The heat has been turned up on Willie Desjardins among fans and media in the last couple of weeks as the Canucks’ slim playoff chances have gotten slimmer.
The team on the ice has looked lacklustre. And increasingly, people are pointing the finger at the coach.
Here’s footage of Jim Hughson and Craig Simpson criticizing Willie during a TV timeout in Saturday’s game against the Leafs on Hockey Night in Canada.
The Canucks are 2-3-1 since the All-Star break, a stretch that should have been a time for the team to make up ground in the playoff race. The Canucks dropped four games in a row on home ice, all to non-playoff teams, including arguably the two worst teams in the NHL.
The Canucks haven’t been able to get on a roll all season, unable to string together three wins in a row yet. The Winnipeg Jets are the only other NHL team to share that distinction.
Vancouver’s last two games, against the Leafs and the Wild, have been perhaps their most troubling. The Canucks were outshot 38-19 to Toronto, and 34-26 to Minnesota. They lost both games 5-2.
Jannik Hansen was especially candid after Saturday’s loss to the Leafs. “It wasn’t there tonight” Hansen said, speaking about the team’s work ethic. “We knew they were going to be working hard, extremely hard, that’s no secret. That’s their game plan. They’re obviously well coached, sound defensively, they’re going to take their opportunities when they come. We knew we had to match their work ethic if we want to compete with them and we didn’t.”
Interesting that Hansen associated being “well coached” with work ethic.
When asked about not being able to win three games in a row all season, Hansen understandably let us frustration show: “That’s why we’re a .500 club. If you can’t string wins together, you’re going to be in this situation”.
Willie Desjardins appeared to accept part of the blame for his team’s performance on Monday.
Willie – "I think if one or two guys aren't ready, it's the player, if it's the team, I think it's the coach." #Canucks
— Irfaan Gaffar (@sportsnetirf) February 16, 2016
The team does not look motivated lately and part of that has to fall on the coach. Also troubling has been how Willie Desjardins has deployed his players this season.
Desjardins was largely celebrated for rolling four lines last season, and the results on the ice backed up his decisions. This year, not so much.
"Willie is coaching the same this year as he did last, when we made the playoffs. He has all our support; he wants to win badly" – H. Sedin
— Vancouver Canucks (@Canucks) February 17, 2016
It’s a second guesser’s paradise of course, and judging Willie solely on wins and losses doesn’t make a lot of sense given what the team accomplished last year. If the losses this year make him a bad coach, certainly the wins last year should make him a genius. Vancouver had the 8th best record in the National Hockey League last season.
When analyzing the job Willie Desjardins has done, we ought to go beyond the team’s record this season. The team he was given this year isn’t as good as the one he had a year ago, and that team overachieved. Injuries have hurt more this year with Dan Hamhuis and Brandon Sutter missing long stretches of games and Henrik Sedin playing hurt. Those are not insignificant injuries.
While part of this season can be excused, let’s face it, the team Desjardins has been given is not a playoff-caliber team. Still, there is reason to be alarmed about his reluctance to line-match.
There is something to be said about rolling four lines, keeping everyone in a groove. The opposite side of the coin is that this strategy makes life easy for opposing coaches. I mean, if Mike Babcock is getting the matchups he wants, that has to be a bad thing. Right?
Sportsnet’s Thomas Drance has theorized that rolling four lines on the road may be a more effective strategy than at home. I think there’s something to that.
Trying to match lines on the road, when the home team has last change, can be a fruitless endeavour and can throw players out of their rhythm greatly. But at home? Make life difficult for the opposing coach. Get the Sedins out against inferior opposition. Give star players offensive zone starts after TV timeouts.
Perhaps this can explain why the Canucks have been so poor at home this year. Vancouver’s record on home ice, 9-12-5, is second worst in the NHL. Vancouver’s record away from home is much more respectable, ranking 13th out of 30 teams.
If you’re interested in developing young talent, Desjardins isn’t a bad guy to have behind the bench. He’s patient, and he plays all of his 18 skaters. He likes to sit teenagers in the press box favour of veterans a little too much for my liking, but that makes him similar to approximately 99% of coaches in league history.
TSN Insider Trading: @TSNBobMcKenzie says a Willie Desjardins in-season firing is unlikely. "All bets are off", after the season ends.
— TSN Radio Vancouver (@TSN1040) February 16, 2016
I would expect Desjardins to finish the season behind the Canucks’ bench, particularly with the team he has been given.
Beyond that, all bets are off.