Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Canucks: The axe falls

Yesterday night, the Canucks fired general manager Dave Nonis. Owner Francesco Aquilini told the Vancouver Province's Ben Kuzma the decision was largely due to missing the playoffs.
"I think this important change in leadership is critical to the future of the team and the direction we need to take," he said. "It's not acceptable to our fans or to us as owners that our team isn't in the playoffs." Aquilini also seemed to indicate that the defence-first style favoured by Nonis and coach Alain Vigneault didn't meet with his approval. "As owners we made a commitment to deliver the kind of hockey our fans deserve," he said.

I've thought about this overnight, and I'm still conflicted. On the one hand, Nonis' teams missed the playoffs two out of his three years: on the other hand, they fell short by small margins each time. This year, a lot of the problems were due to injuries to the defence corps, which on paper at least looked like one of the deepest groups in the league, and injuries can't really be blamed on a general manager. On the other hand, the Canucks have struggled with the same lack of offence almost since Nonis took over, and he hasn't done much to address the problem. James Mirtle, who's in favour of the firing, has a good look at the acquisitions Nonis made: notable ones include Marc Chouinard (now in the Swiss A-League!), Steve McCarthy (getting limited playing time on a terrible Atlanta team), Mika Noronen (playing in Russia for AK Bars Kazan) and former almost-All-Star Rory Fitzpatrick, now playing for the AHL's Philadelphia Phantoms. There isn't too much in that list that screams "Great talent evaluator!" As I wrote in my Canucks post-mortem, "One of the big problems with this team was how they were built and the almost-complete lack of scoring depth. Responsibility for that has to fall on the GM's desk. Granted, he hasn't had all that much room to work so far, and has made some nice moves (Luongo, Willie Mitchell and Aaron Miller come to mind), but he hasn't done much of anything to improve the offense."

This off-season's going to be critical, as the Canucks actually have some room to play with under the cap and can remake the team. In a lot of ways, it would have been nice to at least give Nonis a chance when he has some cap space, as he's never had a lot of cash to work with. Still, the actions taken this year are likely to define the team for years to come, and thus, they should be made by a GM who the owner has confidence in (Aquilini inherited Nonis from John McCaw) and who plans to be around for the long term. In the end, I guess I'm probably in favour of the firing, as long as Nonis is replaced by someone better.

The timing absolutely stinks, though. From Kuzma's story (linked above), it sounds like Aquilini made a snap decision to fire Nonis based on what transpired in their year-in-review meeting yesterday.

"Dave Nonis was asked to defend the season in a 3 p.m. meeting Monday," Kuzma writes "Francesco Aquilini didn't like what he heard and three hours later, he acted in a swift and decisive manner. The Vancouver Canucks chairman and owner fired Nonis as general manager of the NHL club largely because it failed to advance to the playoffs for the second time in the last three years."

Aquilini should have been less "swift and decisive" in making his decisions, and thought about the timing involved. Impulse firings are never a good idea. First off, the Canucks were reportedly about to lock up Fabian Brunnstrom, who would have been a great fit with the Sedin twins and added some desperately-needed offense. Now, Brunnstrom's apparently reconsidering joining the Canucks, and may even go to Detroit, according to the Detroit Free Press. Could Aquilini not have waited until they had Brunnstrom locked up?

The timing is highly unusual, as the CBC's Elliotte Friedman points out. "It’s rare – extremely rare – for anyone to fire a general manager by statement, in the evening, while playoff games are going on. Public relations firms will tell you that the best time to release bad news is Friday night. In the hockey world, this has got to be a close second, although there’s no way Aquilini can expect this to go under the radar in B.C." Friedman suggests that the timing might be to allow Vancouver to make an offer to Brian Burke if the Ducks are knocked out this week, but even in that case, there was no need to pull the trigger this quickly.

The other timing issue is with respect to the quickly upcoming draft, one of the most important moments each year in building a team. The Canucks need to get a GM in place by June, hopefully earlier so that they can familiarize themselves with the minor-league prospects and pick out the holes. However, two of the candidates proposed so far, Brian Burke and Ken Holland, are both still with their current teams. If their clubs make a run, they may not even be available until just before the draft, and then you're bringing a GM in to one of the most intense parts of the year with little preparation. This is less of a factor if they go with an internal hire like Steve Tambellini, but it could still be a challenge to adjust to the top job that quickly. Let's hope that whichever way the Canucks decide to go, they wind up with the new GM by then: you don't particularly want an interim GM running the draft and making decisions that will drastically affect the team's future.

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