Free Willie

The time has come.

Willie has suffered long enough in captivity. It’s time to return him to the open waters of hockey’s minor and junior leagues. He’s just not meant to perform on demand night in and night out.

It’s time to free Willie.

I’m sure many of you out there will think I’m jumping the gun. I mean, he’s a nice enough guy. He tries. He’s had success at other levels. But he just hasn’t made the jump.

We got a little taste of it last season when he “rolled” into the first round of the playoffs like it was just another mid-season stretch of games, and in the end wound up being badly outcoached by Bob Hartley of all people.

And in case you are under any misconception, Bob Hartley is not a good coach. Do not be fooled by that PDO Award Jack Adams Trophy he won last year.

Anyway, let’s set aside the Flames’ own coaching problems and get back to the topic at hand…

What brought on this sudden desire to see Willie released from his contractual captivity?

Well, while watching that dismal outing against the desperately trying to tank Arizona Coyotes the other night, the broadcast team suggested that with the Canucks down a goal and heading into the last TV timeout, Desjardins would be able to get the Sedins out for two more shifts.

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Instead, we got this:


Sure enough the Sedins did get out for the final shift, with the goalie pulled, but there was a five minute gap where they just sat. Five minutes when you need a goal to tie a game against a divisional opponent that is just ahead of you in the standings, and you sit your three best scorers in favour of guys like Adam Cracknell and Derek Dorsett.

This is insane.

Ok, maybe it was just temporary insanity. Maybe the shifts just didn’t work out. Maybe there was an equipment problem with one of them. Or they just weren’t ready to go.

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But then how do you explain this?


That is a list of the Canucks forwards ranked by % of time they are on the ice when the Canucks are down a goal.

Derek Dorsett leads the team. Adam Cracknell and Brandon Prust are proportionately on the ice more than Henrik Sedin. And Vrbata is even farther down the list, behind such clutch scorers as Ronalds Kenins and Chris Higgins.

This isn’t insanity. It’s just bad coaching.

You want to know who should be on the ice? Here are the Canucks forwards ranked by points per 60 minutes while down by one goal:


Compare this list to the one above it and tell me that Willie Desjardins has any idea of what he’s doing.

But points represent a small sample, and as loyal readers of Canucks Army, all you know that goals are heavily influenced by random chance so it’s shot attempts and scoring chances that are much more predictive of success. So here’s a chart from War On Ice that plots ice time vs. scoring chances for while the Canucks are down a goal:


What you would like to see is players that generate more shot attempts (bluer circles) and more scoring chances (higher on the chart) get the most ice time (further to the right). So if you were to draw a trendline through the data points, it should angle up and the the right.

Instead, we get the opposite.

Now that’s what I call “real good” coaching:




You can also check out the monthly collections of Graphic Comments over at The Sporting News.


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  • killermachi

    Wrong conclusion (great graphics though!).

    RGW is an excellent coach who is leading TeamTank. We know this because he is playing his worst forwards when down a goal. He is ‘trying’ to help the team lose. I base this conclusion on two assumptions: that humans are rational and that RGW is a human.

    The only other explanation is that RGW is totally clueless. Occam’s razor: RGW is an excellent coach leading TeamTank!

    And even if it is the latter and not the former, the results are in the best long term interests of the team. Go Willie Go!

  • killermachi

    Love the graphics. Wondering if it is down just a goal or could it be 2 or 3 goals. Also if we are down 1-0 2 minutes into game should he reduce everyone elses ice time until we catch up. would like to see that kind of graphic for 3rd period.

    Agreed that he tends to play those above mentioned players too much(IMO). Rolling four lines is a good thing up to a point. late in games you need to manipulate lines so you get proper players out on ice in close games, whether winning or losing.

    Not very impressed with Willie’s coaching style either.

  • killermachi


    Needs more funny, less grouchy.

    Or, if you’re going for an analytics slant, you could try to figure out what’s actually going on instead of playing the simplistic “the coach is an idiot” card.

    Or maybe the humor is just too subtle for me.

  • killermachi

    The paucity of highlight reel plays from career 4th line/fringe NHLers gives the impression of consistency and some coaches are addicted to that consistent effort they get from those guys. The idea that every time he sends them out he knows what he’d going to get. Even if it’s consistently poor play, he can rely on them.

    Or maybe that’s bs and he’s just rolling his lines and they’re bad at hockey so they get stuck out there for longer shifts chasing the puck.

