Hey guys, it’s Cat Silverman, NM00’s favorite Canucks Army sometimes-contributor!
With head coach Willie Desjardins still in town, TSN Radio Vancouver got a chance to catch up with the somewhat polarizing bench boss earlier today – and he certainly didn’t beat around the bush with his thoughts on next year.
Skipping past the first few minutes of pleasantries, Desjardins and TSN got down to talking about some of the tougher questions that the Canucks have to answer next year – namely, what sorts of expectations the team will have for both Jake Virtanen and Jared McCann after what was a less-than-perfect season for the two rookies.
Virtanen put up just seven goals and 13 points through 55 games played for the team, skating out in limited situations – but still falling short of a stellar pace in his first full year of pro hockey (on an 82-game scale, assuming his scoring pace remained consistent, the 19-year-old forward would have put up roughly 10 goals and 20 points on the year).
McCann, in a slightly more trusting situation, was better scoring-wise, putting up nine goals and 18 points in 69 games (putting him on pace, again considering all things remained equal, for 11 goals and 22 points in 82 games).
He, like Virtanen, put up decent possession numbers on the year – his CF% was a 50.35, while Virtanen’s was a 53.39 – but many wanted to see the two have big impacts if they weren’t going to be given top line minutes on their junior clubs. As a result, good-but-not-great seasons brought up questions – including what both players need to do in the offseason:
TSN: How valuable of a season was this for Jake Virtanen and Jared McCann? We know what their numbers were, and they were modest… but, I mean… do we now raise that bar of expectation for those guys now that they know exactly what the NHL looks like, for next season? Or is that even too soon?
Desjardins: I think when you look at it, development’s usually about a three-year cycle… once you get them in and get them going. We tried to speed up that cycle this year for sure by bringing them in. I thought that… I’ve seen both guys in the weight room this year and I’ve talked to them, I think it was a real valuable year. I think that there’s parts that they had to go through… you know, how does that translate into next year? It remains to be seen, but you know, you had a good season in the weight room, a good offseason in the weight room, and then you come back and the spots are there. You know, I certainly think that they learned a lot, and it’ll help going ahead.
TSN: Particularly in the case of McCann, I mean… you would understand the disappointment from him, because he’s such a fierce competitor… but the AHL is an option for him next year, and I don’t know that a lot of people, fans, would consider it a huge disappointment on his development chart if he went to the American league. Would that be a tough pill for you guys to swallow as an organization, to send him down there?
Desjardins: No, I don’t think so… it hasn’t changed, the same thing was at the start of the year. We have to try to develop these guys the best we can, as quick as we can… this year we didn’t have an option of sending him down, so they [McCann and Virtanen] were going to stay with us. We thought it was the best option and I still feel that it was the best option. We got them into as many games as we can, and worked it through. I think both guys know in this summer what they have to do and I think that’s really important…. who knows how they’re going to come out of the summer. If they go down to the American league that’s certainly a disappointment for them, but it’s not to say that they’re falling off on their development, it’s ‘maybe they need some more ice time’, you know, different things. Maybe they’re up and down next year a little bit. Time will tell but I have confidence in both guys that they’re going to work hard this summer, and I think they’ll surprise us when they get back to camp.
TSN: What boxes does Jared have to check? Get stronger, I think we all noticed that, but are there other boxes Jared has to check this summer?
Desjardins: Well, I think stronger and probably a little heavier will come, and then I think, just looking at the league, and realizing where the league’s at… He had such a good start, and then… it’s kind of like you set yourself up to fail, and then once the snowball’s going… it’s really hard to stop. It got rolling on him the other way for a bit of the year, but at the end of the year he came back again, I thought he put in… his last ten games were pretty solid. You love his skill, though, if you focus on his skating and his skill and his shot, that’s exceptional. So we just have to find a way and develop that the best we can, and he’ll be a very good player.
TSN: Same question with Jake: What boxes does he have to check?
Desjardins: Well, I thought Jake was pretty solid after the World Juniors. I think the biggest thing, you know… Jake had a pretty good start, fell off a little, had a great [stretch] when he came back from World Juniors, then tailed off a little bit towards the end of the year… so he’s got to stay with his consistency, and consistency comes from everyday things. That’ll come out of the summer through the weight room, like ‘can he be in there every day, or does he have to have a couple days off?’ or different things – can he be an every day guy, so we can count on him for every shift. Both guys have shown that when they play to their upside, they can be NHL players.
The biggest takeaway from this part of the interview I’ve put into bold – and that’s that both players could easily see AHL time next year.
For some, that may seem like a step backwards, but it’s potentially great news for both forwards. It’s not overly surprising to see 19 or 20 year old players go through slumps, and having the opportunity to spend those slump periods in the minors – rather than squandering on the fourth line or in the press box – could easily up their chances of bounce-backs, and much faster.
It’s not a surprise to see that the Canucks want to see McCann get bigger, but it’s nice to see Virtanen’s consistency mentioned. He wasn’t awful in terms of consistency – and his underlying numbers reinforce that – but it’s certainly an area of his game that could use some work.
TSN and Desjardins then talked a little bit about the likelihood that either Utica coach Travis Green or Canucks assistant coach Glen Gulutzan head elsewhere, but the most important part of the interview (at least, to me) came after that.
Here comes the part we all wanted to hear: how did Desjardins justify what, to many, was a bit of a lost season?
TSN: When you did your review… less so players, but the whole team… is there one thing above all else that you feel has to improve for next season, for the Canucks to be a more competitive club?
Desjardins: I think we have to be really focused on our goal. I think it’s tough when you have two goals, and we had winning and development as goals, and it’s tough… they’re different. The NHL isn’t a development league, and to try to develop at this level is tough. But that was our goal, and we worked through it. I think this year, though, we worked through our young guys… I think now they’re in a spot where they’ve got to help us win. I think our goal’s got to be clearer, where we’re focused on winning, you know… the young guys can come in and help on that.
I don’t mind this answer, because it’s accurate. The team tried to develop young players – not exactly conducive to winning – while trying to win (not exactly conducive to development), and ended up falling a bit short in both areas. Good on Desjardins for noticing that.
Putting aside my praise for his admittance, though, this doesn’t justify that the team essentially spent an entire season trying to achieve two goals that, by the coach’s own admission, don’t exactly feed well off of one another. It’s hard to win games when the roster is full of developing talent, and it’s hard to develop talent when the team is winning games on a nightly basis. As a result, the Canucks ended up losing plenty, and their development of certain players left fans antsy.
The good news here could be that Desjardins recognizes that the two goals, as he put it, don’t go well together. Depending on whether you think that the return of Brandon Sutter can actually help the team improve next year, the addition of a free agent or two and the ability to put both McCann and Virtanen in the AHL when they aren’t playing well could make a ‘winning’ goal more of a possibility.
Of course, that’s only if you think the roster is where it should be. If you’re in the camp that thinks that the team’s ‘win but also incorporate a youth movement’ strategy left them with a roster that doesn’t do much to help achieve either strategy, hearing that the team is ready to win again isn’t exactly reassuring.
This may be a team that needs to just accept a rebuild, and continued denial of this will only leave them getting slowly – but surely – worse each season.