Photo Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin - USA TODAY Sports

Safety was Death; The Willie Desjardins Story

Former Canucks head coach Willie Desjardins said all the right things when he got the job. At his introductory press conference, Desjardins preached pace, tempo and a puck possession oriented offence that would focus heavily on gaining the zone with control.

It was music to the ears of Canucks fans who’d spent a year suffering the ill-fated John Tortorella experiment and the boring brand of hockey it engendered.

That wasn’t the first time Canucks fans had been lured in, though. Once bitten, twice shy, or so the saying goes. Desjardins had to prove he meant business, and prove his mettle he did.

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The Sedin twins — worked into near-combustion by the bench troupe that preceded Desjardins — played about two full minutes fewer each game than they did in a season prior and to great effect. Each saw an increase in point production in the twenties for it.

Desjardins was instrumental in that renaissance. Part of why the Canucks were able to get more out of each Sedin while playing them less was the club’s commitment to playing with control of the puck and foregoing the everything and the kitchen sink dump and chase forecheck that shut them down better than any checking line ever could. And of course, the ageing Sedins benefited from the increased rest, too.

The Canucks couldn’t do that without valuable, if underrated (certainly in retrospect) utility pieces like Brad Richardson, Shawn Matthias and Nick Bonino picking up the slack left by the Sedins’ decrease in ice-time.

Matthias benefited from the run-and-gun transition attack the Canucks employed better than perhaps anyone, leading Canucks with 500 0r more minutes at even strength in goals-per-hour with 1.08. Richardson contributed the ninth-most points per hour at even strength, which proved commensurate with his salary range and role. Bonino led the team in points-per-hour with over two.

Vancouver employed useful depth pieces throughout their lineup and Desjardins mantra of allotting each a slice of the ice-time pie, while fodder for jokes years later, was exactly what led the Canucks to the 101 point campaign they enjoyed in his first season.

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While many are right to point to the Canucks’ success in one-goal games as a harbinger of the regression that followed a season later, I think that undersells the efficacy of the Canucks that season.

It’s hard to believe now, but Vancouver was outscoring their goaltending problems until Eddie Lack took the reigns from Ryan Miller to end the season. Teams that generate offence off the rush generally shoot at a higher clip. There was a method to the madness, and for every break the Canucks got I’m just as confident they make the playoffs that season if a few went in the opposite direction.

Yes, the Canucks lost in the first round that season and Desjardins looked completely lost therein, but he was a first-year coach in his first NHL playoffs. In theory, I’m certain there are lessons from that six-game series with the Calgary Flames that he’d like to put to practice if the opportunity ever arose.

Everything changed, though. Management either dealt the players that made their team a three-line threat on any given night away for pennies on the dollar or watched them walk on bargain deals in free agency.

In brief glimpses, Zack Kassian was one of the Canucks’ most productive goal-scorers at even strength, and for that Canucks general manager Jim Benning placed Brandon Prust in his stead. The Canucks could have allocated funds towards retaining Richardson and Matthias, but instead lit six-plus million dollars on fire with inexplicably terrible contract extensions for Luca Sbisa and Derek Dorsett — deals that manage to look worse and worse with each passing year. Bonino and accompanying assets became Brandon Sutter, a player whose last season is the 768th most productive for forwards with 1500 or more minutes among a total of 773 forwards.

I wouldn’t classify any one of these decisions as a death knell for the franchise by themselves. It was a death by a thousand cuts kind of incremental loss after loss approach to roster construction, though, which undercut everything that made Desjardins’ system work.

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It’s a funny thing that Desjardins legacy will be that of a veterans’ coach who stifled creativity and offence in the name of structure. Almost ironic.

In even his second season, in spite of bleeding offence the summer prior, Desjardins continued to try and run an offence-first, up-tempo system. Consequently, the Canucks bled goals and couldn’t score enough to cover those deficiencies.

Top to bottom, the Canucks, an ever reactionary franchise, wasted no expense in addressing the latter of those ills and hoped for the best where the offence was concerned. It’s no surprise, then, that Desjardins shifted his emphasis to that of a defence-first coach even if his decisions don’t necessarily reflect as much when tested with unshakeable facts and evidence. Certainly, it’s what he hoped to accomplish when he played the Jayson Megnas and Michael Chaputs of the world as frequently as he did.

But therein lies the problem. Fault the Canucks for leaving Desjardins with sparse options, but he always seemed to relish picking the worst of the lot. Every coach has their blind spots, but there were times this season where one could sincerely ask if Desjardins had any viewpoints. One could reasonably argue, too, that no coach deployed what they had to work with worse than Desjardins did.

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I remember at one point in this season, an executive from another team remarked that there wasn’t an easier coach to game plan for in the entire league. The constant and unbreakable rotation from senseless line to senseless line made playing the Canucks shooting fish in a barrel.

All the systemic adjustments Desjardins made, whether in game or out, weren’t enough to compensate for the lack of talent and the poor use of the talent available to him.

And I think that’s something that might get lost in all this. Desjardins remains, right to the bitter end, someone that an NHL team should feel confident entrusting a white board to in some capacity. The X’s and O’s were never a shortcoming of Desjardins’, even at the worst moments.

Fans will lament that Desjardins didn’t deliver the rebuild they wanted with the Canucks’ on-ice product, and perhaps that’s fair, but his goal was never to rebuild. The Canucks front office was bullish that they’d improved this team over the summer and confident of a return to the playoffs. Rightly or wrongly, Desjardins isn’t alone in not entrusting the youth with accomplishing that end, and I don’t think we can blame him for being singular minded with that goal while the people above him shift goalposts weekly, depending on who’s in front of the microphone.

The tragedy is that a coach at Desjardins’ age might not get a second chance to reshape the image management forced him to wear. His body of work with the Canucks doesn’t exactly instil confidence, and again, that’s probably fair. Talk about working with a garbage hand, though.


  • Jamie E

    Genuine, non-snarky question JD. You were on a holy jihad last summer about the Canucks NOT trading for Evander Kane because of his personal issues, yet long after the fact you criticize Canucks management for trading Zack Kassian for his very serious personal and injury issues at the time. I remember everyone in Canuck land being genuinely surprised and grateful that ANY team wanted him at that time. He was worth a bag of pucks then and that’s what we got for him. I am very glad that he has subsequently been able to turn his life and career around, but using his rather unexpected turn-around to judge that trade is patently unfair.

    • Jamie E

      I realize that I didn’t actually ask a question, so here it: Why are Evander Kane’s personal issues fair game and Zack Kassian’s personal issues not fair game when judging personnel issues?

      • Roy

        Kane is black and hockey writers/fans are white as mayonnaise – Canadian hockey fans are too stupid to parse a person of colour playing hockey. Americans sort of get it because sports.

        • Chris the Curmudgeon

          So, his behavior is acceptable then?

          Also, JD has been an almost insufferable proponent of wanting to see Jordan Subban play for the Canucks. Seems like if he had a problem with black players, that wouldn’t be the case, right?

          • Roy

            do you actually think racism is as simple as not wanting black players in hockey? I’m implying that there are systemic biases against people of colour that allow, among a billion other things, people to voice opinions about the off-ice behaviour of black players when they are traditionally quiet about white players. And if you think his behaviour is unacceptable you and everyone else who criticizes him is a massive, judgemental hypocrite.

  • Killer Marmot

    Zack Kassian was one of the Canucks’ most productive goal-scorers at even strength, and for that Canucks general manager Jim Benning placed Brandon Prust in his stead.

    Kassian had substance abuse problems, and later entered a program to help him with that. And there were games where Kassian looked terrible, possibly related to the those problems.

    I would have traded him too.

    • DJ_44

      The other “valuable utility piece” mentioned in the article is Shawn Matthias. Is that the same Shawn Matthias that JD has used as examples of ineptitude at trade deadline for not trading for “assets”, despite the fact they were 1st/2nd in their division at the time? It couldn’t be…….that would be MIXED MESSAGES, something JD hates.

      • Killer Marmot

        It’s not that he was traded. It was who replaced him.

        When you’re trying to move goods that damaged, almost anything is acceptable in return. Most coaches would just want him off of the team, as such players can hurt those around them.

