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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Nonis The Fall Guy for Burke's Mistakes

The Vancouver Canucks announced the firing of GM Dave Nonis yesturday, ending his three-year tenure as General Manager. Canucks owner Francisco Aquilini seemed to indicate that the reason for Nonis's firing was the team's inability to make the post-season saying that: "this important change in leadership is critical to the future of the team and the direction we need to take. It’s not acceptable to our fans or to us as owners that our team isn’t in the playoffs.”

This is a horrible decision on the Canucks part. They're right to be indignant about missing the post-season for the second time in the last three years, but they're blaming the wrong guy. The main reason for the Canucks failures isn't Nonis's decisions as GM, but Brian Burke's decisions, particularly his inability to run successful drafts. If you look at all the teams that are in the playoffs, and all the elite teams in the league there is a direct correlation between their success in the draft and their records. In today's salary capped NHL teams cannot stockpile players thorough free agency, there are too many teams with need for free agents who have the money to get them. This creates such demand that elite free agents usually get paid so much money that one team cannot sign a bunch of them, without going over the cap, like they used to pre-lockout. If you look at the Canucks draft history it has to be one of the worst in the league.

If you look at the players acquired via draft during Burke's six-season tenure the only players who made it to the NHL, and had decent careers are: Bryan Allen, Jarkko Ruutu, the Sedin twins, R.J. Umberger, Kevin Bieksa and Ryan Kesler. That's hardly a foundation that can make the playoffs every year. If you want to break it down even further, you'll find that Burke actually isn't totally inept at the draft, he just is when he doesn't have a top three pick. If you look at situations where he has had the top three pick in his career he has picked: Chris Pronger, the Sedin twins and Bobby Ryan. Those three were all excellent picks. It's when Burke is forced to draft low that he struggles. The main reason he has had such unbelievable success in Anaheim is that he was lucky to inherit one of the best farm system's in the game from Bryan Murray. Getzlaf, Perry, Penner, Smid (who they used to get Pronger), Kunitz, McDonald, Giguere and Bryzgalov were all acquired by the Ducks before Burke came on board. Then he did what he does best, make trades. If you look at Burke's career he has dominated the trading game. He swung deals for Markus Naslund, Todd Bertuzzi, Brendan Morrison, Bryan McCabe and Dan Cloutier, only giving up Alek Stojanov, Trevor Linden, Alexander Mogilny, and Adrian Aucoin. He worked the same magic in Anaheim acquireing Francois Beauchimin, Todd Marchant and Chris Pronger for an aging Sergei Fedorov, Ladislav Smid and draft picks.

Looking at Nonis tenure he did as good as anyone would be able to considering all the turmoil the team was in when he got hired. He stole the best goalie in the NHL from the Panthers, Roberto Luongo for Todd Bertuzzi. That might be the best trade in NHL history, if not it's certainly up there. I don't know anyone who could've expected that considering the situation Bertuzzi was in. However, that trade might not be due purely to Nonis's genius as much as Mike Keenan's wackiness. It was still a good job though. It is certainly true that Nonis paid a little too much for defence. This was a mistake. The Canucks had a goaltender that was used to playing with porous defences in Florida, consistently stopping the most shots in the NHL. That's not saying they shouldn't have brought in some defensive players, but they shouldn't have spent as much as they did. Many defensive players, particularly many good defensive defencemen can typically be had for paltry sums (ie Jason Smith $1.9 mill), the Canucks didn't need to invest $10.5 million per season, in Ohlund, Mitchell and Salo. However, the amount of money they would have saved, by not investing in all of those three likely wouldn't have been enough to bring in a top flight offensive player. They might have been able to bring in some good ones though. With that said, the real reason for the Canucks disappointing season is the underacheivement of Naslund and Morrison as well as all the injuries the club faced. They are paid a combined $9.2 million a season, and they both were on pace to average around 50 points a piece this season. If Naslund and Morrison were able to produce at their pre-lockout levels, then the Cancuks would have been fine for offense. The majority of the Canucks offense depended on Naslund and he couldn't deliver. Nonis cannot be blamed for this, as I don't know one GM who could have foreseen the collapse of Markus Naslund coming out of the lockout. Ditto for Morrison.

As for the farm system, Nonis finally put some good players into the pipeline. Cory Schneider looks like a top flight goaltender and was a steal at 26th overall. The Canucks also got two excellent offensive defenceman with good size in Alexander Edler and Luc Bourdon, and three offensively gifted forwards in Mason Raymond, Michael Grabner and Pat White. For the first time in their history, it seems as if the Canucks will finally produce some very good homegrown talent. They could provide the foundation for a contending team in the future, but young players take time to develop. If Nonis had stayed on and continued to draft like this, then the Canucks would have had an excellent chance to become a dominant NHL team down the road. Unfortunately if it happens, it will have to be without their former architect, Dave Nonis.

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