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Top 3 Candidates for the Vancouver Canucks Head Coaching Vacancy

The Vancouver Canucks relieved former head coach Willie Desjardins of his job on Monday, opening the door for a new voice behind the bench for the first time in three full seasons.

Don’t let Desjardins’ run fool you, though. When the Canucks announce his successor, he’ll be the fourth coach to undertake this project in the last six years and the first to do so in an era when the rebuild is real whether management will use the word or otherwise.

Whether the burden of trying to compete for the playoffs with one eye affixed to the future is seemingly lifted or not, the job of coaching this team remains one of the most challenging and likely least appealing on the market. It’s going to take one hell of a coach to strive in this situation, surely.

We’ve been through this process before, so at the very least, we’re better prepared than most markets to handicap it. With that, let’s dive right into the three most prominent candidates for the job.

Travis Green

Let’s get the obvious candidate out of the way early. And yes, that candidate is none other than Utica Comets head coach Travis Green.

Green, 46, is relatively young compared to his peers, but what he lacks in experience he more than makes up for with success in his four years with the Canucks’ American Hockey League affiliate. Better still, his five years as an assistant coach with the Western Hockey League’s Portland Winterhawks coincide with some of the best years in the history of that storied franchise.

As a head coach, Green’s guided the Comets to a 154-109-39 record including a run to the Calder Cup Final in the 2014-15 season. However impressive Green’s track record looks through the lens of wins and losses, the context in which he’s built those numbers makes them all the more impressive.

The Comets have struggled to field lineups with more than two competent AHL centres in any given season and goaltending has been a question mark in all but Jacob Markstrom’s one season with the club. Whether shifting players like Brendan Gaunce back to centre or entrusting the pint-sized Curtis Valk in a premier role, Green’s always found a way to mitigate this glaring deficiency.

Of concern to Canucks fans, and perhaps rightfully so, will be Green’s ability to buy-in to the club’s youth movement. On the one hand, it’s easy enough to remember Green not integrating Ben Hutton and Jared McCann into his lineup mere months before they cracked the Canucks roster; on the other, the Comets most frequent first line included Jake Virtanen, Alex Grenier and Valk — all young players.

For all we make of the internal strife between Green and Jordan Subban, whatever tough love the coach is visiting on his project defencemen doesn’t seem to stifle his creativity in the slightest, as his lofty point totals can attest, and he’s hovering at fifty-percent goals for. Green’s also made a legitimate prospect of Evan McEneny, a player all but written off in every circle that covers Canucks’ prospects.

I think with Green, as with most coaches coming up from lower ranks, the only way to find out their quality, and in this case, their commitment to a young lineup, by giving them the opportunity to prove as much. Green’s certainly earned that opportunity, whether he gets it with the Canucks or elsewhere.

Todd Nelson

AHL: MAR 18 Grand Rapids Griffins at Chicago Wolves
ROSEMONT, IL – MARCH 18: Grand Rapids Griffins head coach Todd Nelson and the bench during an AHL hockey game between the Chicago Wolves and Grand Rapids Griffins on March 18, 2017, at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, IL. Griffins won 3-2 in overtime. (Photo by Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

If the Canucks are content to continue their search for the next head coach in the AHL, Green will have competition. Count Grand Rapids Griffins head coach Todd Nelson as chief among them.

Nelson, like Green, is on the younger side of the ledger at just 47-years-old. Unlike Green, Nelson has some NHL experience under his belt. While coaching the Edmonton Oilers AHL affiliate, the Oklahoma City Barons, Nelson got the tap on the shoulder to close out the 2014-15 season for the Oilers in place of the dismissed Dallas Eakins for the 2014-15 season.

The Oilers went 17-25-9 in that stretch. That record doesn’t exactly instil confidence, but it’s worth noting that everyone close to the situation considered Nelson’s run largely successful and certainly an improvement over the previous staff. Edmonton controlled 48.5% of zone and venue adjusted shot attempts at even strength in that stretch, roughly the same amount they controlled with Eakins for three months prior.

In Nelson’s two years with the Griffins, he’s led them to an 89-53-8 record. With the Oil Barons, Nelson sported a 161-105-42 record, not including the 2014-15 season when he left the team midway through the campaign.

Admittedly, I’m not familiar with Nelson’s methods, deployments or style. The results, though, are encouraging. If not with the Canucks, I’m sure Nelson will get another shot at some point.