  • killermachi

    Maybe the two of you should switch places, I’m sure Willie D could at least string some sentences together: “Bob Hartley is not a good coaching.”

  • killermachi

    I just want to be clear here — you think that the best strategy at this point for the Canucks franchise is to fire WD (and I’m guessing JB because he won’t openly embrace a tank or fire all his vets into the sun for picks and play a team composed only of unproven or barely proven prospects plus the Sedins)? And this is based on the fact that he doesn’t play the Sedins enough in late game situations?

    I think there’s lots of room to criticize the Canucks coaching — WD’s clear inability to adjust on the fly in the playoffs last year, the godawful play of the first PP unit (it’s pretty clear that the best way to defend it is to win the draw to start and then just wait while Henrik tries to stickhandle over the line and the other Canucks are waiting passively at the blue line so just stack four guys at the line and you’re done), instructing players to always reverse the puck even when it makes more sense to chip it off the boards or carry it out, etc. But given that this is supposed to be an evidence-based blog, perhaps come up with better outcomes than “he doesn’t play the players we want him to play enough.” What exactly is it that we are hoping/expecting WD to do? Is it to get wins? If the Canucks were really in a win-now mentality wouldn’t we be playing no young players and trading for middling vets or picking up the Jarrett Stoll’s or Mike Richards’ of the world in a misguided attempt to succeed?

    But if the metric is development of young players in a transitional team then perhaps we should look at something other than whatever is pissing you and the other CA writers off. Again I’m not in any way against criticizing WD or JB. But at least be honest enough to acknowledge context. The Canucks are an aging team that’s additionally been ravaged by injuries and trying to integrate a large number of rookies and young players. People are upset that the young players aren’t playing enough. Then when they play and aren’t instant superstars there’s zero patience for them. I couldn’t believe the number of negative comments on Vey. Vey has looked way better since coming back up — stronger on the puck, making some intelligent plays and while he did cough up the puck on the SHG, that was way more on Markstrom whiffing on the shot than anything. And despite what a plug like Valk has to say I like Vey on the second PP just because he’s far more dynamic and made a great play on the winning goal.

    By all means however, let’s now call for the firing of WD because the Canucks are 20th in the league, a mere 8 points out of last place. Also a mere 8 points out of 7th from the top but since we’re apparently all about cherry-picking our figures what the hell…

    • killermachi

      A lot of good points made here by PB. I was surprised by some of the info in the article (which also includes a lot of great info and interesting points), and I like how your comment write-up tempers the article somewhat. But I think some of the confusion/frustration/grasping at straws with regards to analyzing what we’re seeing on the ice is that mgmt doesn’t appear to have a clear direction.

      Stated goal is to compete and make the playoffs while developing the youth. Fine, let’s lean on the vets and use the youth at safe intervals. But that’s not happening as the Sedins are being used somewhat conservatively. That can be explained though… we don’t want to burn them out like Tortorella did. But then shouldn’t we be strategically deploying them at clutch points near the end of the game when we’re down, and lean on the kids more early on in the game? Doesn’t seem to be the case.

      Okay, then we’re actually in a stealth tank. But wouldn’t that mean leaning more heavily on the youth and giving them an opportunity to play in clutch situations? That’s not happening either.

      So the perplexing part I found after reading the article was that they’re not leaning on the youth or the Sedins (or even Vrbata/Burrows)… they’re leaning quite heavily on a group that will at best provide middling results if they work their butts off.

      I accept that I simply might not be able to see the big picture, but in my mind I wish they would pick a direction and really run with it as opposed to deploying a luke-warm strategy, which so far has led to luke-warm results.

      • killermachi

        I think those are fair questions regarding the deployment of all the players and as someone else mentioned the rotation of goalies (it took Miller’s injury for us to finally get a run of Markstrom games and show that he is in fact a competent NHL goalie and I would expect him to get at least 40% of the rest of the games in the season).

        Look, I’m not arguing that icing Prust, Cracknell or Dorsett seems like a good strategy for winning games or getting goals. But simply arguing for playing the Sedins more without looking at the in-game and overall context seems foolish to me in this article. Daniel looked like an extra from Walking Dead after that puck in the face earlier that game and Henrik’s been playing with a broken ass for a while now. Maybe they were just banged up enough that WD was waiting to use them as much at the last minute as possible, I don’t know.

