Canucks Coach Willie Desjardins in a Tough Spot

Despite their occasionally aloof demeanor when viewed from afar, or the dearth of noise heard all too often in Rogers Arena, fans of the Vancouver Canucks have few rivals in the hockey world in terms of both their passion for and knowledge of their team. In a hockey-mad market like Vancouver, every single move the club makes, from the smallest lineup change to franchise-altering trades, gets analyzed under a powerful microscope.

But you don’t have to tell head coach Willie Desjardins that, he was well aware before he even took the job.

For all the digital ink spilled this season to (correctly) criticize many of the club’s flaws, the majority of it has been put towards questioning Desjardins’ less-than-rational lineup decisions, but few have considered just what a tough spot the second-year head coach is in.

Canucks Coach Willie Desjardins in a Tough Spot

Desjardins has basically three types of players among his forward group with which to work: Players in their mid-30’s who still provide some value, players in their early 20’s who are learning to be everyday NHLers, and a handful of mostly useless/borderline NHL players to fill in the blanks (with former bottom-sixer Jannik Hansen enjoying a career-year on the top line at age 29 and 26-year-old Brandon Sutter, who was off to a solid start but has been injured most of the year, being the major outliers).

With a mixture like this, how exactly is the coach meant to compose and deploy his lines in the manner which gives the club the best opportunity to win (say what you will about the direction of the franchise, that’s on management – Desjardins is in it to win it every single game)?

Desjardins’ answer has been to almost completely ignore game situations and continue to roll four lines. And he’s received a ton of flak for it too, with people criticizing why he continues to do what was once lauded when the team was making the playoffs and has now become derided as the team languishes.

However, in a market like Vancouver, it’s very much a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation for Desjardins.

One of the major gripes is that he has often not deployed Daniel and Henrik Sedin in situations which would best exploit their unique offensive capabilities. Fans have been used to seeing the Sedins hop over the boards for a faceoff after icings or TV timeouts for years, yet it’s not happening as regularly this year, as Desjardins has often chosen to instead stick to the “next line up” philosophy. Occasionally, this has even been true for power plays as well, as Desjardins will put the second unit centered by sophomore Bo Horvat on the ice first if it was Horvat’s turn in the rotation.

This is, however, also a way to manage the twins’ ice time. They’ve gone from consistently getting more than 20 minutes per game when they were in their prime to a more comfortable 18:30 this season, a number you would expect for 35-year-old players of their skill level. Once you start shaking up the rotation and putting the Sedins out in more and more favorable situations, you also increase their ice time, and at this stage in their careers (as perhaps evidenced by Henrik’s recent injury troubles) run the risk of either exhausting or injuring the only players keeping the team from complete ineptitude.

And, let’s be honest, with the direction the team is going, would you rather have the Sedins exhaust themselves, potentially putting their destiny as the players who are going to usher in the new core into jeopardy, just to score a few more goals in a vain effort to snatch a couple of home playoff dates, or the much more prudent strategy of limiting their minutes, keeping them healthy and rested, and likely landing a better draft position? That’s what I thought.

Meanwhile, a quick perusal of the Canucks average ice time chart sees the bottom filled with prospects, rookies and AHL call-ups. In fact, the only under-25 player on the roster who has consistently played more than 15 minutes a night is Horvat (16:58), who has been the team’s de facto second-line center since Sutter went on the shelf.

Predictably, Desjardins has been taking heat for his usage of the kids as well, as he’s been incredibly hesitant to give players such as Jake Virtanen, Sven Baertschi and Jared McCann, three players whom should ostensibly be considered pillars for the franchise moving forward, anything resembling meaningful minutes.

Recent events, including Henrik’s injury, Horvat’s turnaround and Brandon Prust evidently turning into a ghost, may have finally forced Desjardins’ hand on the issue, as McCann has been pushed to top line duties, Horvat and Baertschi look like a legitimate second line duo and Virtanen looks like he may get a real opportunity over Prust.

However, as much as we’ve been talking about the Canucks as a veteran-heavy squad for many years, the club has just eight players over 30, and two of them (Henrik and Dan Hamhuis) are injured. Handing the keys entirely over to the kids is playing with fire. Desjardins, lauded for his work with young players in the AHL, is likely aware of this, so it’s understandable that he would be wary.

The alternative is of course playing the numerous middling players on the roster too much, something Desjardins has been forced to do in his attempts to manage the ice time of his veterans while simultaneously easing his youth into the lineup. While players such as Prust, Derek Dorsett and Adam Cracknell aren’t completely without value, using them on average 12 minutes a game and sometimes as much as 15 or 16 minutes isn’t a good recipe for success.

What does it add up to? Well, one of the worst squads in the entire NHL. Currently ranked 29th in Corsi (46.5%) as well as regulation wins (15 in 47 games) and dead last (by a wide margin) in scoring chance differential, there seems little hope that this club can actually make the playoffs, despite being just two points out of a wildcard berth thanks to their luck in pushing games beyond 60 minutes (they lead the league in OT points with 11). Getting Sutter back, likely for the game against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday, will bring some balance back to the forward lines, but it won’t be enough to drag the team out of this morass.

So the real question isn’t why Desjardins has been using his forwards in this manner, as it’s clear he’s trying to keep his veterans fresh while simultaneously easing the kids into the lineup in the face of a lack of quality forwards in their prime years, but rather whether it will pay dividends down the road. As it stands now, it looks like the team is on a solid path in this regard, as long as one is able to see past the immediate future to next season and beyond.

Main Photo: