Iain MacIntyre: Canucks’ Desjardins in relationship rescue mode

 

Positively different: New coach’s ability to connect will largely determine whether this year’s team will succeed or fail

 
 
 
 
Vancouver Canucks coach Willie Desjardins (right) sits with GM Jim Benning (background) on the podium, talking to reporters, as the NHL team’s training camp opened with player physicals at Rogers Arena on Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014.
 
 

Vancouver Canucks coach Willie Desjardins (right) sits with GM Jim Benning (background) on the podium, talking to reporters, as the NHL team’s training camp opened with player physicals at Rogers Arena on Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014.

Photograph by: Arlen Redekop, PNG

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VANCOUVER — Be gentle with the Vancouver Canucks. They’re coming out of a bad relationship. Willie Desjardins is getting them on the rebound.

The new head coach spent much of his summer travelling to meet his core players. He flew to Sweden to talk to Daniel and Henrik Sedin and Alex Edler, went to Montreal to see Alex Burrows, Toronto to meet Kevin Bieksa. He even travelled up to Smithers to meet Dan Hamhuis. And Hamhuis’s kids, of course.

“He got to meet my family, which was a bit chaotic,” Hamhuis said Thursday, on the eve of Desjardins’ first National Hockey League training camp in charge. “The girls were touring him around the house and showed him their bedroom. He seems really interested in getting to know you as a person, and your family.”

The objective of Desjardins’ 2014 Summer Tour was as simple as it was valuable: talk to his players, listen to them, build trust and a relationship. Without this between coach and players, not much works on a team.

Desjardins is here because it didn’t work between the Canucks and former coach John Tortorella, who was honest and direct but applied a one-size-fits-all approach to coaching. That philosophy was used on and off the ice. It fit some players so poorly the team had its worst season since the 1990s, confidence and performance of several Canucks disintegrated and both Tortorella and the general manager who hired him, Mike Gillis, were fired.

Only now, as some players talk about their new coach, is evidence (beyond scoring statistics) seeping out revealing a disconnect between players and their old coach.

For instance, winger Chris Higgins said Thursday of Desjardins: “I think just his attitude toward the players and his relationship with the players will have a little more positive spin on it. I think he’s a guy who listens to the players’ opinions and doesn’t have any preconceived notions about what kind of player or person he has on the team.”

And that wasn’t the case with Tortorella?

“I think with some guys, it might not have been,” Higgins said.

Keep in mind Higgins, who scored 17 goals and averaged a career-high 19:10 of ice time last season, is among the very few Canucks who thrived under Tortorella. Imagine, if they ever spoke openly about it, what the Sedins and Edler and Jannik Hansen and others who cratered last season might say about the coach’s inflexible ideas.

President of hockey operations Trevor Linden, whose first big management decision was to fire Tortorella, said Thursday he cannot speculate on what the Canucks’ player-coach dynamic was last season.

What Linden did say was: “As a player, you want to feel like you are respected, that your coach trusts you and believes in you and cares about what you have to say. That environment is really important. I remember that from playing for Pat Quinn. You realized pretty quickly that Pat had presence. For me, it was like a light bulb went off because he taught us how to play the game — he was a teacher — but he loved his players. It wasn’t always fun to play for him, but he was always fair. He was in your corner, always on your side.”

Desjardins made it clear on Thursday that he is here to coach players, not befriend them. But he wants to understand them, too.

Desjardins hasn’t run a single Canucks practice, but knows his players far better this morning than when he was hired in June. It was his idea — neither Linden’s nor general manager Jim Benning’s — to personally visit most of his core players.

“You have to find out where they’re at and where they’re coming from,” Desjardins explained. “So I really wanted their feedback, where they saw the team and what they believe could happen. You get to see them in their setting a little bit. It just helps me get to know the players a little bit and see their passion.”