        But I’d really disagree with you that management doesn’t have a clear direction. I think they actually do. I think that direction is to keep vets who they believe provide good leadership and stability (Sedins, Burrows, Edler, Miller, Hamhuis), slowly develop young talent in the NHL (Markstrom, Horvat, McCann, Virtanen, Baertschi, Hutton), surround them with some transitional ‘core’ players (Tanev, Sutter, Hansen), intermediate support pieces (Higgins, Sbisa, Prust, Dorsett, Cracknell), while letting more young talent develop in a predictable way in the minors (Shinkaruk, Boeser, etc). They clearly are not going for quick fixes on the waiver wire or trade route, they’re not gutting the team to make a play for the young players who do come up (we had no one near Jones’ quality as a d prospect to offer for Johansen for example and would have to deplete our cupboard for Drouin). They are prioritizing what they see as high upside two-way players on offense and defense at the draft rather than the boom-bust offensive dynamos favored by CA.

        You can certainly disagree with this strategy but I don’t think it’s true that there isn’t one there. Gillis had a very different strategy on how to build a winning team, one that focused on the pro side to the detriment of prospect development. And it might well turn out that the bets that Benning and co make don’t work out. But I think it’s inaccurate to think there isn’t a plan in place. Two years ago the prospect pool had Horvat, Corrado, Cassels, Subban, Shinkaruk and Jensen as basically the only real talents. In two years Benning has worked to remake that with all those listed above plus Zhukenov, Tryamkin, Neill, Olson, Brisebois, Demo, etc. There’s been an apprenticing of 5 young players this year — when was the last time we saw that on the Canucks? And we are still in the middle of the playoff picture despite a slew of injuries to key players. I’m not sure what people would want as a better result — if we really were 30th in the league what kind of development environment does that create for our players? How well has that worked for all those young Oiler players?

        • killermachi

          [quote]Look, I’m not arguing that icing Prust, Cracknell or Dorsett seems like a good strategy for winning games or getting goals. But simply arguing for playing the Sedins more without looking at the in-game and overall context seems foolish to me in this article. Daniel looked like an extra from Walking Dead after that puck in the face earlier that game and Henrik’s been playing with a broken ass for a while now. Maybe they were just banged up enough that WD was waiting to use them as much at the last minute as possible, I don’t know.[/quote]

          How much context do you think there is though? This data isn’t from one or a handful of games; it’s half a season. So there’s pretty clearly a trend with respect to player deployment that goes beyond in-game, extenuating circumstances.

          • killermachi

            Is the long-term issue with the Canucks — both in terms of personnel and deployment — that fourth line plugs are playing at prime times? I would argue that it has a lot more to do with building the prospect pool, developing young talent, and creating a supportive and learning environment for them with the right mix of vets. Getting fixated on the short-term details of whether or not certain players are getting ice time seems to be missing the point.

            I do recall people being up in arms about the playing time for Rome, Alberts, Volpatti, Glass, etc. Not sure it was grounds to fire AV though…

          • killermachi

            Developing talent the right way is fine. I just don’t think that’s what’s going on here though; because that still doesn’t explain why you would play your fourth line vets over your first line vets when you’re down a goal.

            For me, and I think this is the point of the article, the baffling player deployment isn’t the be all end all; but it’s just another piece of evidence amongst past questionable strategies (eg player usage during the playoffs, on the PP etc..) that point to an overall picture that Desjardins really shouldn’t be coaching at the NHL level.

        • killermachi

          That all sounds fantastic, except for one glaring issue – who is going to play on our first defense pairing during an eventual Cup run? The Sedins have two more years at most during which they could be considered legitimate first liners, and after that I’m hopeful that enough of those forward prospects can step in to fill the gap. The problem is that there isn’t a single prospect in this system with elite defensive upside.

          Chicago has Keith, LA has Doughty, Boston had Chara, Detroit had Lidstrom, and Anaheim had Neidermayer + Pronger. Pittsburgh didn’t really have an elite defenseman, but they had two generational centers so I hardly consider them a legitimate exception to the rule. The fact is that if this team doesn’t find a way to get that player right now, they aren’t going to win a Cup before the Sedins retire, and that would be a travesty. Hopefully they understand that the best way to acquire that type of player would be to commit to a tank this season, regardless of what they say to the public.

