Willes: The people in charge of the Canucks should take another close look at the franchise they’re trying to emulate


Alex Edler gets a close look at the Detroit Red Wings -- the team general manager Mike Gillis has said the Canucks would like to emulate.

Alex Edler gets a close look at the Detroit Red Wings -- the team general manager Mike Gillis has said the Canucks would like to emulate.

Photograph by: Carlos Osorio, AP

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When Mike Gillis stepped into the Vancouver Canucks’ general manager’s office, he immediately identified the Detroit Red Wings as the model for his new team and, over the years, he’s restated that purpose on several occasions.You can decide for yourself how successful he’s been, but this season in particular, that comparison is interesting because of the parallels between the two teams.

Both came into the year with an aging core which had brought the Canucks some success and the Red Wings a great deal of success. Both suffered extensive injuries through their campaigns. And those injuries tested both the depth and the makeup of their organizations mightily.

Now, with a week to go in the regular season, we’ve seen how the Wings and Canucks handled their circumstances and what it reveals about them. The Red Wings faced their challenges with their customary polished professionalism and sat in sixth place in the Western Conference on Saturday with Pavel Datsyuk back in the lineup and Henrik Zetterberg not far behind.

The Canucks, for their part, are putting the finishing touches of a train wreck of a season in which the organization has become unglued and the team will finish out of the playoffs. Saturday was a slow news day in that no one from the front office was vilifying the team’s style of play, but that was after two straight days of off-ice drama in a season that’s been characterized by off-ice drama.

All of this is to say if the Canucks are trying to emulate the Red Wings, they’re doing a damn poor job of it.

You’d never know it from head coach John Tortorella’s press availability on Friday but the Wings endured a much more serious litany of injuries than the Canucks. Their three best forwards ­— Datsyuk, Zetterberg and Johan Franzen — have all been out for almost half the season; Darren Helm, who’s in their top six, was out for more than half the campaign and goalie Jimmy Howard missed at least a dozen starts.

Their reaction? They didn’t lose their minds, and didn’t try to become something they aren’t. They simply plugged players from their system into bigger roles under head coach Mike Babcock, and while they’re not the team they were five years ago, no one will want to face the Wings in the postseason if Datsyuk and Zetterberg are healthy. Players like Gustav Nyqvist, Tomas Tatar and Tomas Jurco have also gained invaluable experience this season while bringing a new look to the lineup. Through all their trials, the Wings got better while getting younger, and that’s a pretty neat trick.

Then there’s the Canucks. They too ran into a rash of injuries, but their response, as Tortorella admitted on Friday, was a tad different. Because they didn’t have the organizational depth of the Wings, they panicked and tried to play a different game. That resulted in a freefall down the standings, which, in turn, led to Gillis’s state of the union address that rocked this market.

On Friday, Tortorella tried to take the high road, but he was clearly placed in an awkward position by his boss.

So you have a GM throwing the coach under the bus. You have a coach forced to defend his record. You’ve got ownership in there somewhere. And who knows what’s going to happen at the end of the season when things could get even more exciting.

Tell me, do you ever hear about that stuff happening in Detroit with Babcock and GM Ken Holland?

Uh, that’s a rhetorical question.

Starting with the 2011 Stanley Cup final in fact, the Canucks have become drama queens under Gillis’s watch and this season they’ve been at their most theatrical. Back in ‘11, it was the NHL changing the rules which led to the Canucks’ downfall. Then, when the Canucks changed their team to fit the new world order, the NHL changed on them again. These were the moving goalposts Gillis referred to on Thursday and he’s now vowed to build the team on his previously held principles.

But why would have he abandoned those principles in the first place? Why did he try to change the direction of a team that came within one game of winning the Stanley Cup?

What was so wrong with the Canucks which needed an extensive overhaul?

The answer is nothing. The Canucks had a group of players and, in Alain Vigneault, the right coach. They just needed to stay the course and try to improve either internally or externally. Instead, they undertook to remake their team, first under Vigneault, then with Tortorella. And the results speak for themselves.

The real problem is, when everything was in place for this team, Gillis couldn’t make the moves that would put them over the top. More to the point, his moves eroded whatever depth existed within the organization. The drafts from 2008 to 2010 were largely a disaster. The 2011-12 season brought David Booth who was supposed to be a difference-maker. The year before it was Keith Ballard who was supposed to be a difference-maker. Cody Hodgson was supposed assume a larger role within the team. Sammie Pahlsson was acquired at the deadline for the playoffs.

Let’s be charitable and say none of those moves worked out, and that’s also when a lot of the seeds for this season’s debacle were planted.

There’s been more — the goaltending soap opera, the Derek Roy trade, the coaching change — and the Canucks are now at a crossroads. Where do they go from here is the next question, and we’ll be kicking that one around for a while yet.

But, more than anything, the Canucks need leadership from the most important men in the organization, the kind of leadership the Red Wings have with Holland and Babcock. What they don’t need is the GM calling out the coach and the coach having to defend himself in a public forum. They don’t need the perception that ownership meddles in the affairs of the general manager. They don’t need the constant whining about the league, the rule book and anyone who criticizes their operation.

Gillis had the right idea all along when he looked at the Wings and said, ‘That’s the way to do it.’ That, at least, was the easy part. As for the hard part, he’s still trying.



Alex Edler gets a close look at the Detroit Red Wings -- the team general manager Mike Gillis has said the Canucks would like to emulate.

Alex Edler gets a close look at the Detroit Red Wings -- the team general manager Mike Gillis has said the Canucks would like to emulate.

Photograph by: Carlos Osorio, AP

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