Monday, April 28, 2008

Meet Mike Gillis

"The agent business is full of guys with big balls", says one high-ranking NHL management figure. "But Mike Gillis has the biggest balls of all."
— From Money Players by Bruce Dowbiggin
He's had five days on the job, and we're only now getting an idea of just what the Canucks new GM plans to bring to the table.

To be perfectly honest, my knowledge of Mike Gillis prior to last week was along the lines of Tom Benjamin's: I knew he was a former player who'd become a relatively successful agent, and someone whose name had popped up every so often when management roles became available.

It's a description that fits many in the hockey world.

Actually, the closest to the "limelight" — other than a well-publicized run in with Al Eagleson — Gillis has really been was his star turn in Money Players, a book written prelockout about the high stakes involved with NHL agents and free agency. In an era when goofy contracts became the norm, Gillis was on the players' side for some of the goofiest, including $45-million over five years for Bobby Holik in 2002. (He was bought out three years later.)

Even six years on, Money Players is a good read. For the purposes of learning about Gillis, and his role an agent, there's a great excerpt available online at ESPN that offers an inside look at his negotiating tactics.

Of course, how he performed as an agent and what he'll now do as a GM aren't quite the same thing. Agents have, in my experience, a narrow focus, one that involves talking up their stable of clients to anyone — GMs, agents, media — who'll listen. A lot of it's built on B.S., but there is truth there, and it's that that becomes important in a management role.

The game is no longer about finding the biggest patsy; it's a hunt for bargains in a field full of land mines. (Exhibit A: The $24-million stinker Gillis served former agent Mike Barnett in the form of a 31-year-old Tony Amonte.)

And that's without mentioning the aspects of the job that stray far from free-agent bidding wars: the draft, player development, staff management, etc.

Over the weekend, Gillis spoke to the Vancouver Sun regarding his strategy going into his first off-season in management, something Lowetide today called Moneyball.

Here's Gillis:
"Everything that has happened in Major League Baseball sort of preceded hockey by about 10 years. They went through the wars before we did, went through massive change on the labour front before we did.

"I think people will see more non-conventional management people [in hockey]. I'm hoping to bring that here — a philosophy like that. I don't think this is without precedent."
"Unconventional" already applies given how few times we've seen agents jump right into the hot seat, but the real questions are (a) what, exactly, does he have planned, and (b) will it work?

There's no track record here to judge him on, other than a laundry list of deals he (and his clients) won, and I think Benjamin's right when he says it'll take time to determine if there's any foundation to the dream home being floated out there.

Gillis sold himself to the right people in order to get the job, but what comes next is what'll be truly interesting. Talk here in Toronto regarding the search for a new GM has centred solely on finding an "experienced" candidate, someone who has built a team in the past, but does bringing in a Doug Armstrong-type who has failed elsewhere make any more sense than the Canucks' move?

We've already seen what he can do; Gillis remains a mystery. But not for long. Sports is a pretty monkey-see, monkey-do business, so if the agent-turned-GM becomes a hit, expect others to follow suit.

Even the Maple Leafs.

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At 9:22 a.m., April 28, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Solid analysis, as usual.

I share the 'wait and see' approach adopted by yourself and TB. Particularly in Gillis's case, we simply don't know enough about how he will cope with the demands and expectations of the job. All signs indicate that he has much promise but, of course, these are only indicators.

As you say though, I think we will know pretty quickly the type of GM he is going to be.

At 10:41 a.m., April 28, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just a question: How can Armstrong be a proven failure, yet Burke is the 'best gm in the game'?
Didn't they both win a cup? Hasn't Armstrong's teams been, as a whole, more successful then Burkes over the last 10 years?

Just curious.

At 10:43 a.m., April 28, 2008, Blogger Adam C said...

Very interesting excerpt. It illustrates that while the Holik and Amonte contracts were horribly overpriced, there were teams lining up to pay them these kinds of salaries.

At 11:21 a.m., April 28, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wasn't Brian Burke a player agent before becoming GM?

At 11:42 a.m., April 28, 2008, Blogger godot10 said...

Doug Armstrong didn't fail, if one looks at the team Dallas has. The clock ran out on him. The team had a poor start after a string of playoff underperformances. David Poile is basicallly the same guy on whom the clock never seems to run out. The measuring stick in Dallas and in Nashville is different.

The hockey gods were unkind to Armstrong, and he got fired. The hockey gods were kind to Nonis (dropping Nonis in his lap) and he got fired. Totally different situations. The team Armstrong left behind has most of the pieces in place. The team Nonis left behind apart from Luongo is hanging by threads.

Doug Armstrong would be a good choice to rebuild the Leafs foundation.

At 11:51 a.m., April 28, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Burke was a player agent, initially, but he had much experience working in the Canucks front office under Pat Quinn and at NHL HQ before he got his first gig as a GM.

At 2:05 p.m., April 28, 2008, Blogger saskhab said...

Armstrong didn't win a Cup as GM. Gainey was GM when Dallas won the Cup.

At 2:15 p.m., April 28, 2008, Blogger Steve Patterson said...

i'm skeptical if gillis thinks he can start a new way of thinking about how to evaluate talent. it seems like alot of pr. in the end, he has the same goal as every other to create a winning team.

he's off to a good start, though, with some of the comments about the team. i'm glad to hear he thinks the team is far off where they need to be, unlike how nonis thought. i'm also glad to hear his skepticism about building a team around the sedins. the twins have had a free pass in vancouver for almost a decade and it's nice to hear somebody from management not seeing their abilities with rose-coloured glasses.

At 2:40 p.m., April 28, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Does anyone have any opinions on what this means for Mr. Naslund? Prior to this move, it was pretty much a given that he would not be welcome back in Vancouver. Does this move change anything?

When agents pump up their clients countless times by counteless means, is there ever a risk that they will begin to belive the BS that they've been preaching for so long?

For Mike Gillis, is Naslund as a client worth more than Naslund as an employee?

At 8:40 p.m., April 28, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Agents work on a percentage. So great agents should make more than ordinary agents.

But do great agents make less than GMs?

Or is the salary cap forcing agents to consider other more lucrative careers (such as GM) for themselves?

At 8:43 p.m., April 28, 2008, Blogger James Mirtle said...

Salaries for agents and GMs vary so widely that it's difficult to compare, but I'd say the biggest difference is there's a lot more jobs available for those who are in the agent business. Part of the problem in saying "I want to be a GM" is that it's such a hard profession to get into.

I'm sure there are a lot of agents who wouldn't mind trying their hand at management.


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