logan Couture, or Carl Gunnarsson for that matter.  If you plan on rushing out to buy a Chris Tanev jersey, then by all means do so, but at 20 years of age it might be a bit early to be sure he's a future star.

Volpatti played 4 years at Brown University and then moved on to play 15 NHL games eventually for the Canucks this year after half a season or so with the Moose.  He has yet to see any playoff action.  Archibald played this last year with the Niagara Ice Dogs in the OHL, and posted 23 goals and 36 points in 37 games, and then another 10 goals and 14 points in 14 playoff games.

I'm a bit confused here, but those types of players sound fairly similar to the likes of Tyler Bozak, Tyler Brenner, Christian Hanson, Alex Foster, Darryl Boyce, Brayden Irwin, Kyle Rogers, Robert Slaney, Justin Hodgman, Simon Gysbers, Andrew Crescenzi, Will Acton, Fabian Brunnstrom, Andrew Engelage, Ben Scrivens, Jussi Rynnas, Jonas Gustavsson, to name a few.  So the Canucks identify 3 undrafted kids, and Gillis is a genius.  The Leafs sign 17 (trade for 1 - Brunnstrom) and we're obviously behind on that?

I'm having a hard time following Mason's point here.  If the Canucks are doing such a bang up job of identifying unsigned players, why have they only found use for 1 of them in two games in the playoffs?  Why are those the only 3 worth mentioning? Why have none of them been remotely useful offensively?  I guess this isn't the best point perhaps.

Most of all, Gillis’s plan allowed the team to stockpile good young talent that will push other players in the organization. It also allowed the team to keep potential stars like Cody Hodgson down on the farm for much of the season without rushing them into the lineup – just like Detroit does with its young players.

Ah, there it is.  The reference to Detroit again.  Yes, the league's best team (apparently) at developing players (oddly so few of them actually develop in Detroit's famed farm system).  

Yes it was that stockpiling of young talent that led to Hodgson going from playing in the 2008-09 AHL playoffs with Manitoba BACK to a year of Junior with the Brampton Battalion in 2009-10.  That was all their depth in the AHL... Dusty Collins, Mario Bliznak, Marco Rosa, and Marty Murray were the guys clogging up the Centre Ice position in 2009-10 in the AHL.  All those players that were so far ahead of Hodgson in terms of development that he couldn't crack the AHL code.

Then when 2010-11 rolled around, they couldn't do anything to hold the supremely talented, nay "potential star", Cody Hodgson down on the farm.  I mean how could they when he was busy posting 17 goals and 30 points in 52 games in the AHL.  Scoring at a torrid 0.57 ppg pace... I mean how could anyone expect them to leave him out of the lineup?  I mean when you're scoring at ALMOST the same AHL pace as "potential star" Christian Hanson (0.58 ppg), then what's left but to conquer the NHL?

Luckily for their competition, the Canucks have held Hodgson on a tight leash, and only let him patrol the rink enough to register 1 goal and 2 assists in his first 20 NHL regular season and playoff games.  Next year I'm sure he'll set the world on fire and produce like the All-Star he's inevitably bound to become.

Joking aside, Hodgson does look like he'll eventually develop into a reasonably reliable NHL player, but I think the term "potential star" is best left out of any future articles by Mr. Mason.  As for the Detroit comparisons, this is yet another myth continuously perpetuated by the Main Stream Media.  Detroit's development system is NOT set up in the AHL.  They do NOT force future star players to play on the farm for eons before entering the NHL.  This has become a recent mantra, thanks to the likes of Darren Helm, Justin Abdelkader, and Jiri Hudler's of the world.  Well guess what? Darren Helm played 122 AHL games, Abdelkader played 109 AHL games, and Hudler played 185 AHL games.  None of them are potential NHL stars.  Helm had 12 goals in 82 NHL games this year at the age of 23;  Hudler had 10 goals in 73 games at the age of 26; Abdelkader had 7 goals in 74 games at the age of 23.

Tyler Bozak had 8 goals in 37 games (half the number played by the other trio) at the age of 23 with the Leafs.  Nobody in Toronto thinks he's about to become an NHL star... at least not anymore.  As for the Red Wings actual stars - Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, Valtteri Filppula, Niklas Kronwall etc.  They have played a combined total of 179 AHL games.  Every single one of those games was played by Filppula or Kronwall, and 76 of Kronwall's games came in the Lockout season of 2004-05.  

In other words, players that are potential stars for the Red Wings apparently might play ZERO games on the farm team.   Other famous Detroit Red Wings that played no time with the Red Wings AHL farm team in Grand Rapids include Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, Brian Rafalski, Nik Lidstrom, Dan Cleary, Kris Draper, Todd Bertuzzi, Slava Kozlov, Slava Fetisov, Brad Stuart, Brendan Shanahan, Tomas Holmstrom, etc.

Basically the next time someone tries to explain to you that Detroit is great because they force their best players to play on the farm team, you should ignore them, because it really doesn't have much relationship with reality.

So in the end of all this, we develop a picture.  A picture of how fantastic a job Mike Gillis has done in smoothing out the rough edges, and paying attention to the details that make a championship franchise what it is.  Unfortunately he hasn't really done very much if we're to go by what's being written about him.  

He's instituted appropriate nap times, and he's made sure everyone gets a healthy snack from time to time.  He also did a bang up job of identifying potential 4th liners that slipped through the draft.  He's working on having a Detroit style system where he imports amazing players from Europe that never have to play for his AHL affiliate, and eventually plans on making sure to keep players happy by paying them less than his "championship caliber goalie".

Once Brian Burke gets all of this figured out, you can guarantee we're next on the list of Canadian cities to play for the Cup.  I can't wait!