        • Ronning4ever

          I think you and I are generally on the same page, but I agree with others on this one. Kassian could have just been waived or sat in the press box. Instead they gave up a pick and him to get Prust. Prust was definitely a JB player – gritty, sandpapery, lockerroom guy – but ended up being a bad call.

        • Freud

          You don’t have to replace Kassian with who you traded him for. Getting nothing and filling his spot thru free agency with someone like Stempniak or Parenteau would have been just as easy and they could have been flipped at the deadline for a pick. Instead a 5th rounder is lost and Prust just goes away with no return.

  • “I remember at one point in this season, an executive from another team remarked that there wasn’t an easier coach to game plan for in the entire league.”

    Cripes, you’ve never actually watched a Desjardins-coached game, have you? He ran such a rigid system, it was just as laughable as when Philly mocked Tampa’s 1-3-1 structure. Watch a Desjardins power play and you see a static 1-3-1 set-up. There’s zero freedom to overload one side or let the Sedins run a cycle game. It was so easy to defend because if Henrik was setting up on the right boards, you knew the LW would never come over to help. If they switched to a 3-2 umbrella, you knew the play that was being set-up was a backdoor pass to the LD for a shot.

    How about that transition game? It amounted to getting the puck (that’s fair) but then charging into the offensive zone without any structure. Why do you think Horvat has so many highlight reels of him driving the net? Because there was no option to stop up and set up trailing players because *there were no trailing players*. It was just about as predictable as AV’s drop-pass by the blue-line zone entry.

    • DJ_44

      …don’t stop there. Perhaps the most frustrating thing to watch for the past two seasons was the Canucks breakout. This is when the are in-possession of the puck, both teams changing, behind the net clean possession. Perhaps the most coachable situation in the game of hockey.

      One center swing? Two player swing to overload? Nope. A Elder/Hutton hail-mary, hoping for a tip at center ice, pass that would result in an icing 80% of the time.

      Don’t even start at the zone entry strategy (or personnel used) on the power play.

  • Killer Marmot

    Bonino and accompanying assets became Brandon Sutter, a player whose last season is the 768th most productive for forwards with 1500 or more minutes among a total of 773 forwards.

    Brandon Sutter had 1.34 points per 60 minutes played, 333rd among all NHL players. He had .67 goals per 60 minutes played, 229th among all NHL players.

    I have no idea what Burke is talking about. Some of his comments are getting really strange.

    • TC

      I don’t know either. It’s very vague to say a player’s season is the “768th most productive”. What does “productive” mean? If you’re going to throw out a stat, at least make it clear what that stat is referring to.

    • Freud

      Why would you include defence when discussing pts per 60? 36 forwards played 1500 all situations minutes this season. Sutter was 36th out of 36 in pts per 60. The difference between Sutter and 35th place was also huge – a full half point per 60. This writer took all forwards to ever meet this criteria and Sutter was in the bottom one percent in pts per minute ever. Ever. I could figure this out. Why can’t you?

      • Killer Marmot

        So you’re saying Burke is talking about forwards who have logged 1500 minutes in a single season ever in the entire history of the NHL. Okay, I didn’t pick up on that.

        That’s a weird statistic to be citing, and smells like cherry picking. I wouldn’t even know how to check that. Most forwards who log that much ice time in a season would almost certainly be playing very well, so Sutter is being compared to the very best. Further, one must always be careful when comparing players from different eras.

        If Burke wants to convince us that Sutter is a disastrous player he should cite something more conventional. For example, Sutter’s offensive output was 17 goals and 17 assists. Disappointing, but hardly a record-breaking disaster, even with all the ice time he logged.

        • Freud

          No, it speaks to the context in which Sutter was used. Tonnes of minutes in all situations. Of the 750+ players who have ever been used over 1500 minutes in a season, Sutter produced in the bottom 1%.

          How else does a team end up in 29th place if their top minutes guys are good or even decent. Your top guys drive the bus, Sutter played the most minutes and the results speak for themselves.

          Yet Benning continued to state in yesterdays press conference he still thinks Sutter is important to this team. If Benning can’t see what Sutter brings and continues to hold onto his old perceptions while ignoring the clear evidence, god help us.

          • Killer Marmot

            If you read the article, Burke was attempting to make the case that the Sutter trade was a bad deal.

