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.
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.
— TSN Radio Vancouver (@TSN1040) April 12, 2017
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.
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. 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. 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. He left ZSC when his contract expired in 2016. 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.
— TSN Radio Vancouver (@TSN1040) April 12, 2017