Willie Desjardins’ Player Deployment Decisions Piss Me Off

Sedins on the Bench

The Sedins watch from the bench as Derek Dorsett takes another offensive zone start, probably.

Watching Canucks games these days can be a bit of a chore given the lineup they ice on a nightly basis. The resurgence of Bo Horvat and Sven Baertschi certainly helps matters, but for the most part, I’m just here for the Sedinery. On too many nights this season, it seems like I’m drifting in and out of games, bearing witness to seemingly endless shifts of Derek Dorsett and Brandon Prust, waiting for the sweet relief of the twins’ ageless magic.

Often it seems as though this could be some psychological trick. Does time slow down when I’m forced to watch Dorsett and company muck around and speed up when the twins do their thing, similar to a work day that stretches on beyond measure and a night out with your friends that slips by too fast?

Unfortunately, our eyes are not deceiving us. Willie Desjardins is doing some odd things with his player deployment and it’s getting on my nerves.

Perhaps I could have chosen a more delicate title, but this is something that I’m passionate about. I spend so much of my free time obsessing over the game I love and I’m feeling more than a little short-changed.

The problem is simple: I want to see the Sedins work their magic. I am and always have been an unabashed Sedin supporter. This team could capsize and sink straight to the bottom of the sea and I’d still be there watching every second of it waiting for just a glimpse of wonder twin powers. A couple months back, I gave some unsolicited advice regarding how to tank in style and one of the tenants involves making sure your star players are still performing to the best of their ability when the rest of the team is performing well below average. That’s how you keep the fans engaged when things are going poorly.

There is a multitude of ways to increase the likelihood of success for your best players. A number of years ago some of these methods seemed groundbreaking and impressive – now they are commonplace. So when an NHL coach refuses to take advantage of these methods, it’s incredibly frustrating.

I’m not the first person to notice that the Sedins are not being utilized in an optimal fashion. Hell, I’m joining a pretty long line of fans and analysts who have voiced their opinion on this matter. Daniel Wagner of Pass It to Bulis noted how frequently Derek Dorsett plays when the Canucks are down a man, and our very own Petbugs recently chastised Willie Desjardins’ player deployment decisions in late and close situationsEven more damning, both regional and national broadcasters have noted these issues during the games themselves; John Shorthouse and John Garrett did so during the Arizona game and Jim Hughson and Craig Simpson during the Tampa Bay game. If I had a dollar for every time someone mentioned “I don’t know why the Sedins aren’t out right now”, I could stop going to work and do this writing thing full-time.

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It’s all the more frustrating that the aforementioned techniques were the bread and butter of the coaching staff two previous the current iteration – the ones employed during the years in which the Sedins were the most dangerous players in the league. Some people even threw shade on the Sedins, suggesting that they only put up such massive point totals because of the way they were deployed, to which I would say “so what?”. Why wouldn’t you put your best players in the best position to succeed? That’s just common fricken sense.

Yet here we are in 2016, with Willie Desjardins making deployment decisions so irrational, I’m beginning to think that he’s the secret lieutenant of #TankNation. He can’t possibly be playing to win games when Derek Dorsett plays a greater percentage of time that the twins when the Canucks are down a goal. He can’t seriously be trying to encourage goal scoring when his best players sit on the bench for 10-plus minutes of real time.

And yet. Here. We. Are.

Each game has its head shaking moments, but Saturday’s tilt against the Lightning was the pinnacle for me. It seemed that nearly every time an advantageous opportunity came up to get the Sedins some extra ice time, they were nowhere to be found. Sure, the twins were in and around the region of their average ice time – Henrik played 21:00 minutes while Daniel played 18:21. Of course, that’s the grand total including overtime. During regulation, it looked like this:

Henrik Daniel
TOI 18:28 16:37

You could make the argument that Henrik’s ice time is still within the realm of reason, but having your leading goal scorer and point-getter playing less than 17 minutes in regulation seems less than advisable to me.