          Another issue with this plan is all the money that’s been doled out to veterans that provide awful return on investment. The idea that “intangibles” are worth millions of dollars alongside the fact that those players are occupying roster spots that could be filled by more worthwhile players is ludicrous. We’re paying Miller $6 million dollars to be hurt half the time, provide some of the worst goaltending in the league and be a grumpy backup? You’re telling me Dorsett is such a good leader that we need to be paying him $2.5mil over the next 3 years, when he can’t even protect the younger players when they get bullied because he weighs less than 200 pounds? Who is going to be intimidated by that? Don’t even get me started on Sbisa…Pedan’s shown more potential in his brief stint here than Sbisa ever has, but guess who’s guaranteed a roster spot once Sbisa is healthy. Grenier and Gaunce are doing great in the AHL, but they can’t play in the NHL because they don’t provide “veteran leadership”. We have the Sedin twins FFS, we don’t NEED anyone else because we already have the best in the league.

          Benning seems to be a great scout (excluding the Virtanen pick…the offensive boom-bust dynamos that CA preferred are currently playing full-time with the Jets, or leading the AHL in scoring. It looks like the writers knew what they were talking about, yet again) and good at trades + FA signings, but horrible at asset management. The quality of his deadline moves will determine whether or not he’s fit to run this team moving forward – keeping Vrbata and Hamhuis for a half-assed playoff run that’s going to stall the second we run into a team from the Central (or the Kings) would be a major blow for a team that has a chance to be pretty damn good 2-3 years from now.

          • TrueBlue

            I completely agree, we have nothing approaching a franchise defenseman and haven’t really had one that I can recall. I also agree that I don’t like some of the contracts to the middling players but I’m relatively ok with it in that none of the terms are that bad (you could argue Sutter but guys like Dorsett and Sbisa aren’t here for the long haul). But I also think that there’s no way that Benning and Linden actually believe we are going to compete for a cup while the Sedins are still active — we aren’t anywhere close to an elite team.

            I guess for me it comes down to what goal are you actually going for. And it seems clear to me that this team is trying to rebuild while the existing generational players have something to impart to the next group and hopefully make them competitive again in a short while. The problem with the Canucks is not that we’re playing Dorsett too much it’s that we don’t have the personnel or prospects ready yet to take us to the next level. That isn’t going to happen overnight.

        • TrueBlue

          Poor wording on my part because you’re right… there is definitely a pattern in place here, which does indicate a plan. And in many ways they have stuck to their word: get younger, remain competitive, usher in a new crop while working to make the playoffs. I guess I’m just favour a more enthusiastic push in either direction, but those options certainly carry their own risk. I definitely do not want to follow the Oilers route… it’s like sh__ting in your garden to grow a rose bush. Sure at the end of a very long day you might get what you wanted, but you know what you did to get there, and so do your neighbours.

          Mgmt could be creating an evolved “detroit model” here using the NHL as the incubator instead of the AHL, and we could all be singing the praises of Benning’s visionary approach in a year or two. That part I’m fine with… I definitely don’t think we have to run our prospects into the ground at such a young age. But then the deployment of the elite players should become the most important part of your strategy, shouldn’t it? Every little thing you can do to maximize their efficiency should be tried and tested, but we’re not seeing that.

          Once again though, I’m forced to admit that I don’t know the thought process. Willie could be thinking “I need to deploy the Sedins early at regular intervals to build a lead, not chase a deficit at the end of the game. It doesn’t matter who they play against, it’s more important for them to have them follow a carefully regimented routine.” Heck, they do seem like the kind of players who would benefit from that. And maybe it’s not even efficiency… maybe it’s at the Sedins’ own request. If so, hard to argue with that since they’re already being good soldiers on a team whose Stanley Cup aspirations are far from certain at this point forward. And we can’t argue that they’re not producing.

          But for me it’s a question of aligning their stated strategy with their actual execution. Not even counting the “100-point team” thing which was likely tossed out in the spur of the moment, I don’t see how they can consider this current deployment strategy a legitimate way to push for a playoff spot. The only reason we’re within reach of the playoffs right now is because some powerful-on-paper teams are falling well short of expectations, allowing us to bounce in & out of 3rd in the Pacific. So mgmt would have had to know Anaheim was going to fall off an invisible cliff (while the entire NHL community was predicting a cup final appearance), San Jose was somehow going to be worse than last year, and Calgary truly was PDO driven. I suppose it’s possible, but it seems more like gambling on what other teams are doing instead of holding down your own fort.

          So that part is confusing, but I’m not complaining about it… I’d much rather be in this position that leaning hard on vets, trying to suck the last bit of playoff marrow from their bones. I would prefer it even more if we were competitive every night, pulled off the occasional statement win, but found ourselves on the losing end this year to grab one more top flight prospect from the draft before really starting to hit the upswing with a maturing youth movement.