Marc Crawford

Faerjestad v ZSC Lions Zurich - Champions Hockey League
KARLSTAD, SWEDEN – SEPTEMBER 4: Marc Crawford, coach head coach of ZSC Lions Zurich during the Champions Hockey League game against the Faerjestad BK and ZSC Lions Zurich on September 04 2014 in Karlstad Sweden. (Photo by Faerjestad BK/Champions Hockey League via Getty Images)

How’s Marc Crawford for a walk down memory lane? Or for somebody on the opposite end of the experience spectrum relative to the other coaches I’ve profiled in this space?

Canucks fans will be all too familiar with Crawford, depending on when they were born, of course. Crawford was Vancouver’s steward from 1998-99 to 2005-06, guiding the Canucks to a 246-189-62-32 record in the regular season in that span. Unfortunately, Crawford never seemed able to get the Canucks over the playoff hump and the furthest they ever advanced was game seven of the Western Conference semi-finals.

With playoffs an all-but-dismissed fantasy in these parts, though, I don’t think Canucks fans, or perhaps even the front office, will be too concerned about his shortcomings in that area. The fact of the matter is Crawford’s Canucks played a fast, up-tempo brand of hockey that helped foster one of the most successful and entertaining eras of Canucks’ hockey. The West Coast Express was running roughshod through the league and the affectionately dubbed ‘Crow’ was their conductor.

After leaving the Canucks’ organization, Crow struggled to find success elsewhere in the NHL. He coached the L.A. Kings and Dallas Stars for two seasons apiece and didn’t combine for a single playoff appearance, eventually spelling a temporary stay from the NHL.

In exile, Crawford eventually signed on with the ZSC Lions of the Swiss National League A in time for the 2012-13 season. Here’s the description of his time in Switzerland from his Wikipedia page.

In the summer of 2012, Marc Crawford was named the new coach of the ZSC Lions of the Swiss National League A having signed a two-year contract. Crawford won the NLA championship with the Lions in the 2013-14 season. In March 2014, he put pen to paper on a two-year contract extension.[9] In Spring 2015, Crawford was responsible for convincing coveted draft prospect Auston Matthews to sign and play with the Lions for the 2015–16 season.[10] Crawford was awed by Matthews’ play during the 2015 U18 Championships, and contacted Matthews family and agent about a deal. Crawford would lead the Lions to winning the 2016 Swiss Cup.[11] He left ZSC when his contract expired in 2016.[12] Besides winning the 2014 Swiss championship and 2016 Swiss Cup, he also guided the Lions to three NLA regular season championship titles (2013–14, 2014–15, 2015–16).

Crawford’s success with the ZSC Lions was enough to buy him another life in the NHL. Last off-season, Crawford signed with the Ottawa Senators to be an associate coach on Guy Boucher’s staff. The Senators surprised everyone this season, putting together a 44-28-10 record, good for second in the Atlantic Division.

I don’t hate the idea of Crawford as the Canucks’ bench boss for a second tour. His first was entertaining, even if it didn’t result in post-season accolades. There’s reason too, however sparse, to believe he can work well with young players. He seemed to do well enough with Auston Matthews, though, that doesn’t seem terribly difficult.

  • apr

    Nelso? Really? What about twitter reports on Victoria Royals coach Dave Lowry? Dineen who is apprenticing under Quenville. John Stevens was almost hired. Andy Murray is a good coach. There are a ton of options out there. Can’t rule anyone out, well, maybe Mike Keenan.

  • Kanucked

    I’m not sure if he’s available, but Ralph Krueger would be a good candidate. He has been through a rebuild before with the Oilers and did relatively well compared to the coaches before and after him. He worked well with young players (Yakapov earned 31 pts in 48 games). He’s worked with high end players (assistant with Team Canada for the 2014 Olympics and coach for Team Europe 2016).

  • I am Ted

    Did any of the CA bloggers finish high school? Just wondering.

    Yep, lots of other options out there. I don’t think these are the top 3. 2 of them might be up there and Nelson isn’t one of the 2. Anyway, thanks for the raw data, BB.

  • wojohowitz

    You are a bit off on the Utica deployments. Their best first line was Archibald, Valk and Grenier for a large part of the season and their go to line was the veterans Hamilton and Bancks.

    Travis did do one thing right by thinking outside the box and using the right handed shot of Virtanen on the left side where Jake did look more comfortable. Being flexible like that is a good sign of helping a player find his potential.

  • Riprock

    Understand, I’m not saying we should go get him, but why hasn’t anyone mentioned Darryl Sutter? We could at least talk about him, right? Maybe Brandon would play better for Uncle Darryl.

  • Chris the Curmudgeon

    Would it be that outrageous to make a pitch for Crawford as head coach and Travis Green as one of his assistants? I am not as taken with Green as some people but he does seem primed for career advancement, which an NHL assistant job would be, no? Not to mention that it would represent his first NHL coaching experience.

    Crawford presided over a solid era for the Canucks, which was abruptly cut short by the Incident. Before that, he won a Cup with the Avalanche, and was a Jack Adams winner. Not too shabby, and wouldn’t mind getting him back to finish what he started. By which I mean a Cup, preferably multiple.

  • wojohowitz

    Not surprised to see Hitch go to Dallas. They can sell it as a return to the glory years until Jim Nill fixes his problems but what about Gallant to Vegas. Could Vegas be a better gig than Vancouver as expectations in both cities will be very low and low expectations is ideal for any coach as finishing higher than 31st would be considered a success.

  • Billy Pilgrim

    In today’s system’s based NHL, the real question is whether the chosen coach will implement a system that will facilitate player development while ensuring the team competes. Dallas Eakins failure was based on the system he attempted to implement (the “swarm”), and was exacerbated by the roster he was given (not enough quality veterans on which to base a competitive team). The result was a young team with raw talent but lacking in “fundamentals” and unable compete (until McDavid).

    I would argue that a veteran coach carries less risk. Crow would be fine. So would Gerrard Gallant (success with a young Florida roster), Ralph Kruger (he actual had the Oilers kids looking decent in his short season) or even Claude Noel (can take a fair bit of credit for developing some of the younger Jets). With the Sedins, Edler, Tanev and Erickson, the new Canucks coach will have some quality veterans that will facilitate the development of a successful young core that plays competitive hockey on a nightly basis.

  • GM Place RIP

    Despite my username, I think rose-tinted glasses are the poison to avoid here. Bringing back Crawford as coach is precisely the kind of circular, self-defeating thinking that this franchise needs to abandon. It’s the same tired philosophy that brought Linden in as a friendly face, the difference being that all Trev had/has to do is smile and sell seats, whereas the next coach will actually have to coach.

    The only thing worse than a franchise as perpetually hapless as our Nucks is one that exalts its history of mediocrity. Forget ’94, forget the West Coast Express, forget trying to “retool” into the 2011 Bruins as an attempt to exorcise that particular ghost, and move forward into 2017 with a modern vision and new voices.

    Not to say that Green is instantly that, but I’d prefer to see someone who can come in and grow with these young players, alongside them; to conceive of and build a fresh identity that plays to the individual strengths of whatever and whoever the new core will be. An interim oldhead is not the one to do that — it will be interesting to see if their eventual pick will be.

    • neal

      Just about to funny.You want the coach to grow with these young players?

      The new coach must be a teacher, disciplinarian, tactician, communicator, one that gives tough love when needed, praise when deserved, someone with NHL experience.

      This organisation will not change until there is a complete shake up top to bottom and the Sedins have left the building.

      My vote goes to Crawford as coach next year.

  • BBoone

    Green has had 7 yrs coaching experience . last 5 as head coach. ( Portland ( WHL Champ, Mem cup final ) then Utica ( year 2 Calder cup final ) and by all accounts is a good coach. ) 1000 + games as NHL player qualifies as experience ( please no Milbury references , this is ” given they are a proven good coach ” ) Given that in this day and age any candidate for a NHL head coach job would be competent in the off season , pre season and non game days the rubber hits the road on NHL game day. Managing a bench during the game requires dozens of decisions , most of them experiential.. Each game is unique , your 20 , on this day, against their 20 . A 1000 game NHL vet knows instinctively what is happening on the ice at any given time and will respond accordingly. Player deployment will vary somewhat from game to game because over a long season the games they bring each night will be a little different. Green will also be able to talk to vets as a peer and young players will see someone who accomplished what they aspired to . Game management tactically, player deployment , and relating to vets and youth alike in game situations were all skills where coach Willy was at best mediocre. Green will be very good at all three. So would Crawford for that matter. I prefer Green because he knows the Canuck personnel after 4 yrs in the organization ( Markstrom et al , for eg ,would be quite confident in Green ) and he would be in the same boat so to speak in leading the younger players to their first playoff and then their first Stanley Cup.This component of personal motivation and leadership only occurs once in a coaches career and remember the Canucks are not going to be winners for a few more seasons of the R word and at 82 games a pop a vet coach like Sutter or Ruff … well I don’t see it . In the case of a candidate with years of prior head coaching experience + a vast number of NHL games as a player the lack of actual NHL coaching experience is somewhat of a red herring. Are there some NHL vets with coaching experience who were not good NHL coaches ?,Yes of course. Were their some good coaches with no NHL experience who were great coaches? , Yes of course. My point is that game management is the coaches most important task , and on balance a long NHL playing career is an experiential advantage so a lack of NHL coaching experience is not a big issue if the candidate has a proven record as a junior or AHL head coach ( preferably both ) and a solid NHL career. Therefore as pertains to this article I prefer Green, Crawford OK , Nelson no.

