Sports

Credit GM Gillis for hot start 0

BARRY MCDONALD

Who really saw this coming? Who honestly thought the Vancouver Canucks would be closer to the penthouse than the outhouse of the Western Conference at this point of the season?

Come on. Two wins over Detroit? Six losses in 22 games? More points than Pittsburgh, Montreal and Washington? Just three losses in 15 games against the Western Conference? Despite injuries to key personnel? No freaking way.

Way. And how to explain it? Well it starts with the general manager, who was viewed in a rather unflattering light when he arrived on the scene this past summer. Mike Gillis was asked a number of questions upon his arrival, and had the temerity to answer them honestly.

Many viewed his performance as something less than candid, much closer to aloof. But the areas of concern he cited have been addressed. The team plays with more speed, more character and is tougher to play against. He was criticized for how long he took to bring back Alain Vigneault as head coach. But the time it took was time spent making sure Gillis and Vigneault were on the same page with how the team was going to play.

Gillis has had the Midas touch so far. Kyle Wellwood has eight goals, which is eight more than many thought he would ever score, given his body fat count during training camp. Ryan Johnson is as advertised; works hard, blocks shots, wins faceoffs. Darcy Hordichuk has brought a physical presence that can't be understated. Shane O'Brien for Lukas Krajicek? Not quite Neely for Pederson, but not bad. Pavol Demitra? Point a game. Steve Bernier would have 83 goals by now had he converted his chances, which indicates that, he is at least getting to the greasy areas.

The challenge now is to keep it going, and that challenge just got tougher with the injury to Roberto Luongo. The Canucks' meal ticket is on the outside looking in with his groin injury, his date of return uncertain. Vancouver's goaltending is now in the capable hands of Curtis Sanford, who has been very impressive in three straight wins over Minnesota, Pittsburgh and Detroit.

But going from one game a month to three a week will be a challenge, and if he doesn't meet it, Cory Schneider will get his chance. His numbers in the minors have been stunning, and the Canucks would love to see what he can do at the NHL level.

And of course, there is that $10 million Gillis still has to spend, the $10 million that is still out there for Mats Sundin. Imagine what that signing could do. It's only messing with your chemistry if you bring in someone who lacks it.

That's not the case with Sundin. He has been a team-first type player who would be a magical fit here. Quite possibly the final piece to a remarkable puzzle.


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