Over the past year, Laurence Gilman’s Wednesday appearances on TSN 1040 were must-listen radio, as the former Canucks assistant general manager gave behind-the-scenes insights into how an NHL front office works. When he was hired by the Toronto Maple Leafs, it was great news for him, but bad news for Vancouver sports fans.
TSN 1040 found a replacement, however, and it’s hard to argue with his credentials. Gilman’s former boss with the Canucks, Mike Gillis, joined the Sekeres and Price show on Wednesday for his first of what should be many appearances this season. Much of his first appearance was spent looking back at Gillis’s time as general manager of the Canucks, when he oversaw the best stretch in franchise history, including two Presidents’ Trophies and a heartbreakingly close playoff run in 2011.
It was a fascinating interview, full of all sorts of interesting insights. He even admitted that he hasn’t been following the Canucks, but watches other teams with entertaining young players. The shade was palpable.
The biggest takeaway, however, came early on, as Gillis admitted his biggest regret in hockey terms was taking too long to change the Canucks’ scouting department.
Gillis: My biggest regret running the #Canucks was that I didn't change the scouting staff & system early enough.I should have done that a lot quicker. But we felt we could work through a better process, make things better, and came to the conclusion too late that wasn't the case— TSN Radio Vancouver (@TSN1040) October 10, 2018
That makes a lot of sense. The biggest criticism of Gillis’s regime was the drafting. It was bad heading into his tenure as GM and it didn’t seem to improve until his final season, when he and his team selected Bo Horvat 9th overall. Even then, the picks after Horvat that year have not panned out.
Gillis made it clear that a GM really only has influence on first round picks, particularly top-10 picks, with the rest of the picks depending on the scouting department put in place by the GM.
That jibes with what Judd Brackett, the current director of amateur scouting for the Canucks, has said. Jim Benning’s biggest role is providing an overall direction for the scouting staff, particularly identifying trends in the NHL that might influence what type of attributes they look for, but even as a former scout that still goes on the occasional scouting trip, Benning still has to depend on his staff.
You can see in the behind-the-scenes video from the 2018 draft how much say Brackett has when it comes to the draft table. Past the first round, the draft is largely in his hands.
According to Laurence Gilman, he and Gillis did make changes to the scouting department immediately, but they were not the overarching systemic changes that needed to be made to properly improve the Canucks’ drafting.
“I oversaw the staff and changes were made immediately when Mike Gillis came on,” said Gilman last year. “The guys that were there — members of the Ring of Honour or long-standing Canucks — were given the opportunity to prove themselves.”
It’s understandable that Gillis wouldn’t want to make waves with beloved former Canucks like Stan Smyl, Harold Snepsts, and Ron Delorme, but the reticence to be more ruthless meant that they took too long to make important changes.
“There were a multitude of changes made,” continued Gilman. “Young scouts were brought in, including Judd [Brackett]. We were constantly evaluating the staff and eventually we determined that we needed to make changes that were systemic, and we identified Eric Crawford as the person we wanted to put in charge of the process and put a layer in between me and Ron Delorme. I think the Horvat draft was his first draft, so there were five years before he took charge.”
After one year as Director of Player Personnel under Jim Benning, Eric Crawford was fired at the same time as Gilman and Lorne Henning. He is currently the Director of Professional Scouting with the Montreal Canadiens.
“We weren’t happy with the results, and that’s why we made the changes we made,” said Gilman. “I wouldn’t point out an individual, but if I were to go back in time, I think we might have waited too long to put Eric Crawford in charge. I would have put him in at least a year earlier.”
Would the Canucks drafting have seen an improvement earlier if Crawford had been promoted a year earlier? Would the Canucks have still drafted Brendan Gaunce in the first round or would they have targeted one of the players taken shortly after, like Brady Skjei or Tanner Pearson? Would that have changed the perceptions around Gillis or elongated his tenure with the Canucks?
Those are questions we can’t really answer, but it’s clear that Gillis and Gilman both saw the error they made in not addressing the Canucks’ scouting earlier.
The entire interview is well worth the listen, with a few quotes that could require some further revisiting and reading between the lines. When it's posted online, I'll link to it here.