    • crofton

      Good post. However, I don’t see Green as the best, or even a good choice for the job, That’s based on admittedly small size of Canucks prospects games I saw him coach. His line match ups didn’t make sense, for example he refused to play Cassels against Draisaitl, despite Cassels’ record of shutting him down in Memorial Cup play (when Cassels’ home games allowed the match up). And maybe my opinion of him was tainted by that, but he didn’t seem to have any answers, much like Willie didn’t. No. Whether it’s Crawford or another coach, I think Vancouver would be best served by a coach with NHL experience.

  • G-Bear Delight

    In my opinion, Crawford is not the best choice as all his success from the past 5 years has come from Europe with a young stud pushing a team over the top, as well as Crow piggy backing on Guy Bouchier’s system with a deep Ottawa hockey club. I just can’t seem to forget how average his Dallas/LA teams preformed. Green should be the guy to take a chance on while the Canucks develop these young players rather than chase a playoff spot

  • Sounds like Travis Green is the guy. No problem, I support that. He has earned it and I like his work in Utica.. I still believe we need an NHL caliber coach with experience, but I assume management is doing their due diligence, so if Travis is ahead of the pack, so be it.

    I heard Willie on the radio today, he is a good dude. Good luck Willie, hope you find something soon.

  • KCasey

    JD….you need to let go of this whole use the rebuild word towards managment. Your sounding like mayor Quimby from the Simpsons making the butler say the word Chowder. You know what it is, we know what it is, they know what it is….so who really cares about the word. Please just let it go. Move on and stick to what your good at, advanced stats and waiver wire players. Stop being a word jockey and stick to your strengths.

  • Steamer

    Obvious choice is Green; already familiar with roster, prospects & management. Can Green leverage a 4 year deal? No, no, no – no more Crow:( Bertuzzi – Moore etc.

  • TheRealPB

    Next couple of years will be a tough one to step into; hard to see someone who wants to actually build a career wanting to do that. The exit interview with Willie showed a lot of class but he didn’t really accept much of the blame for his unwillingness to be adaptive given the roster and injuries. I think too much is made of some of his deployments; still, seeing players unsuited to their roles out there in strange spots, the total inability to do anything different with the PP until way too late, and the lack of recognition of other teams’ game plans made a difficult situation much worse.

    I’m unconvinced about Green. He really hasn’t helped develop much in the way of players outside of Gaunce and seemed to rely mostly on AHL vets to get the results he did achieve. Bob Boughner or Davis Payne might be interesting options.

    • BBoone

      Perhaps, but more likely his NHL career and coaching resume would have quite a lot of cachet with veterans and he would not be afraid to redeploy them or cut back their ice time. Indeed I suspect he would fairly quickly be comfortable with trusting his judgement and being quite situational with the veteran / youth mix on any given day.

  • Pat Quinn Way

    What is all this nonsense about not winning for three to five years?! With the right coach and GM in place, an immediate turnaround is possible in this age of cap induced parity.

    Chiarelli and McLellan have turned a 10 year loser around in Edmonton in two seasons by cleverly building a decent team around McDavid. Same in TO with the Babs/Shanny/ brain trust making the playoffs in one season with Matthews (three since Babs came in). Torts, Mike Sullivan and Glen Gulatzen have all had an instant impact (and all ex-Canucks coaches), so, with a top two pick this June, coupled with Boeser and Bo kicking on i believe we can get back on track with the right moves…

    What’s needed is the right GM and coach and for me that’s two-time Stanley Cup winner Dean Lombardi and Kings assistant John Stevens (two cups and four Calders) as our head coach.
    #firebenningnow
    #greennotgoodenough
    #greeniswillie2.0

    • justmyopinion

      I think a little too presumptuous. Both Edm and Calgary went thru a pile of coaches..what turned EDM around around was McD and finally some prospects, trades and drafts came thru..to a lesser extent w Calgary..their recent draft picks have started coming together. Van is not in the same boat. We don’t have the prospects or overall talent yet..hopefully the drafting improves and maybe within 3 years, we’ll see a PO appearance. So at this time, they need a coach with managements blessing to play, develop and grow the young players. If management isn’t willing to do that..it will be a long time imo