Why keeping Willie Desjardins is the right move for Canucks

Dan Hamhuis scored his first goal of the season in the third period to get the Canucks a 4-2 win over the Sharks.

At the close of a criticism-filled week for the Vancouver Canucks, team president Trevor Linden gave beleaguered head coach Willie Desjardins a surprising vote of confidence.

Even with the Canucks poised to miss the post-season for the second time in three years, no heads will roll at the conclusion of the season. The triumvirate of Linden, Desjardins and general manager Jim Benning will all, according to Linden, remain in place.

If the revelation isn’t quite a bombshell, it’s at least a flare.

First reported by Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman on Hockey Night in Canada, Linden’s insistence that Desjardins and his staff will return next season represents a departure from the way the franchise has generally done business over the past decade.

Since the Aquilini family bought a 50 per cent share of the Canucks from John McCaw in 2004, the club has failed to qualify for the playoffs just three times. In each of those cases, either the head coach (Marc Crawford in 2006), the general manager (Dave Nonis in 2008) or both (John Tortorella and Mike Gillis in 2014) received their walking papers.

The timing of Linden’s public endorsement of Desjardins is intriguing, to say the least. In the wake of the Canucks’ disappointing and idle performance at the NHL trade deadline, the independence of the hockey operations department on Griffiths Way has been on the tip of the speculative tongue in the Vancouver market.

If Linden were looking to assure Canucks fans that this is his show, then guaranteeing that Desjardins will remain in place is a savvy, visible way of breaking with the recent past and accomplishing just that.

Jettisoning the organization’s habitual impatience and retaining Desjardins is also the right call. The Canucks have struggled mightily this season, but it’s hard to pin an underwhelming campaign at the head coach’s feet. As Linden recognizes, the 59-year-old bench boss hasn’t exactly been playing with a full deck of cards.

“We expected to be very young this year – which we are – and we’ve handed Willie a real challenge with several rookies on any given night,” Linden told the Province over the weekend. “I think he has performed well. I’m not making any excuses, but there’s no reason for us to consider a change. The rookies have made steps. Nothing is perfect.”

Desjardins’ equitable and mechanical habit of rolling his forward lines draws criticism in a Vancouver marketplace weaned on the more disciplined massaging of matchups that characterized Alain Vigneault’s tenure. In the big picture, however, the Canucks head coach’s dogmatic four-line approach is least defensible for a roster with an aging top-end.

Tactically speaking, Desjardins’ system is exceedingly modern. The club’s defencemen are aggressive on breakouts and the team looks to maintain puck possession in transition. Vancouver ranks in the top-10 in the NHL in terms of the ratio of ‘dump-ins’ to ‘controlled entries,’ and the Canucks' defence corps – despite lacking in high-end offensive personnel – is impressively in the top third of the league by controlled entry rate, according to Montreal-based player tracking firm Sportlogiq.

Though holding onto possession wisely appears to be a point of emphasis for Desjardins’ Canucks, the defensive-side of the game has been an issue all year. No team in hockey has surrendered scoring chances against at a rate as high as Vancouver has, according to war-on-ice.com.

His club’s permissive defensive play is not a good look for Desjardins, but it isn’t difficult to argue that this is largely a product of the Canucks’ personnel rather then their systems' play.

The Canucks’ defensive structure, for example, appears to be designed to force turnovers in the neutral zone. It's a sound strategy — the Canucks rank in the top-10 in Sportlogiq’s ‘successful defensive plays’ that occur between the two blue-lines. It’s the defencemen who carry the bulk of that responsibility, though, with the forwards ranking in the bottom-10 in the NHL by this metric while the defence ranks in the top five.

When your No. 1 centre is hobbled, your best defensive centre is injured and you’re forced to lean on a 20-year-old sophomore in a matchup role, you have to expect some hiccups.

Though the organization has endured a disappointing season, even his most ardent detractors will admit that Desjardins has successfully mined chemistry from a variety of surprising places. Spotting Jannik Hansen with the Sedin twins has proven effective, while Sven Baertschi’s ability to help Bo Horvat defensively was a counter-intuitive decision that looks excellent in retrospect.

Linden is also quite right that Vancouver’s young players have improved. Ben Hutton, easily the team’s best rookie performer, has graduated to a matchup role. Baertschi shed his early season offensive struggles to become a key contributor. Jake Virtanen’s confidence was rebuilt following a disappointing performance at the world junior championships and he’s played his best hockey since.

No one is likely to confuse Desjardins’ work this season for that of a Jack Adams finalist, but he’s done a competent enough job with an undermanned team. He might’ve made for a suitable scapegoat, but it strikes one as churlish to pin this Canucks season on any one individual.

Vancouver’s NHL club is well into a new phase of their rebuilding cycle. It’s a downturn phase, to be sure — one that should be characterized by ruthless accumulation. It’s clear at this point that patience and stability will be necessary.

And if the Canucks are going to turn over a more patient, more stable, more functional leaf, then retaining Desjardins and resisting the urge to hire a fourth head coach in five years is a reasonable start.