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But wait, it gets worse! Both of the Sedins spent more than two minutes killing penalties on Saturday, well above their season average and easily the most time they’ve spent on the penalty kill this season. Once shorthanded time is removed, we’re left with this:

Henrik Daniel
TOI 16:16 14:19

I shouldn’t have to say it, but this is not real good.

This isn’t to say that I don’t think the Sedins are effective penalty killers – in fact, I think their ability to keep the puck away from opponents makes them two of the best penalty killers on the team. But make no mistake: the twins were not out there killing penalties because they’re good at it. They were killing penalties because Willie Desjardins routinely failed to get them out at even strength, due to a plethora of questionable deployment decisions.

There are three areas which I would like to focus on regarding this topic: offensive zone starts, shifts after icings, and shifts after TV timeouts and other delays.

Offensive Zone Starts

Back when Alain Vigneault ran the bench, Henrik and Daniel Sedin started their shifts in the offensive zone so frequently that it was borderline ridiculous. But who would complain? They used this opportunity to feast on their opposition, each topping the 100-point mark a single time.

To be fair, Willie Desjardins hasn’t ignored this method completely. The Sedins are still leading the team in fraction of offensive zone starts versus defensive zone starts (ZSO%):


This deserves a small commendation though it still pales in comparison to the advantages that they used to be granted (in 2011-12, the Sedins’ ZSO% hovered around an incredible 80 per cent). An argument can be made that their presence is required a little more often in the defensive zone these days given the general lack of skill on the other lines, particularly in the faceoff dot. If for any reason Bo Horvat isn’t available to take an important defensive zone draw, they pretty much have to send out Henrik.

Even during the Tampa Bay game on Saturday, there were positive signs: Henrik Sedin started eight shifts in the offensive zone compared to three in the defensive zone, at five-on-five. The following chart shows when they occurred, the reason for the stoppage, and which line was on before Henrik came out to take the faceoff.

ZSO chart

The chart shows us that Henrik had eight offensive zone starts. Twice, he was already on the ice, so all Willie Desjardins had to do was not pull them off the ice. Six times, the Sedin replaced another line for a draw in the offensive zone.

Kudos! He’s learning!

Oh. Wait. Nope.

On all six of those occasions, the Sedins were the next line in the rotation. Once Linden Vey and Adam Cracknell swapped lines early in the game, the deployment rotation followed this pattern incessantly during five-on-five play:

Line Rotation

On the three times that the Sedin line took over for the Vey line during the first and second periods, Linden Vey had already been on the ice for at least 40 seconds – already longer than his average shift length of 36 seconds, meaning that there wouldn’t even have been a second thought to changing the line. In the third period, his shifts prior to the change were slightly shorter, so perhaps this is where I give my congratulations.

Thank you, Willie Desjardins, for pulling Linden Vey off the ice after only 24 seconds to grant Henrik Sedin an offensive zone draw.

The final occurrence seems like a deviation, as the Sedin line comes on after the Cracknell line at the 17:50 mark of the third period. The explanation? It was a close and late situation and Linden Vey’s line was no longer receiving regular shifts, thus the Sedin line followed the Cracknell line in the rotation.

The cold hard truth is this: none of Henrik Sedin’s eight offensive zone starts broke Willie Desjardins’ line rotation. He was simply next in line.

Shifts After Icings

Icings were basically covered in the previous section, given that they are always offensive zone starts per the rules, but this deserves extra emphasis.

This seems like another no-brainer: using your best offensive players against tired defenders who have just iced the puck. Throughout their careers, one of the twins’ greatest weapons has been wearing opponents and taking advantage of the mistakes they make when they’re tired. It’s a fundamental part of how they’ve built their legacies.

Despite that, it’s unsettling how often we see any other line come out after the opponent ices the puck.

One might think that there must be an alternative explanation. Perhaps the Sedins were just on the ice and required a rest themselves? Sadly, that excuse is not usable nearly enough.

On Saturday night, there were thirteen icing calls. The lines before and after played out as follows:

Game 42 Icings

Tampa Bay icing calls are highlighted to clarify when the Canucks had the ability to make line changes. On the surface, this doesn’t seem so bad. The Sedins started in the offensive zone five times following the icings, but as we saw above, this was a product on the line rotations rather than a strategic effort.