          In light of recent events, I will also say that I love the Baertschi trade, love the concept behind the Vey trade (hey.. you win some, you lose some…), and I am really happy out this Etem trade. I really do hope we will see more of these. Heck, we don’t even have to trade Vrbata/Hamhuis exclusively for picks… get another one or two of these early twenties prospects with potential to plug into the lineup. Serious breath of fresh air, and very much in-line with Benning’s plan. The on-ice execution is where things aren’t adding up, and that makes me wonder if the team is falling short of mgmt’s expectations (which could be the team underperforming or an overly optimistic internal evaluation by mgmt), or if the coach is deploying his assets inefficiently.

    • killermachi

      This is the issue with the “anal-yst” types. They have tunnel vision, in that they believe hockey teams and success in the NHL is made in an an excel spreadsheet with some fancy graphs.

      I don’t mean to bemoan the usefulness of the analysis and the correlations it brings about, but it needs to be put into context, it is ONE component of the decision making, reflection, and prognosis, of putting a TEAM together according to a STRATEGY employed by the team.

      It is not the BE-ALL-END-ALL of what should or should not be done. The majority of analysis and its portrayal is nothing more than what Woody Allen would describe as “publicly self-masturbating ones own ideas for the world to see”. It is only relevant to THEIR world, which is not attached to the REAL world.

      Analytics by its DEFINITION is nothing more than “reducing the complexity of the real world, into a rigid model based on HISTORICAL data”. The world is too complex to put into a spreadsheet, so we need to remove various elements and concentrate on a few elements we can understand and measure. But it is ALWAYS incomplete. One model can argue its better than another, but it is is ALWAYS INCOMPLETE.

      Yes people can draw conclusions that the Best Teams, and the Winning-est teams all have similar Analytics that are different than losing teams. BUT IF people actually understand statistical analysis, because there are similarities, it does not mean CAUSE-AND-EFFECT, they are at FIRST CORRELATIONS….O

  • Vintage

    You know when you flip a coin 9 times in a row and they are all heads, and the first year stats class roars that the next flip is bound to be tails, they are sure of it? Well, that 10th flip is Dorsett.

    And the first year stats class is Willie.

  • killermachi

    Playing your plugs that much in key situations only makes sense if you’re tanking. It doesn’t help develop the kids. It doesn’t help you win.

    I can’t imagine this management group has told Willie to tank. Presumably he’s been told the same ‘rebuild while we’re winning’ story as us. So if he’s continuously doing something that actively hurts the Canucks on both of those stated targets, he’s most likely bad at his job.

  • Vintage

    I assume you meant scoring chances, not scoring changes, but from this graph it looks like Dorsett actually creates more of them then 2/3 of the top line though with far fewer shot attempts…

  • TrueBlue

    I may be going for the award for most trashes, but I would be happy to see WD stay in his job at present.

    1. Unlike who comment on CA, I believe in bringing young players along slowly. People complained about Bo’s ice time last season while WD sheltered him, but Bo developed nicely. WD didn’t want to put too much pressure on Bo this season to score and take all he important faceoffs, and sure enough Bo went into a slump (which hopefully he’s now out of.)

    2. I’m happy that he rolls 4 lines most of the time. I think it’s better in the long run. (It’s hard to argue that there shouldn’t be any line matching at home and during the playoffs, though. It’s also hard to understand not playing scorers late in a game down by a goal.)

    3. I think it makes sense to treat injury fillins as just that and play the team regulars most of the time.

    4. Well, ok, there are things I disagree with as well. In addition to some things mentioned above, I don’t like his goalie management. I think the choice of who played 3 on 3 for the first 1/3 of the season was questionable at best and that sometimes he could change his mind about players just a little less slowly. But …

    5. Overall, I think the team has done about as well as one could have expected.

    Does anyone think the Canucks should have been better than 2nd in the Pacific last season?

    This year, on a team which people may have noticed the press almost uniformly predicted would be bad, which has been ravaged by injuries including some to key players and going into tonight was still in a playoff position in the woeful Pacific Division and ahead of 11 teams in the league. Do people really think this is better than that?

    6. I don’t think the team has tuned him out. Most nights there seems to be a solid effort from most players. There just isn’t enough player quality for this to be a real good team.

    7. Frankly, I don’t care much if as a bench boss he isn’t optimum. As long as the team is working fairly well, doing somewhere in the range of what they should be, the players haven’t tuned him out and the young players are being slowly and surely developed, why fire him?

    Why should we care if he isn’t perfect? The time for this team to be real good is in the future, not the present.