Willie Desjardins talks development, struggles from last year

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. 

Rookie Chatter

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. 

Team Review

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. 

  • If this team does anything other than rebuild they should fire the entire front office. It will also lead the team to NOT being in the playoffs for about 10-15 years just like the leafs of the last 10 years.

    Adding lucic or any other UFA still has zero chance of leading the Canucks to the post season. Even if they do who wants to get dusted in 4 straight games.

      • Just honest opinion. If you could snap your fingers and have the team as a cup contender every fan would be all in. But times have changed we had a good run. Time to look at what the leafs have done over the last season and follow that model. After this draft they will be loaded with not just top talent but also with loads of prospects.

        • Leftcoaster

          I completely disagree with you regarding doing what the Leafs are doing! It’s a piss poor business model! To the best of my knowledge one team has blatantly tried to lose and won a Cup. Pittsburgh when they were able to draft Mario Lemieux.

          Building is an ongoing process, you build through the draft, never IMO have the Canucks had a General Manager like Benning who understands the importance of the draft and is actually good at it.

          Look at the Canucks two best prospects, Boeser was taken 23rd overall and Demko was taken in the second round. You can find great players in any round.

          Look at the final four teams in the playoffs, only Pittsburgh has multiple top three picks, the others were built through drafting, developing and patience.

    • call FA greedy, or just call him a normal businessman, but this isn’t Toronto where missing the playoffs has been common and fans still buck up for season tickets.

      Vancouver is a different animal, missing the playoffs, sub par product on the ice meant empty seats and lost revenue.

      can you rebuild on the fly? I guess we will find out if it works and how long it takes.

      The tank has it’s drawbacks too, just look at Edmonton.

      I am just glad JB held the course and didn’t waste assets last season trying to make the playoffs.

      • BertTheTank

        Will the fans not still be fickle with making the playoffs and being “one and done”?

        What does having your team slowly wilt away and be ousted in the first round really do for you?

        • BertTheTank

          The challenge for JB and staff is to remain somewhat competitive, sell tickets and continue to build through the draft.

          I don’t like the one and done in the playoffs very much. Didn’t like the way we got easily handled by the Flames in our last appearance either.

          I want to see a bit more grit in the lineup. It is bad enough losing but seeing the team beat up along the way is depressing.

          • Ho Borvat

            You hit the head on the nail with that last sentence. Benning has sifted through the bargain bins and made aquisitions for speedy 2 way players and now it’s time to add grit and toughness. Picking 5th is not a bad thing at all because whether it’s Dubouis or Tkachuk, the team will land some edge.

  • Steampuck

    Unless the team trades Daniel and Henrik, they will never pull the shameful act of what the Leafs, Oilers and Sabres have been doing of purposely losing games. Fans in this market will simply not show up, and the owners will not put up with an empty building.

    Unless the owners sell of all the players to lower payroll to alleviate operational costs to make the team more attractive to sell – well maybe.

    Given those parameters, I see the same course as last year of trying to win as many games as possible while integrating the kids. Hopefully the team doesn’t get as hurt.

    Its not like living in your parents basement and not cleaning your room or taking out the garbage. In the real world, we all have bosses and do what we were hired to do. Or else we end up living in our parents basement.

    • TrueBlue

      But if you believe that mgmt’s goal is winning the cup — as Linden has said is the case — then maybe you look at the long version of ‘doing what we were hired to do”.

      That long version could be spending another year developing young talent while acquiring more young talent. I’m not saying that it’s a necessity, but to say that play is ‘not doing your job’ is painfully short-sighted and unrealistic.

      Unless what you’re saying is that the Canucks should try to fulfill Linden’s goal by winning the cup next year. If so, that was all a waste of breath because you’re in deeper than I thought.

  • The rebuild on the fly can work and is the best course of action with what we have. If Detroit can do it, so can we. Our goal should be to make the playoffs EVERY year.

    Who wants to be the next Leafs or Oilers. No thanks.

    • Screw making the playoffs just because…. WE ARE NO LONGER GOOD ENOUGH TO WIN A CUP!

      I’m not sure about you, but I’d like to win a Cup. Making the playoffs to go out in the first round means nothing to me. It drives me wild that Calgary has that ONE cup they can hold over our head.

      So the quickest way to win a cup is to gain as many assets as possible. And key pieces like an elite center and defenseman. Those types of assets are only available through drafting….