            Perhaps, but why invoke such a convoluted statistic, one that apparently few here could even make sense of? Make the case using more conventional measures.

          • Dirty30

            So let’s say Benning does realize Sutter is a disaster — let’s calculate his odds of trading him if he actually publicly stated that fact.

            And how many mistakes is the guy signing the cheques going to tolerate before he signs Benning’s severance cheque?

            Truth will out if we see Sutter exposed in the expansion draft. He may not go but it might wake him up to the end is nigh to his career. He can always join his uncle on the farm removing the balls from innocent animals … it seems to be the only thing he’s adept at.

        • Beefus

          The fact that Benning traded Bonino and more for Sutter, signed him to a bloated four year contract and thinks of him as a “foundational player” is reason enough to fire the GM.

  • Ranger2k2

    I think JD does an excellent job of breaking down the rise and fall of Willie D. I’ve said it before, when he gave Sven Baertchi hell for missing on the shorthanded 2 on 1 in Winnipeg you knew he had lost a grip on coaching in the NHL. He was more concerned about giving up a goal than tying the game up. It just goes to show you he was coaching for 2-1 and 3-2 losses.

  • Ronning4ever

    Thought this was an excellent write up, kinda like the one done by CA about the Gillis regime after he left.

    The one thing that doesn’t sit with me is: “The constant and unbreakable rotation from senseless line to senseless line made playing the Canucks shooting fish in a barrel,” followed by “All the systemic adjustments Desjardins made.”

    I don’t understand what the author is trying to say. It sounds like he’s saying he was too rigid, but that he also wasn’t? You obviously can’t have it both ways. IMHO the coaching just wasn’t very good in the end. The line-up from 2015 – 17 hasn’t really changed that much and the Power Play was my strongest barometer of that.

    • J.D. Burke

      Systems and deployment are two entirely separate parts of a coach’s sum. His systems, like the x’s and o’s can be adaptable, while the rotation of lines and players isn’t.

      • Ronning4ever

        Thanks for replying! Really appreciate your analysis and insight.

        But again I’m unclear. You felt WD had adaptable systems? Do you mean moving from run and gun to dump and chase? I always felt the team was pretty monotonous (though I only really watch hockey, I don’t play it). Watching the power play was like watching my mom try to use an iPhone – sad, cringeworthy yet predictable.

        • Ronning4ever

          I think he was speaking of WD specifically – that other teams knew how he was going to roll his lines and that he didn’t often juggle in-game and so was predictable. But the author felt he adapted his systems play…although I didn’t notice the latter at all.

  • sloth

    This is the new NHL and the gulf in quality between the league’s “good” and “bad” is pretty small. Every year there are a couple “bad teams” who defy the predictions and win, and a couple “good teams” who can’t get it together and suck all year for various reasons. What the heck happened with Columbus this year? What about Dallas and Tampa Bay?

    Teams can find ways to win without elite scoring (Ottawa), without experienced defense (Toronto), and without reliable goaltending (Calgary). Every team has relative strengths and weaknesses. The job of a coach is to identify those strengths and weaknesses and build a system and culture that allows the team to use its strengths to overcome its weaknesses. The coach is responsible for getting the most out of the players he has available to him, and Willie Desjardins absolutely failed in this regard. His lineup choices were frequently confusing or bizarre and rarely effective, and his deployment decisions were consistently infuriating for fans (playing plugs with the Sedins, the weekly Eriksson shuffle, Chaput-on-as-extra-attacker, fringe D-men dressing as forwards, forwards dressing and playing 0 minutes, forwards scoring then getting benched/scratched, Miller playing back-to-backs…)The powerplay (which is absolutely essential for “bad teams” to remain competitive) was the team’s greatest weakness, yet it toiled away for months without a breath of innovation or inspiration. Obviously there are issues with Vancouver’s roster moving forward, but I do not believe this team is as bad as some in the media have made it out to be, especially considering the injury problems they faced, and I think with a different coaching staff they still could have challenged for a playoff spot this season (not that that would have accomplished much).