Just to top it off, note that the other two occasions that Vancouver players changed lines following Tampa Bay icings went as follows: Horvat to Cracknell, and Sedin to Horvat. Once again, following the rotation. The bottom line: the Tampa Bay Lightning iced the puck eight times on Saturday and Willie Desjardins broke his line rotation on exactly zero of those occasions.

I’d love to give Willie Desjardins credit for using icings to his advantage, and it almost looked like he had, but I won’t do so if he arrives there purely on luck.

Shifts After TV Timeouts/Delays

This one bothers me above and beyond the rest. A TV timeout is like a free reset that each team is granted three times per period, per game. For two minutes the players on both sides gather at the benches for a bout of banter while we on our couches are inundated with Boston Pizza commercials and video documentation of Mark Messier’s ongoing stalking of Connor McDavid.

During running game time, that is virtually the same as three shifts, assuming no play stoppages. This means that players finishing a shift at the time the TV timeout begins would have roughly the same amount of rest as they would if play had never stopped and the coach rolled the other three lines. This means that players could take the shift following a TV timeout even if they were on the ice prior to its occurrence and still have a reasonable rest. Okay, maybe you don’t want to make a habit of that, but how about late in close games?

Not to mention, if said skilled players weren’t on the ice before the TV timeout began, there’s really no reason not to upset the rotation and sneak them in for an extra shift. Unless of course you’re rolling lines so religiously that to deviate from your predictable and premeditated cycle makes your mustache twirl faster than it does when Alex Edler taking six minutes in penalties in a seven-minute span.

Last game, there were nine TV timeouts, as per usual. The following chart shows which lines were on the ice before and after each timeout.

Game 42 TV Timeouts

As you can see, the Sedins took to the ice just on just two of the nine faceoffs following TV timeouts. The first such incident followed a Tampa Bay penalty, and with the Vey line drawing the infraction, the first power play unit would, of course, take the ice. The second such case occurred in the third period when the Sedin line was on the ice both before and after the final TV timeout. I’d praise this decision, but the TOI charts show that Henrik Sedin took the ice at 15:58 of the third period, just ten seconds before the timeout took place.

In most other cases, Willie is simply putting out the next line in his ceaseless rotation. The most unfortunate decision occurred in the second period. Following a TV timeout at the 13:56 mark, Desjardins iced the line of Adam Cracknell, Derek Dorsett and Brandon Prust, rather than the Sedin line despite the fact the Horvat line had finished the shift before the timeout.

20 seconds of play later, the Canucks’ fourth line iced the puck, which was then followed by an extended break used to fix a crack in one of the glass panes. This extra rest could have been a gift from the heavens, a free break for your top line to continue to get more ice time. As a result of placing the Cracknell line on the ice after a TV timeout, combined with some unforeseen circumstances, the Sedin twins were left sitting on the bench for more than ten minutes of real time.

Why you would ever think to deploy that line following a TV timeout is beyond me; they are literally the three least skilled players on the team. The fact that all of this occurred on home ice, where the coach has last change, added to the disturbing nature of the spectacle. This is about as close as one can get to four-dimensional television at home, as I could practically feel Desjardins reaching through the television set and slap me across the face as if punishing me for continuing to watch his team.

The Fallout

I’m not here advocating for Willie to get canned. I think he has enough redeeming qualities that he should be granted a longer leash than this, particularly after what he managed to get out of his team last season. Even these player deployment issues seem overcomeable. I mean, all you have to do is send your best players onto the ice sheet more often. The question is, is he just unwilling to change his deployment, or unable to?

When it comes to head coaches, the grass is always greener on the other side. Firing the bench boss is one of the easiest things to do in pro sports, often done in the name of enacting change. I can give no guarantee that another coach could coax more goals or wins out of this team given its initial construction, adherence to youth, and the injuries it has sustained. In fact, sitting at 42 points in 42 games actually seems rather impressive.

