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Canucks GM wants bigger, younger team

by Kevin Woodley

VANCOUVER -- Vancouver Canucks general manager Mike Gillis promised change at his season-ending press conference Thursday, two days after being eliminated in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for a second straight season.

Unlike this year's playoffs, he wasn't willing to say the changes would be quick or sweeping.

Amid widespread speculation coach Alain Vigneault would be fired after being swept by the San Jose Sharks, Gillis instead preached patience and promised a proper evaluation of "every element of the organization," identifying several areas that need improvement but stopping short of saying he will break apart a team two years removed from Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.

"There will come a day where the core group will be dismantled but it's not today in my mind," Gillis said of a group led by identical twins Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin, and gritty center Ryan Kesler. "We need to supplement them. We need to help them. We need to have a different look. We need to get younger."

Whether that includes a new coach will have to wait for Gillis to formulate a plan and present it to ownership. But the GM defended Vigneault, who in seven seasons has guided the Canucks to two Presidents' Trophies, six Northwest Division titles, and a Cup Final.

Vigneault leads the franchise in wins and winning percentage at 313-170-57, and was named NHL Coach of the Year in 2007. But he also has been behind the bench for a 2-12 skid in the playoffs with 19 goals scored and six straight losses on home ice.

"We just finished, and most of you know I don't make decisions based on immediate emotion or pressure," Gillis said. "Alain is a very good hockey coach … like everyone else, he will be evaluated for the way this season went, and the way the last two seasons have gone, particularly in the playoffs."

That analysis will include style of play -- and type of players -- the Canucks want.

It's something Gillis said has changed since Vancouver went to the Cup Final against the bigger Boston Bruins in 2011. He declined to make changes then, and again after being eliminated in five games by the collapsing defense and punishing forwards of the eventual champion Los Angeles Kings.

After seeing the St. Louis Blues and Sharks emulate that game plan this year, Gillis admitted it may be time to transition from his initial emphasis of skill and speed.

"Five years ago we came in here and reset this organization and it's time to do it again," Gillis said. "When I took this job we decided on a style of play that resulted in great success, and clearly the landscape has changed and we have to address those changes. We don't have a choice. It's not something I necessarily principally agree in, but that's what we face, that's what we have to do. We have to make changes and adjustments necessary to compete for a Stanley Cup. It's my intention to do it."

Gillis would prefer not to, saying "you have to have skill in the game," and "a bunch of us" general managers hope to "push back and try to keep the skill level as high as possible. But you have to take what you are given."

Asked if he should have started that transition after being knocked out early in the 2012 playoffs, Gillis pointed to swapping small, skilled center Cody Hodgson for bigger prospect Zack Kassian at the 2012 NHL Trade Deadline, and trying unsuccessfully to acquire Ryane Clowe and Raffi Torres this year. But Gillis conceded it was hard to make radical changes so soon after being so close to winning it all.

"I don't know when you decide it's more than a fleeting trend and it's taking hold," Gillis said. "To make monumental changes with a mature team, a team that just competed for the Stanley Cup, went to the seventh game, is a challenging thing to do. Now it's more than a trend, we have to recognize how the game is going to be played today and in the future and we have to address it."

How he does remains to be seen. Short on high-end prospects after years of trading draft picks for immediate help -- another practice Gillis said would have to change -- the Canucks are over next year's expected $64.3 million NHL salary cap with 17 players signed. That includes goaltenders Cory Schneider and Roberto Luongo, who has nine years left on a 12-year, $64 million contract (a $5.33 million cap hit) that Gillis will try to trade.

Outside of trading core players -- defenseman Alexander Edler and forward Alexandre Burrows each has a contract extensions kicking in this summer that includes a no-trade clause, bringing that total to nine -- it's hard to see how the Canucks can acquire the big, physical players they need.

It is clear, though, Vancouver has to get younger, and therefore cheaper.

"The landscape has changed, we don't have the luxury of letting them cook in the minors, so to speak, for significant periods of time," Gillis said. "We have to get young players in our lineup … we don't have a choice."

The summer could include compliance buyouts for veteran defenseman Keith Ballard, who has two years left on a contract worth $4.2 million per season but was a healthy scratch for all four playoff games, and $4.25 million forward David Booth, who missed most of the season with injuries.

Gillis wouldn't comment directly, though it seems almost certain the Canucks will walk away from unrestricted free agents Mason Raymond and Derek Roy, who had one playoff assist after being acquired at the deadline this April.

Other free agents set to hit the market this summer include center Maxim Lapierre and fellow fourth liners Steven Pinizzotto and Tom Sestito, as well as depth defensemen Andrew Alberts and Cam Barker.

"I don't think the style of play is any longer a one-off; I think it's a trend and we have to address it," Gillis said again. "But if you are looking for an answer as to what we are going to do today, I am not going to give it to you. We have to come to conclusions on existing players and there will be some difficult decisions to make. I don't think anybody in this organization is going to be immune."

After one win and two early exits in the playoffs, no one should be.

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