    And once the wheels came off and management had issued an embarrassing public directive to the coaching staff to play young players, Desjardins remained stubborn in his terrible strategies. Down the stretch, people defended him, saying it’s not his job to develop the young players, that it’s his job to coach to win every game and that means playing veterans. I’m really glad the team went 1-9-0 in their last 10 games to slide into the draft lottery above Vegas, but Desjardins proved he has no idea how to win with this group of players, and has no business being behind the bench in Vancouver next year.

    • wojohowitz

      Well said. I`ve been wondering if I`m overly optimistic in that I count eight forward positions locked in and six defencemen locked in. They need two centers to complement Henrik and Horvat and maybe two wingers to compete with Gaunce and Dorsett. There was one thing Willie finally did right and that was to stop tinkering and have set pairings on defence. It`s been a non-issue these last few weeks.

    • We’re one Top 6 playmaking centre away from being a contender, hopefully this draft is the year we get it. If you look at the composition of the core, we have goal scorers (Boeser, Goldobin, Baertschi, Granlund), a power forward (Virtanen), a responsible defensive centre (Gaunce), offensive D (Stecher, Hutton), shutdown D (Tryamkin, Tanev), a brick wall (Demko), and one jack-of-all-trades / future captain (Horvat). That doesn’t even count the guys who are debatable (Gudbranson, Eriksson, the Sedins [if they get extended]) or in development (Juolevi, Gaudette, Lockwood, Dahlen). A playmaking centre (Patrick/Hirschier/Vilardi/Mittelstadt, neo-Sedin) to compliment our two-way threat (Horvat/neo-Kesler) and we’re back in the playoff hunt. What more could you want? Sloth nailed it and I totally agree and have been saying it all along (with others), the main problem has always been Desjardins.

      • Dirty30

        Respectfully disagree — here’s why: despite positions being filled, talent and depth are still lacking. Given the number of injuries this team has suffered over the past few seasons — getting worse not better — I’m not sure how far this team can go as it is structured.

        Two issues contributed to the problem –deployment, which might be resolved with a new coach, and the PP.

        There is a continuous narrative that the Canucks are easy to play against, and part of that is a PP ranked nearly dead last in effectiveness. It sets up the situation where teams can play hard against the Canucks to the point of taking a penalty because the result will be no cost to the offending team. WD simply didn’t seem to be aware of the cost to his players, let alone the standings, of his impotent offence, particularly on the PP.

        Even if these players have what it takes to be more successful, they won’t succeed without better systems and deployment, and some reasonable depth if something invariably does happen on the injury front.

        Can this team be more competitive? Absolutely. Can they contend? That would be a stretch at this point. But I do agree this team is nowhere as bad as the Coaching led it to be.

  • TD

    The funniest part of this article was that JD wanted a rebuild and was very critical or the rebuild on the fly. He wanted a full teardown and to get way younger. But in this article, he was unhappy that the team didn’t have the same depth in Willie’s second and third year. You know, after they got rid of the veterans and the younger players who weren’t as good.

    JD can’t let anything go. He is still complaining about every one of his perceived Benning failures without acknowledging the successes. No GM has a perfect record. Even Chicago had to give away a great prospect to rid themselves of Bickell’s horrible contract. Benning is far from perfect, but he has made some great picks and trades to go with the bad ones.

    I liked how hard the players worked for Desjardins and I believe they would have been much better without some of the injuries, not a playoff team, but a low to mid 80’s team for points. But it was boring hockey to watch, not the entertainment you get from end to end action. I enjoyed some of the later games where the kids were unsuccessfully trying to score better than the boring low scoring games when they were still in the race.

    • Dirty30

      In this instance, JD seems to be saying, in his own malappropriated manner, that WD was a victim and perpetrator of asset mismanagement.

      In one moment of honesty, I would love to know how many personnel decisions were really up to Benning and how many were a trickle down from ownership micro-managing this team through their sock-puppet mouthpiece ‘Teflon’ Linden.

      It’s going to be a long haul to fix this team and my fear isn’t that it spends the next five years in the basement, but that it over-achieves and lingers in the obscurity of ‘middle-of-the-pack’ mundaneness for two decades because ownership keeps harping on making the playoffs to profit in the short term.

  • Double U Tee Eff

    Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity. That’s how Willie coached this past season. As a fan it was incredibly frustrating to watch.