Naked Eye vs. Nerdy Guy: Is Willie Desjardins on thin ice?

Canucks coach Willie Desjardins talks to the media about the importance of the organizations direction heading into the trade deadline.

In this edition of Naked Eye vs. Nerdy Guy, Dan Murphy and Thomas Drance look into Willie Desjardins’ effectiveness as head coach of the Vancouver Canucks.

Naked Eye: There has been plenty of shade thrown at the Canucks this season, and for good reason.

Sure, the team has been in or within reach of a playoff spot (until those last two horrendous losses) for most of this season, but I ask you this: Can you really be considered a playoff team if you haven’t had a three-game winning streak in the first 56 games of a season? Should Kanye West be on twitter?

Head coach Willie Desjardins is the latest guy in the cross hairs of Canuck Nation, and many fans are suggesting — or demanding — that the Canucks Free Willie of his duties.

Here’s the rub: Vancouver could have Scotty Bowman AND Toe Blake behind the bench right now and I’m not sure they could squeeze a whole lot more out of this group.

That’s not to say I don’t feel Desjardins has his faults.

First off, let’s be clear: I’m not going to get into systems or anything. I don’t have near enough experience to be criticizing an NHL head coach on such things. Obviously the guy can coach — he’s won at every level and let's not forget that Desjardins was at the helm of a Canucks team last season that surprised many to make the playoffs. And if you talk to the players, pretty much all teams play a similar system and then the coaches throw in the odd tweak or two.

My issues are largely the same as most. And in the grand scheme of things I don’t know how many (if any?) more wins the Canucks would have this season if Desjardins took the advice of all of us experts.

But why can’t he throw out the twins in the offensive zone after a TV time out? Especially in the third period? Especially at home? This might amount to just one or two more shifts a game for the Sedins, but it’s not a sin to have your best players on the ice. In fact, games are so close these days you have to give your best players the best chance to win some of those games for you.

This isn’t really an ice time issue in my mind. Roll lines all you like. Keep guys fresh for the third period. I mean, we can’t be coming down on Willie D for not playing the twins enough when just a couple years back we were crushing John Tortorella for wearing them out.

In certain situations though, an extra shift or two for Hank and Dank is warranted in my mind. I wish that Desjardins would be open to making a few more in-game adjustments when things clearly haven’t been going the Canucks' way.

There also have been some lineup or line decisions that I’ve scratched my head at, but that’s no different than any other Canucks head coach that I’ve covered. What may seem like a simple decision to us might not make not make sense to Willie D at all.

And here’s the thing: it’s up to Trevor Linden and Jim Benning to give Desjardins the roster. It’s up to the coach to play who he sees fit. He is trying to win games. That’s his job and he is going to make deployment decisions HE thinks is best to get wins. If it was your tail on the line, wouldn’t you want to make the decisions you thought were best? Of course you would.

I heard on the radio recently that the Canucks should bring up Andrey Pedan to see what they have. Play him a lot so he knows what he has to work on instead of just relying on what the coaches say he needs to work on.

WUT?

Desjardins doesn’t have to be “all in” on a rebuild. He’s not worried about developing players for the future. He’s concerned about winning games in order to do what’s best for his immediate future and keep his job. Because winning is all it should be about for a coach.

Now if in the end, management disagrees with a few or many of the decisions he’s made and finds him partly or mostly to blame for the team’s demise, then Linden or Benning can pull the plug. But I’m guessing Desjardins would be far more content if he was told to walk after running the bench the best way he saw fit.

Nerdy Guy: It’s hard to analyze coaching performance using the underlying numbers, so we should proceed with caution. Shot-attempt differential and the like are useful tools for analyzing team quality, but it’s difficult to tease out the impact of systems from the impact of two-way talent.

The best coaches in the league – bench bosses like Mike Babcock and Joel Quenneville – do seem to have a tangible impact on their respective club’s ability to control play, but for the vast majority of coaches, they’re more or less at the mercy of the talent available to them.

Fact is, the talent available to Desjardins has largely been insufficient this season.

The Canucks have a lot of raw, young talent on the roster and key injuries to Brandon Sutter, Dan Hamhuis, Henrik Sedin and Alex Edler have exposed those depth issues.

We could get into the impact of injuries, but suffice it to say that the team went into a tailspin following Sutter’s injury in early November and against in early December when Hamhuis sustained a gruesome facial fracture. And Henrik’s ice time and two-way effectiveness began to decline in tandem in early December, which would suggest to me that his minutes may have been more closely managed over the past two months for reasons that have very little to do with tactics.

It’s a major reason I can’t get too worked up about the Sedin twins’ usage. They’re maybe getting about one even-strength shift less per game under Desjardins than they did during the height of the Alain Vigneault era. I’d like to see Desjardins be a bit more disciplined about ensuring that the twins get offensive zone starts after television timeouts or icings, but the difference isn’t significant.

The one area where Desjardins’ player deployment genuinely seems to be suboptimal is in his over-use of Matt Bartkowski (third among Canucks defenceman in even-strength ice-time per game) and Derek Dorsett – who, despite not being a big offensive threat, ranks behind only the Sedins among regular Canucks forwards in 5-on-5 ice-time per game while trailing by one goal.

These are marginal ‘sins’ though, and in my view we should resist the urge to backseat drive. From Babcock (Matt Hunwick) to Vigneault (remember Aaron Rome?), there’s no coach in hockey who doesn’t use certain players in a way that can be ruthlessly picked apart. So Dorsett averages an additional half shift per game when the Canucks are trailing over the likes of Bo Horvat, Radim Vrbata and Jared McCann. It isn’t ideal, but it also isn’t a big deal.

Desjardins probably isn’t an elite NHL coach and I understand why fans would be frustrated with some of his choices, but his tactics and player usage aren’t the problem in Vancouver. Not even close.