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Willie's Woes: Canucks Coach on the Hot Seat

The case for and against the continued employment of Willie Desjardins
Angry Willie Desjardins

There are three certainties in this life. First, Han Solo shot first. Second, cookie tins always heartbreakingly contain sewing supplies. Lastly, when on an extended losing streak, a Vancouver Canucks coach is always the first to go.

Whether justified or not, a coach is viewed as most expendable. It’s a quick change that temporarily takes pressure off management, and it can, on occasion, spark new life in a languishing club.

So it’s not surprising that we’ve started to hear Canucks fans growling for Willie Desjardins’ head.

Is this fair? That’s arguable. Is it inevitable? Every bit as much as a Walking Dead spoiler on your Facebook feed.

I mean, Vancouver has seven goals in its last seven games. That’s low scoring by Major League Soccer standards. It’s worse than the John Tortorella days. Clearly, something is not working.

Firing Desjardins is also the only realistic move that can be made in the near term. You can’t trade away your star players this early into the season, because reasons. The deadline is months away and we certainly wouldn’t want to disrupt the delicate chemistry the team is displaying thus far.

And you can’t fire the general manager, Jim Benning, because we don’t get to have nice things.

So is Willie Desjardins going to get fired? I’d be shocked if he isn’t. But before we all start to pile on him, let’s give him fair representation as the Canadian Charter commands.

  What Willie Does Right 

No coach is perfect, but Desjardins is “real good” in a couple of areas.

  • Defence seems to be a strong suit. Willie has always had a defence first philosophy, especially with his rookies. After Vancouver let Dan Hamhuis leave for Dallas it looked as though Vancouver’s defensive core, once the envy of the league, would be pretty sub-par.

    Yet through 11 games this season he has made bricks without straw. Very few Canuck losses can be blamed on defensive gaffes. Even the shutouts were all fairly close games. Sure, the goaltending has been superb too, but for a team with so many inexperienced defensemen, the systems work and they’ve looked solid.

    Of course the universe blessed him with Troy Stecher, a.k.a. Bobby Orr in a bite-sized package, but then Vancouver sent him down to Utica. Again, we don’t get to have nice things.
  • Willie Desjardins is a stubborn coach. To me, that’s actually both positive and negative. On the positive side of things it means that he isn’t reactionary. Systems and set plays aren’t thrown out the window due to a bad loss or demands from the fanbase. Line combinations may be shuffled to mix things up, but he largely allows players a few games to gel before ripping them apart.

    I believe players thrive on consistency and chemistry isn’t always instantaneous. So for stubbornness, he gets a plus from me.
  • Willie is a player’s coach. He’s really the anti-Tortorella. Even when frustrated, he keeps his cool during interviews, behind the bench, and presumably in the locker room. He communicates well and doesn’t rile up the media. He doesn’t let his emotions get the best of him. This is a positive for players who need to keep an even keel.

    Of course, there’s something to be said for a fire-in-their-belly, “my coach could beat up your coach” type of guy like Torts. Some hockey players thrive on being fired up (read: screamed at.) It’s like eating at Chipotle: it doesn’t feels good at the time, but you know you need to have it.

What Willie Does Wrong

There are some areas where Desjardins isn’t so hot. Just a light, insubstantial sprinkling of shortcomings that have led the Canucks to 26th place in the Sportsnet power rankings. (And I believe that’s generous.)

  • Willie thinks too much. A thinking man’s coach is great as long as he doesn’t overthink. Philosophies and concepts are fine on paper, but shouldn’t be relied upon when they’re failing the eye test in real life. Like your dad when you touch the thermostat, a coach needs to be able to adjust quickly.

    Starting Bo Horvat on the fourth line to start the season is bewildering, but Desjardins defended this decision by explaining his theory that young players needed to learn defence before being given those scoring minutes. As an abstract concept that’s somewhat convincing, but Horvat is Vancouver’s leading scorer. He’s been as much of a threat as anyone on the team. Holy head fake Batman, set the guy up for success!
  • Structure can rob from spontaneity. When you’ve been shut out four times in five games, it’s time to experiment.

    Throw Nikita “Juiced Treebeard” Tryamkin up with Henrik and Daniel Sedin. Give Jake Virtanen 20 minutes a night. Pop Horvat onto the first power play unit. Toss the set plays and let them be creative. Let them have some fun. Get a locker room puppy and put it in a tiny jersey, that'd be adorable.

    Frankly, what do you risk by doing something like that? Breaking out of a lengthy and discouraging scoring drought is worth giving your goaltender a busier night.

    Desjardins is far too disciplined a coach to allow for that, even though it’s the right move. We just don’t see those crazy adaptations that can spark a team.
  • Willie is a stubborn coach. Like I said earlier, it’s both positive and negative. On the minus side, his stubborn adherence to philosophy means he’s predictable, to the detriment of the team.

    Loui Eriksson has been mostly deployed on the top line with the Sedins, even though a Beijing apartment owner can see he isn’t the ideal player for them.

    And then there’s ice time. I can accurately guess how much most players will receive because it simply doesn’t change. Jake Virtanen, Vancouver’s “blue chip” young player, who scored 45 goals in his WHL draft year, has been routinely playing around eight minutes a night.

    Whenever Jake is brought up during interviews, Desjardins will cite Sven Baertschi as an example of a player who crawled up Vancouver’s depth chart by playing the right way. But Baertschi has the same number of goals as Virtanen: zero. What happens if you give your young, fast, hard-hitting player around 15 minutes to see what he can do?
  • And then there are the totally inconceivable moves. The head scratchers. A prime example came from Vancouver’s second shutout loss against Ottawa, when late in the third period, down by just a goal and desperate to score, Desjardins pulled the goalie and sent out two proven clutch scorers: Derek Dorsett and Luca Sbisa.

    It simply doesn’t compute. This is not the moment for a grinder and a defensively suspect sixth defenseman to take the ice. How does he come to these decisions? Does his mustache tingle when he sends the right player over the board? Because I would respect that.

Is Willie Desjardins a Good Coach on a Bad Team?

Desjardins has had a successful coaching career by any measure. He won two championships in 9 seasons with Saskatoon and Medicine Hat of the WHL. Impressively, his teams made the playoffs every year.

In both of his two seasons with the Texas Stars, his team finished first in the division. In 2014 he coached the team to 48 wins and led the Stars to a Calder Cup, one of the hardest hockey trophies to win. His hiring helped turn around a struggling franchise.

Of course he had an all-star roster, led by league and playoff MVP Travis Morin and current NHLer Colton Sceviour. But those players were on the roster before he arrived.

In fact, his first time missing the playoffs as a head coach occurred last season in Vancouver.

In his first year with the Canucks he led them to an improbable playoff appearance after a disastrous single season under Tortorella.

With loads of experience, a long track record and proven success returning underachieving teams to competitiveness, it’s hard to imagine Desjardins wouldn’t have success in a different setting.

But here in Vancouver? He’s run out of rope, and most importantly, he’s not helping the young players get better. His team produces lower scores than Kanye West’s credit rating. It’s time they delivered Willie his pink slip so they can focus on one of the 16 other glaring deficiencies.

Just put out a cardboard cutout of Roger Nielson waving a white flag until we get this figured out.

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