  • Leftcoaster

    I think the conundrum of “compete while developing” appears more of a balancing act through the words of Linden, Benning and Desjardins than it was through practice. The Canucks have added complementary pieces (no matter what they call them, foundational or whatever) at reasonable prices and more importantly at limited term. But the focus this year if you look at their actions was entirely on development. It doesn’t matter whatever they blathered on about the playoffs – if they were really delusional about these they would have made a desperation trade or picked up any number of players off the scrap heap when they had the chance. That they didn’t is very very good. I really think the trade deadline and the mishandling of Vrbata and Hamhuis was a wasted opportunity but overall it’s still a good strategy. To add a Lucic or some other high priced (and overrated) free agent would be a terrible move unless it was at a Miller contract — expensive but with a clear end date.

  • Cageyvet

    Many mixed opinions, and I kind of agree with all of them. I definitely agree that we should judge the actions, and not obsess over the words.

    Willie is a professional coach, and all I want to hear him, and the players, ever say is that they want to win.

    He didn’t say win the cup, just win. Bust your ass, teach good habits, please learn to deploy your lines a bit better, and do your best.

    Management can dictate the lineup and direction of the team, but whoever hits the ice should be trying to win and improve their game.

    You don’t go from out of the playoffs to Cup winner, so get over it, sooner or later we will hit the playoffs yet exit early. It’s part of the learning process.

    I think we will be a lottery team again next year, let’s hope we get hit by lightning and draw high, and the year after will see a return to the playoffs.

  • JuiceBox

    Back to the tank/rebuild thing, was just reading something about Boston and their predicament with aging stars and declining outcomes — what I think continues to get overlooked in all the call for blowing it all up is that as others have pointed out here there are very few places you can actually really do an intentional tank. In the NBA the 76ers “won” the draft lottery last night but being so intentionally terrible cost the GM his job a month ago. The Leafs fans seem to be willing to pay for any terrible product for decades so they are an anomaly. But for the other teams that tank? The teams that have finished poorly the last number of years and have drafted high are all ones that outside of Toronto have been threatened with moving/folding (including the Panthers, Oilers, Sabres, etc). The Pens needed their first great savior to step in before they could move forward with the Crosby era. And even for original six teams, Chicago was in rough shape during all those years it was terrible. Boston after the debacle of getting rid of Joe Thornton for nothing and going through it’s last rebuild, fell to between 25th and 28th in league attendance — below the Thrashers and Hurricanes and the Kings/Ducks whenever the California teams are anything less than stellar. At best the Bruins are the fourth/other team in Boston after the Patriots, Red Sox and Celtics (in that order). They cannot afford to be crap.

    Which is what makes their astounding dumping of talent that would have given them an accelerated rebuild (Seguin and Hamilton) all the more bizarre — I mean between them and Rask Toronto basically gave them all the tools to be competitive for another decade and they pissed them away.

    So I would hope we would abandon this tanking talk once and for all. Because it’s only a part of what Toronto is doing anyway — player development is and has to be part of what rebuilding looks like. And I think Desjardins knows that — I think he’s been brought in to be a developmental coach. I also think he’s caught between two sets of expectations — people who yell and scream that he doesn’t play young players enough and people who yell and scream because he doesn’t ice a winning lineup or winning strategies (usually those are the same people). I think WD is a transitional coach just as Dorsett, Sbisa, Sutter, Miller, and Vrbata are. If the rebuild is a success, he won’t unfortunately be around to benefit from it.

    • Dirty30

      Rec’d, however:

      Wllie getting yelled at had less to do with winning vs development and more to do with the following:

      1. Rolling four lines no matter what — better minds have covered that topic but I will simply add that there is a vast difference between using four lines to your advantage and using them to a decided disadvantage.

      2. Playing Vey in every situation regardless of his ineffectiveness in almost all of them. Worse yet was leaving players on the bench who were varying degrees more effective than Vey when he was still out there floundering.

      3. Going from “if this is Tuesday I’ll be getting new line-mates”” to sticking with line combos that were dragging down the stats and play to a third last finish.

      4. Over-playing Miller. Not an issue if you’re tanking … Big issue if you’re hoping to win.

      5. Not Coaching — who is in charge of the power-play? For preparing for games, for the teams they face, strategies, and plays?

      I fully acknowledge that WD didn’t have a lot of top end assets to utilize on the ice, but equally, his use of those assets he had, particularly in preparation or response to play on the ice, was often atrocious.

      Despite his experience and previous success, WD is in over his head and Trev is going to have to fire him sooner than later.

      WD got a lucky break when the Sedins dragged the team into the play-offs … This year their breakdown revealed the Coach has no clothes and no clue.

      • Leftcoaster

        This is an excellent summary. To say that Willie is simply a victim of the team’s current state of affairs, and not a contributor to it, is totally disingenuous. He got outcoached by Bob Hartley, for God’s sake.

