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The negotiator

Monday, 01.04.2013 / 11:15 AM / Features
By Jeff Angus
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The negotiator
NHL general managers don’t have an official job description.

There isn’t a how-to guide available on how to manage an NHL team the right way. A lot goes into running a team on a day-to-day basis (hence the word general). A good GM needs to be both aggressive and patient. He needs to be a financial expert, a slick salesman, a good listener, and a better talker.

Mike Gillis has been on the job as Vancouver’s GM for almost five years now. He would likely tell you that he has learned more over the past five years than he ever could have anticipated when he was first hired back in 2008. Gillis has guided the Canucks to consecutive Presidents’ Trophies (2010-11 and 2011-12), and to within a game of the Stanley Cup (2011). He has made some great trades and signings, and some ones that haven’t worked out as hoped.

Whatever your opinion of Gillis, he has brought with him a fresh voice and perspective to a job and industry that tends to favour conservative and antiquated traditions and processes.

Jason Farris, a Vancouver writer who now works in the Dallas Stars front office, wrote Behind the Moves, an incredibly comprehensive book that analyzes the most successful and interesting GMs in NHL history. And he offers up a pretty good description of what constitutes a great GM.

“The great GMs are like great players. They have a very clear understanding of their role on the team, extraordinary focus on their contribution to winning, and the ability to see – almost in slow motion – the action around them. The GM builds an identity and personality for his team, insulates his coach and players from the craziness around them, and blues a solid structure and foundation to ensure that the team’s on-ice competitiveness is sustainable over time.”

The Negotiator

Gillis may have been new to the NHL management game when he was hired by the Canucks, but he had previously earned his chops in the hockey world as a highly respected (and feared) NHL player agent. Gillis represented many successful and high-profile NHL players, including a few guys that Canucks fans are familiar with – Markus Naslund and Pavel Bure. After a once-promising playing career was cut short due to injury, Gillis entered law school at Queen’s University. At that time, he set forth to identify his philosophy that he carries with him to this day.

Meticulous planning, a strong work ethic and unrelenting attention to detail might help him prevail.

“Those things really formed the basis of the philosophy I brought to the Canucks. I built a game plan and I decided there was no detail too small to worry about because it might give us an edge."

As an agent, Gillis crossed paths early on with Laurence Gilman (and his first move on the job in Vancouver was to bring Gilman in to be the assistant GM). Gilman spent over a decade in the Phoenix Coyotes organization, working in a variety of departments. Gilman on Gillis as an agent:

“Mike’s reputation as an agent was that of an extremely hard bargainer. He implicitly understood his clients’ leverage and maximized it in every negotiation. He was viewed as a staunch supporter of players’ rights. And of course his reputation with the hockey establishment had been impacted by his legal pursuit of [Alan] Eagleson. There were many agents and club executives who hoped he’d go away.”

Gillis wasn’t afraid to challenge the status quo – then or now.

A Money Player

Gillis has made reference to Moneyball management strategies during his time with the Canucks. Moneyball isn’t just a buzz word, but it is misinterpreted quite often by those who don’t fully grasp the concept. Moneyball was a book written by Michael Lewis about the Oakland Athletics, a small-market baseball team that was using unconventional analytics and ways of thinking to gain the advantage over teams with much bigger budgets.

The detractors of Moneyball will often point to Oakland’s lack of a World Series title, but Moneyball isn’t about winning (well, it is, but it is more about the process that leads to winning). Moneyball is rooted in unconventional thinking with regards to how players are valued. For example, the Athletics started to focus on acquiring players who drew a lot of walks, whereas most other teams in baseball were still looking for big home run hitters who drove in a lot of runs.

The Canucks are a team that spends to the salary cap each season, so their advantage from a financial perspective comes elsewhere (a focus on nutrition, being able to bury contracts in the AHL, sleep, travel, and so on). Some of the ways the Canucks have tried to leverage their financial strengths:

“A deal (exclusive in hockey to the Canucks) with Fatigue Science, a sleep-management company that uses technology created by the U.S. military; a radical on-ice deployment strategy of certain players, such as the Sedins, who start an inordinate number of shifts in the offensive zone; the use of advanced statistics, far beyond plus-minus and goals for and against, to assess potential player acquisitions; the analysis of fatigue through games, using data and academic research from sports such as soccer; a special juice for players formulated by scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles; compression machines to flush lactic acid from tired legs; psychological counselling from MindRoom Sports Science Inc.”

There are a lot of variables (luck and health, for example) beyond the stats that go into winning – especially in a sport as fluid and fast-paced as hockey. Baseball lends itself much better to statistical analysis, as it is essentially a series of one-on-one matchups. Hockey isn’t like that. But that doesn’t mean that teams don’t use statistics beyond the typical ones (goals, points, plus/minus, and so on).

Sustainable success isn’t easy in a salary-capped league, and it doesn’t guarantee a Cup. However, as Gillis likes to say, if you knock on the postseason door often enough, you will eventually knock it down. And Gillis has been of the mindset to leave no stone unturned in his quest for said sustainable success.

Different Strokes, Different Folks

There is no one correct way to run a team in hockey. NHL GMs are not one in the same. There are mild-mannered and conservative GMs who have had success – David Poile (Nashville) and Ray Shero (Pittsburgh) are two of them. There are GMs who are more aggressive – Paul Holmgren (Philadelphia) is an example of this. There are GMs, like Brian Burke, who enjoy playing the role of salesman, and there are those who prefer to remain in the background, like Chicago’s Stan Bowman.

Gillis has often made reference to Ken Holland, Detroit’s GM, as a manager that he followed closely during his days as an agent. And he has implemented a few of Holland’s philosophies.

"In Detroit, I realized [their successes] 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."

Gillis wasn’t a popular guy with NHL GMs during his career as an agent – he was a tough negotiator, and that didn’t earn him many front office friends (just ask Mike Milbury). However, he has earned the respect of his peers (begrudgingly) with the on-ice success of the Canucks, and with his hard work, attention to detail, and meticulous planning off of it.

The next few months will keep Gillis and company very busy. The Canucks have some roster holes to fill at the deadline, and they will have a busy offseason of manoeuvring to fit the roster in under the reduced salary cap for 2013-14. Just don’t expect him to go about it in a conventional way.

Outside of Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Vancouver’s best organizational asset sits high above the ice every game.

“[Mike] understands how players and agents think, and he knows what they look for in teams. He developed this insight from having watched and studied many organizations over the years. Mike’s great advantage is that he’s an independent thinker.”