VANCOUVER — Less than three years after leading the Vancouver Canucks to within a game of the Stanley Cup, Mike Gillis is out of a job.
The club fired its president and general manager on Tuesday, just over 14 hours after the team was eliminated from playoff contention in a listless and embarrassing 3-0 loss to the Anaheim Ducks that had fans at a half-empty Rogers Arena chanting “Fire Gillis” in the game’s dying minutes.
“The Vancouver Canucks had success under Mike’s leadership, and we nearly reached our ultimate goal; but I believe we have reached a point where a change in leadership and new voice is needed,” team owner Francesco Aquilini said in a statement announcing the move.
The Canucks have three games remaining on their schedule, but were given Tuesday off. Aquilini was set to meet the media on Wednesday morning before the team practises.
At the NHL general managers meeting last month in Boca Raton, Fla., Gillis pointed to injuries and head coach John Tortorella’s infamous locker-room incident against the Calgary Flames as reasons for a disappointing mid-season swoon that saw the team win just four of 20 games, including eight consecutive regulation losses.
Gillis also seemed to take a swipe at Tortorella in a radio interview last week, saying he wanted to get back to the style of play that got the Canucks to within a game of the 2011 Stanley Cup.
“I want us to play upbeat, puck possession, move the puck quickly, force teams into mistakes, high-transition game,” Gillis told the Team 1040 at the time. “I think we have the personnel to do it. If we don’t have the personnel to do it, they’ll be changed.
“That’s my vision, that’s how I believe you are going to win in the Western Conference and the National Hockey League. If you look at the top teams in the West, there isn’t a lot that separates any of the teams in the West, but the top teams play that way. That’s the way we played.”
Gillis was named NHL general manager of the year for the 2010-’11 season and signed a contract extension after the 2011-’12 campaign, but admitted in the radio interview that the Canucks’ fall from grace put his job security in question.
“I’m not sure if I’ll be back next season,” said Gillis. “I think everyone’s open for evaluation. I think we’ve had players that have severely underperformed. Our team has underperformed. I think that we’re all open to evaluation and we all deserve evaluation and that’s what’s going to come.”
There had been talk that the comments didn’t sit well with ownership, but in truth the Canucks have not competed with the league’s elite teams since their run to the Cup ended with that disappointing Game 7 defeat to the Boston Bruins.
Vancouver was ousted in the first round the next two seasons — winning just one playoff game in the process — before the Ducks put the club out of its 2013-’14 misery on Monday night.
There was a feeling that the Canucks needed to get tougher after the loss to the Bruins a few years ago, and Gillis lamented the fact that the team had gotten away from the core principles that had made them successful.
Why that happened is up for debate, but there was talk that the Aquilini family pushed hard for Gillis to hire the fiery Tortorella last June after axing former head coach Alain Vigneault and his laissez-faire style.
Apart from this season’s product on the ice, Gillis had also been roundly criticized for his poor draft record, questionable free-agent signings and trades, and the handling of the Roberto Luongo saga.
After the veteran netminder was unseated in the Vancouver crease by Cory Schneider, Gillis dithered in trying to move Luongo and his massive contract — one that Gillis himself had negotiated.
When Luongo couldn’t be moved, Schneider was dealt to the New Jersey Devils at last summer’s draft. In another surprising twist, Luongo was then traded back to the Florida Panthers last month following Tortorella’s decision to start backup Eddie Lack in the Heritage Classic game.
In just over eight months, a position that had been the Canucks’ strength became a major question mark.
Gillis began his tenure with the Canucks after Dave Nonis was fired following the 2007-’08 season, winning five Northwest Division titles and twice securing the NHL’s best regular-season record.
But most of the players on those teams were already in the organization by the time Gillis, a former agent, took charge.
Tortorella, meanwhile, has preached a defence-first, puck-pressure, shot-blocking style that has yet to click with the Canucks’ current roster. Like Gillis, the Boston native has also been a lightning rod of criticism and he said immediately after Monday’s loss that fans had every right to be upset with the team’s downturn.
“(Fans) paid big money to come to these games. It’s their prerogative how they handle themselves,” he said. “As far as fans are concerned, that’s their call.”
“They pay money to come see the games. They’re not happy,” added Tortorella. “They can voice their opinion how they like to.”
Canucks defenceman Kevin Bieksa said after the game that he didn’t agree with the fan reaction directed at Gillis.
“Personally I don’t think it’s the right thing to do, but at the end of the day the fans come and they can do whatever they want,” he said. “Put it this way: we’re all going to take the blame for this. It’s not just one or two guys. It’s the whole team. We’re going to take what we get, move forward, push through this.”
As of right now Gillis is the man taking the fall, but that doesn’t mean Tortorella is safe. Whoever takes over the front office might want their own man behind the bench.
The Canucks were the hottest ticket in town three years ago, but the lower bowl at Rogers Arena was dotted by hundreds of empty seats Monday throughout Vancouver’s demoralizing loss to the Ducks.
Many of those who did show up started heading to the exits long before the final buzzer sounded, and fans who remained directed their vitriol at the now-departed Gillis.
The club has often trumpeted its sellout streak and waiting list for season tickets, but the Canucks’ performance on the ice and outlook for the future will be a concern for ownership with renewals due soon.
In the release announcing Gillis’ firing, Aquilini addressed the Canucks’ disgruntled fanbase.
“I also want to thank our fans for their support for the Vancouver Canucks through a difficult and frustrating season,” said Aquilini. “We haven’t met their expectations or ours. We are committed to bringing the Stanley Cup to Vancouver for our fans and we will continue to do everything possible to reach that goal.”