      • Steampuck

        These are all good points. I have wondered before if it’s because he’s more of a developmental coach at the lower levels that some of these things happen – the issue with the deployment and ice-time of the Sedins has come up before or the easing in of a number of younger players. I completely agree as well with the overplaying of Miller, especially when it became clear that Markstrom was fully competent and needed more time (and there I actually think his bigger crime is not paying attention to Markstrom’s development than to winning or losing). The PP I still think I lay at Gulutzan’s feet. For at least four years now the Canucks don’t seem to have had a strategy for the first unit to actually move the puck into the zone. It’s absolutely baffling as one or the other Sedin try to stickhandle in and everyone waits around until it gets broken up.

        I still think Vey gets a bad rap and I was never as upset about seeing him play as much as some of the other plugs who’ve played here. He needed to get bigger and stronger and I think he did, but I think he had a hard time adjusting to his new size (not to mention all the off-ice lunacy).

        But you’re right; I wasn’t trying to suggest that I think WD is a great coach; he clearly has a lot of flaws. But if you are trying to bring in a guy to shepherd the rebuild, I think he’s a better fit than a lot of the others who are out there with more of a winning pedigree. Once we turn the corner into a more competitive team, however, I’d be surprised if he stuck around.

        • Leftcoaster

          I realize Coach Willie isn’t going to detail his entire summer development plan for J&J on the radio but “hit the weight room and get bigger” doesn’t seem like much of a plan, because you can’t tell me that a guy that adds 5% or even 10% to his weight over the summer is going to skate the same way he did when he was smaller, or even shoot the puck the same way.

          From this quote in the article “I’ve seen both guys in the weight room this year and I’ve talked to them” it seems that the Coach is rather hands off in terms of their development. Of course they have to be responsible for their own development as athletes, but at this stage in their careers they are both at their most mouldable, not to mention they are the team’s assets that need to be managed in some way. At a minimum I would expect bi-weekly meetings with the first year players, where he tells them what they should be doing. Based on the improvement shown and not shown by other new players on the roster it almost seems like luck had as big a factor as anything else.

  • JuiceBox

    This site (when it was still an analytical site) preached “process first” and the results will inevitably follow. Virtanen is already doing all the right things. His possession and scoring chance numbers are some of the best on the team. He is strong, skates well, suppresses shots and scoring chances, and pushes play in the right direction. His issue is consistency and that can only be fixed by playing more NHL games. Sending him to the AHL next season would be detrimental not only to his development but for the Canucks as well. He definitely should stay with the Canucks next year.

    McCann on the other hand needs to be sent down to the AHL. He isn’t big enough or strong enough to handle the NHL yet. He needs more than just refinement. The Canucks have (regardless of quality) a surplus of centers going into next year and McCann is probably 6th or 7th on the depth chart. He needs to be in Utica playing top line minutes every night learning and developing his game.

  • Steampuck

    “Rebuild”? This IS the rebuild. People seem to glorify the concept of “tear it down and suck for a few years” as the only way a team gets remade. But just look at how little of the roster is still left from the Gillis years. The Sedins and Hansen, Tanev and Edler, and a few of the guys Gillis acquired or drafted right near the end (Horvat, Markstrom). Burrows might be back for one more year, Higgins has already spent time in the AHL, and Hamhuis is probably history. Otherwise, the team is flooded with younger, Benning guys, and almost all of the real prospects in the system are Benning draftees (plus Gaunce and Subban). There’ll be another high pick this year, and probably a few free agents sprinkled in.

    In other words, stop asking for a “rebuild”, it’s already happened. Has it been done well? I’m not so sure about that, since I don’t put quite as much stock into Luca Sbisa or Brandon Sutter as our intrepid GM, but you can’t deny that this is his team and we’re witnessing his vision. The only thing more extreme that could be done, to cement the idea for people, is to trade the Sedin twins. Since they have most of their value as a pair, you need to find a taker with 14 million in cap space. Good luck getting full value there, especially since you need to offset the intangible negative that would come with trading the two best players in franchise history.

    • Leftcoaster

      yep. this is the rebuild.

      after not drafting/replenishing the talent pool, we are lacking depth.

      sign some ufa’s to short contracts, and keep drafting and developing. start McCann and JV in Utica next season, develop properly.

      I have no issue with the Sedins retiring as Canucks.

      The only way they will be traded is if they waive their ntc on the last year of their contract and go to a cup contender at tdl. I wouldn’t bank on that, but who knows.

      I can’t remember the last time we have made a trade and got full value… ugh.