Kuzma: There’s a Will ... but is there a way?
Canucks coach Willie Desjardins has some huge challenges
Vancouver Canucks announce Willie Desjardins as their new head coach at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, BC, June 23, 2014. Desjardins comes to Vancouver fresh off leading the AHL Texas Stars to a Calder Cup championship.
Photograph by: Arlen Redekop, PNG
Willie Desjardins has a bachelor of education and master’s degree in social work. How appropriate.
Applying teaching and crisis counselling of the Vancouver Canucks will be imperative for the 18th coach in franchise history. To return the overplayed and under-performing Henrik and Daniel Sedin back to point-a-game players — and getting the Canucks back to the playoffs after missing the post-season for the first time since 2008 — will take more than how he praised the Swedish twins Monday.
It will take understanding how they can be more effective and less susceptible to injury. It will take a puck-possession and attacking philosophy that will entertain and allow them to play at their best. After all, the Sedins turn 34 on Sept. 26 and are in the first year of four-year, $28-million-US contract extensions. Desjardins will have to display the proper tact to ensure his four-year contract as a rookie NHL head coach plays out the right way because the Sedins are still the straw that stirs the drink. It’s why president of hockey operations Trevor Linden and Desjardins will eventually travel to Sweden to meet with the Sedins.
A system where the Sedins aren’t played to death, told to kill penalties and block shots will help. At one point last season, Ryan Kesler led all NHL forwards in ice time while Daniel was fourth and Henrik sixth. Henrik would average 20:40 and Daniel 20:36 to finish 10th and 12th respectively, but they often averaged 22-24 minutes and some nights even logged 25 minutes. Getting them back to the 19 minutes they averaged in their Art Ross Trophy years would be a step in the right direction. Daniel slumped to 16 goals this past season, Henrik laboured through injury to manage 11 and the power play was ranked 26th and the offence 28th.
“They’re key guys and want to play their best so we just have to find out what that is and do it,” said Desjardins. “They’re smart guys. They know. They’re elite players. You have to read it a little bit first but there is one style I like playing. You have to see what players are there and what you have to do. One thing I know is that it doesn’t matter how things start or how they work — you have to win. I know I have to win. I know I have to find a way.
“It’s about habits. They take some time to create and that’s something I’ll have to work on. You just have to respect the players. We all have the same goals and I just didn’t take the job without doing research on the team. I know the skill level. It’s how can we get there working together.”
What Desjardins will have to work with could play out this week. Kesler may be moved before the draft this weekend and the Anaheim Ducks may be willing to part with the 10th overall pick in a trade package. General manager Jim Benning is also trying to get the first-overall pick from Florida — flipping his No. 6 pick in package — to select centre Sam Reinhart of North Vancouver.
“I talked to Ryan and his agent and we’re trying to make things work for him and our organization,” said Benning. “I’ve also had a couple of conversations with Dale (Tallon) and they’ll continue this week and we’ll see where they lead to on draft day.”
While Desjardins was courted by the Pittsburgh Penguins last week after winning the Calder Cup with the Texas Stars and reportedly only offered a two-year deal, the 57-year-old Climax, Sask. native stressed that wasn’t the stumbling block. It was about autonomy and choosing his staff and direction.
“It was a little bit that way,” said Desjardins, who was general manager/coach of the Medicine Hat Tigers for eight years and won WHL titles in 2004 and 2007 and also won world junior gold and silver respectively in 2009-10. “They (Penguins) had certain things they had to do and I understand that and I had certain things I needed to be successful. It didn’t come down to term or money or anything like that. You get one chance and you want to give yourself the best chance.
“The Canucks were the first ones to contact me and were on it right away. It seemed like it was a place I would have traction in getting an NHL job and there’s loyalty to that. It was the right choice to come here.”
A coaching staff he believes in — his AHL assistant Doug Lidster and long-serving NHL assistant Perry Pearn are possibilities — will go a long way to cementing his vision. Whether assistant Glen Gulutzan remains — he coached the Dallas Stars while Desjardins served as his assistant — is doubtful.
“There are other things he wants to do, too, and it’s got to work both ways,” added Desjardins. “He’s got to want to work with me as well and there’s not an awkwardness from my spot. He might have (awkwardness), but that’s why we have to talk.”
When Desjardins spoke Monday it was with honesty and frankness. Big Willie Style? It’s about being a prairie boy and a farmer with traditional values. It’s not about the show. It’s about substance. Even when he proposed to his wife, Rhonda, he told her he was going to be an NHL head coach. It took 25 years.
“I said: ‘How about a hockey player?’” laughed Rhonda, who met her husband on a golf course in Cypress Hills, Sask. “I think he asked me to golf, but I turned him down. He loves what he does and it’s not a facade. He loves his players and he always has. He doesn’t like the spotlight and he’d rather they take it. He said I’ll step in front when we’re losing, that’s when you step up for your players. I happy for him. He deserves this.”
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