All the same, when the kids get good and things get serious, I sincerely hope that Willie has learned a few things. Another playoff series like the one last April against Calgary – where the twins are receiving well below their regular season average allotment of ice time in the campaign’s most important games – will have me pulling my hair out.

If he cannot eradicate these problems by the time the Canucks are ready to seriously compete for the Stanley Cup, he simply cannot be trusted to handle that team.

  • birdie boy

    lot’s of good counter points in the comments that i agree with – Sedins are not young – Torts method was a failure – rolling 4 lines is good for development etc etc…

    what i would like to add is that – you Jeremy Davis, are not privy to medical records and injury reports.

    as your article suggests, you’ve been listening closely to national and local telecasts, so you should be well aware that Hank Sedin has been playing with a bad back that will need to be managed for the rest of the season, and Dank Sedin is missing a good chunk of teeth. im sure his face didn’t feel very good the last week or so. and these are only the injuries we know about. behind the scenes these guys make countless trips to the trainers table that we are oblivious too. ice packs, muscle work, pain killers, weird stretches, all common place when you play 16-18 minutes a game against the best defenders the league has to offer.

    in fact, that’s one of my major gripes with fancy stats. they assume that every player is playing at 100% health every shift, which is just not true. guys are always nursing different ailments that whether they want to admit it or not, have an impact their performance.

    and while i agree with you that it would be nice to watch superstars play hockey every shift and leave the grinders out of it, it’s just not realistic. this isn’t EA sports where you can turn fatigue down and roll 2 lines all night to great success.

    in the NHL, hockey plays you.

    • I’ll post this as a reply to the last comment, but really it’s a reply to pretty much EVERY comment that references the following:

      – why mess with the Sedins when they’re having a great year,
      – the Sedins being overworked/injured,
      – the Canucks roll four lines,
      – a weaker lineup requiring the Sedins help in other areas of the ice,
      – something to do with analytics.

      Cards on the table, this article was completed after the Tampa game (obviously) and *before* the Florida game. At the time it looked like the Sedins were hitting a slump, and they’d just lost a close game in which the Sedins had large gaps in their ice time. Unfortunately the article was unable to be published until the following day, after the Sedins have an incredible game and Daniel scored twice. Such is the life of sports blogging: an article written after a loss is viewed much differently after a win.

      I made no suggestion that the Sedins average minutes should increase. I learned from the Torts year, I think they should stay low. My point is that they could be better manipulated to remain at the same level while also increasing their offensive opportunities. It’s not rocket surgery, it’s something many coaches do, so it’s not like I’m taking credit for this as my own brilliant invention.

      I’m fully aware that the Canucks roll four lines. Everyone is, they talk about it constantly. Rolling four lines is a common trait of the NHL’s top teams. Unfortunately, the four line concept works poorly when some of your players are bad at hockey. Also, they are not a strictly four line team: Willie rolls THREE lines when games are late and close. So if he’s willing to deviate there, you’d think he’d be willing to pattern the rotation every once in a while.

      The argument that the Canucks are weak lower in the lineup and the Sedins need to help out in other areas is sensible, and WOULD be legitimate IF Willie was easing their offensive zone starts to take more crucial d zone draws. But that isn’t the case. He doesn’t break pattern to replace his fourth line on d zone draws. He rolls the same four lines over and over in order, until there’s a penalty.

      Some people have griped about analytics here, but this wasn’t a heavy analytics article. I used ZSO a little, but the meat of the article was regarding the order of line changes, when icings and timeouts occurred, and who was on the ice for faceoffs. Not analytical stuff, just observational. Someone also mentioned that this is an evidence based blog, so I should be using evidence. Just because there aren’t heavy analytics numbers, doesn’t mean there isn’t evidence. The tables of line combinations are from NHL play-by-play sheets and shift charts. Those count as evidence.

      Believe you me, I write because I love, not because people are throwing bags of money at me. I appreciate the criticisms, even when they don’t really go against what I was trying to say. It just means I need to be clearer in my writing. Thanks for reading!

  • Cageyvet

    I don’t know, I see a lot of wandering from Jeremy’s basic premise, which I think we’ve been seeing all season. Just because he focused on the Sedins, doesn’t take away from other questionable decisions Willie D has made this year with who is out on the ice, and a lot of them in special teams, 3 on 3, and shootout situations.

    I don’t worry too much about the fancy stats, as many have pointed out, you can battle back with other stats and factors we may not be aware of. I’m just looking at the eye test. I think we have a great 4th line, but many times I wonder why I’m seeing so much of them. It’s gotten to the point that I like them less, because I just don’t want them out there that often and in those situations.

    The Sedins definitely need to be used in optimal situations, but so does every other forward and our goaltenders. I generally stick up for Willie, but I’ve been frustrated as well, what happened to loading ice time on the players who are hot that night?

    Maybe come back with Markstrom after he stands on his head in Los Angeles and steals you a point…..maybe double shift a guy or two who seems to be flying and park the guys who just don’t have it that night for a while. I’m all for rolling 4 lines, but I want to see coaching, not just implementing a system.

    Keep learning, Willie, please, because I do like a lot of what you do and the team seems to play for you most nights. That’s saying something, and I’m not one to forget that your debut last season was more than anyone could ask. Playoff performance, OK, you got outcoached by a guy with more experience, but if we’re going to trust the kids on the ice, we need to have some leash with our “young” coach as well (something Jeremy mentioned in his article).

  • birdie boy

    When I’m looking at your chart for TV time outs, I’m wondering who Tampa was deploying opposite. I’d assume that they would be following your suggested template & putting their best guys out.

    There is one thin that I’d note on Willie’s behalf: he’s got the last change at home. Vey has strong shot-suppression numbers over the two years he’s been with the team; Prust (as a proxy for the 4th line; Cracknell has no HERO chart, as he is a career minor leaguer) has very solid shot-suppression numbers as well, for a 4th liner. So it looks to me like Willie is responding to Tampa using TV time outs to ice their better players by icing his best shot-suppression forwards. My guess would be that once Sutter is healthy, we will see his name in that column much more than Cracknell’s is now.

    Your other point about zone starts is also probably covered by the ‘Sutter is missing’ line. More OZ would mean easier minutes for the Sedins; but with Sutter out, Hank needs to clock DZ starts so they can shelter McCann, who needs it.

    Willie, here at least, is really just coaching by the book (I think the title is ‘Coaching 101’). Nothing to see here, carry on.

  • Steampuck

    “It’s not rocket surgery, it’s something many coaches do, so it’s not like I’m taking credit for this as my own brilliant invention.”

    Only a true genius can perform rocket surgery! ?

  • Ragnarok Ouroboros

    Big D:
    “The point is that under this strategy you have a defensively competent 4th line, more like a 2/3 line with maybe a little less offense. When the opposing coach hard matches his top line against them he gets no significant advantage. Now you get to play your top three lines against his bottom three lines which should give you enough advantage to compensate”

    I don’t think we have a truly defensively competent 4th line and definitely don’t think they are akin to a 2nd/3rd line with less offense. Accordingly, I do think an opposing team gets a significant advantage if he can routinely deploy his top line against our 4th line.

    Due to our lack of depth relative to the many deeper and more talented teams in the league, I don’t think we have a significant advantage deploying our top 3 lines vs the other teams bottom three lines. Particularly, as Tom Selleck’s Stache highlighted, if RGW is routinely rolling four lines that means the opposing coach can not only get his best offensive line against our weakest line but also can get his best defensive line out against the Sedins. This really negates any advantage you allude to.

    “In a league with 29 other teams that are all trying to hard match lines, taking away the advantage of line matching could be an effective counter strategy. In it’s own way it’s as innovative as AVs extreme zone deployment.”

    I’m not sure what you are trying to articulate here. Is rolling four lines innovative? I don’t think it is in the sense that it is a new idea that has never attempted it before. Is it a good strategy? It could be if you have four balanced and fairly equally talented lines, but I don’t think that accurately reflects the talent differential of the Canucks’ forwards.