VANCOUVER — Mike Gillis walked down the hallway at GM Place like a toddler towards a dentist's chair, took his position in front of the media and was wished a happy Canada Day.
“Spending it with you guys is like a dream come true,” he said.
No arguments here. Except his dream actually came true an hour earlier when the Vancouver Canucks capped an epic day by signing free-agent defenceman Dan Hamhuis.
Hamhuis was a player Gillis badly wanted. And centre Manny Malhotra, signed Thursday morning, was the player the Canucks really needed.
In combination, they gave the National Hockey League team its greatest one-day talent-boost since the trade for Roberto Luongo four years ago.
When he was hired, Gillis vowed to make the Canucks an organization that would lure players with the chance to win. The GM appears to have delivered on that promise two years later because both Malhotra and Hamhuis spurned more lucrative offers from other teams.
“We're trying to compete for a Stanley Cup and, ultimately, players have to do that if they want to be in that environment,” Gillis said. “I think it's a great day. Those are the two guys we really wanted to try and get. It gives us a lot of flexibility. It addresses some needs we had. I think it's a really good day.
“I think players that are really high-character, high-quality people want to be in an environment where they know you're trying to win. That's coming through loud and clear.”
Hamhuis, a 27-year-old from Smithers, will spend the prime of his career in Vancouver on a six-year, $27-million-US contract. He chose the Canucks over offers as high as $5 million per season and as long as seven years.
Malhotra, a versatile 30-year-old who is married to the sister of Victoria basketball star Steve Nash, could have made slightly more than the $7.5 million he'll get from the Canucks over the next three seasons.
Hamhuis is the defencemen everyone in Vancouver seemed to be talking about going into free agency
But it was Malhotra the Canucks desperately needed.
The seventh-overall pick from the 1998 draft was once such a gaudy, offensive prospect that a long ago trade between the Canucks and Rangers collapsed because New York wouldn't package Malhotra with Dan Cloutier to get Pavel Bure. Yes, the Rangers said no to Bure so they could keep Malhotra.
Four years later, in 2003, Malhotra seemed on the verge of falling out of the NHL when he went to Columbus on waivers from the Dallas Stars.
But the fleet, 217-pound centre transformed himself and became a terrific third-line player.
Sure, his 33 points last season in San Jose maintained a six-year streak of 25-35 points. But Malhotra finished plus-17, tied for third on the Sharks, while playing often against the opposition's top line. He was a key penalty-killer on a unit that was fifth in the NHL. He's almost unbeatable in the left faceoff circle, which means the Canucks have another ace to put out when Ryan Kesler isn't taking draws on the right side. And Malhotra was skilled and versatile enough to play on Joe Thornton's left wing for a chunk of last season.
The Canucks, whose lack of size and offence on the bottom two lines was exposed in the playoffs, will benefit from Malhotra's large tool box. It wasn't a coincidence that he was the first player Gillis signed on Thursday. The Canucks can't wait for Manny to be Manny, although they're still a menacing player short for the third line.
“It has been a long [journey]. . . playing on different teams, playing for different coaches and being in different systems,” Malhotra said. “Last year in San Jose, I got a taste of winning and know what it's like to be in that environment. You ask any player in the league and that's what you want: a realistic opportunity to win a Cup. That's really my main focus coming to Vancouver.”
“He's got speed, he's got size and he's really smart,” former Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock said. “He can check the other team's best players, but he does it with speed and all kinds of pressure. He makes them spend time in their own end. He was a great ally for the coaching staff.”
Hamhuis is similar to Malhotra in that he has built his career on defending, yet has underrated offensive ability.
Although Gillis said Hamhuis could be the No. 1 defenceman in Vancouver, he was only No. 3 last season in Nashville and – the way it looks here – goes one spot lower on the Canucks, behind Alex Edler, Christian Ehrhoff and Keith Ballard. But including Sami Salo, the Canucks have five defencemen capable of playing 20-24 minutes a night, which makes Vancouver's defence as good as anyone's.
Sixth man Kevin Bieksa can play that much, too, but probably will be traded. At least his $3.75 million salary-cap hit needs to be traded. Including newly-acquired fringe forwards Victor Oreskovich, Jeff Tambellini and Joel Perrault – the latter two signed Thursday as free agents on two-way ($500,000) and one-way ($510,000) contracts, respectively – the Canucks have spent about $57.3 million, which means they're well over the $59.4-million limit when four restricted free agents are counted. But the team has until Oct. 8 to crunch numbers down to size.
Still, they were willing to walk away from Hamhuis, whom they pitched personally during a morning conference call involving Gillis and his assistants, Laurence Gilman and Lorne Henning.
“I was actually really impressed with the conversation,” Hamhuis said. “I was expecting to be told I might play these minutes or in this situation or Yaletown has beautiful views – something to that effect. What they did say about ice time is: 'We're going to be playing the guys who play the best.' And they moved on to say what a commitment this organization has to the community and 'we've heard you're a good community guy and that's why we're coming after you.' It was almost not even a sell. It was almost a challenge and I really appreciated that.”
Management didn't have to sell the Canucks on Hamhuis. He was already sold. So was Malhotra.