As much as “change” was the Canucks’ summer theme and is their fall marketing mantra, there are only six new NHL players as the team opens training camp. That means as many as 17 players on the roster will be holdovers from last season. Most played for Alain Vigneault, too, before Tortorella’s one-and-done season in Vancouver.

Desjardins’ ability to connect with these players and facilitate a rebound in individual performances will largely determine whether the Canucks succeed or fail.

As energizing as it will be to incorporate up-and-coming newcomers like Nick Bonino, Luca Sbisa and Linden Vey, as encouraging as it may be to see signs of development among prospects like Bo Horvat, Hunter Shinkaruk and Nick Jensen, the Canucks will still live or die on the performance of the Sedins and Edler, Bieksa and Hamhuis and new goalie Ryan Miller.

“They’re a good group,” Desjardins said. “They didn’t make any bad comments about last year. They said: ‘This is what we want to do this year.’ They’re real classy guys. They worry about what’s ahead of them and what they want to do.”

What else has Desjardins learned about them?

“What good people they are … and how badly they want to win,” he said. “It’s not about them. There wasn’t one time that any of those leaders I talked to said: ‘Well, I need this.’ Not once. It was always about the team.”

The players learned something, too.

imacintyre@vancouversun.com

Twitter.com/imacvansun

 
 
 
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Vancouver Canucks coach Willie Desjardins (right) sits with GM Jim Benning (background) on the podium, talking to reporters, as the NHL team’s training camp opened with player physicals at Rogers Arena on Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014.
 

Vancouver Canucks coach Willie Desjardins (right) sits with GM Jim Benning (background) on the podium, talking to reporters, as the NHL team’s training camp opened with player physicals at Rogers Arena on Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014.

Photograph by: Arlen Redekop, PNG

 
Vancouver Canucks coach Willie Desjardins (right) sits with GM Jim Benning (background) on the podium, talking to reporters, as the NHL team’s training camp opened with player physicals at Rogers Arena on Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014.
Vancouver Canucks (left to right) Henrik Sedin, Daniel Sedin, Alex Burrows and Kevin Bieksa talk to reporters as the NHL team’s training camp opened with player physicals at Rogers Arena on Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014.
Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning fields a reporter’s question as the NHL team’s training camp opened with player physicals at Rogers Arena on Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014.
New Vancouver Canucks defenceman Luca Sbisa talks to reporters as the NHL team’s training camp opened with player physicals at Rogers Arena on Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014.
Vancouver Canucks goalie Ryan Miller talks to reporters as the NHL team’s training camp opened with player physicals at Rogers Arena on Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014.
Vancouver Canucks centre Nick Bonino talks to reporters as the NHL team’s training camp opened with player physicals at Rogers Arena on Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014.
Vancouver Canucks Henrik (left) and Daniel Sedin talks to reporters as the NHL team’s training camp opened with player physicals at Rogers Arena on Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014.
New  Vancouver Canuck Derek Dorsett talks to reporters as the NHL team’s training camp opened with player physicals at Rogers Arena on Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014.
Vancouver Canucks veterans Henrik (left) and Daniel Sedin with and Alex Burrows (right) talk to reporters as the NHL team’s training camp opened with player physicals at Rogers Arena on Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014.
Vancouver Canucks captain Henrik Sedin talks to reporters as the NHL team’s training camp opened with player physicals at Rogers Arena on Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014.
Vancouver Canucks coach Willie Desjardins talks to reporters as the NHL team’s training camp opened with player physicals at Rogers Arena on Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014.
Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning (in front) and head coach Willie Desjardins enter the room as the NHL team’s training camp opened with player physicals at Rogers Arena on Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014.
New Vancouver Canuck Linden Vey talks to reporters as the NHL team’s training camp opened with player physicals at Rogers Arena on Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014.
New Vancouver Canucks centre Nick Bonino talks to reporters as the NHL team’s training camp opened with player physicals at Rogers Arena on Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014.
New Vancouver Canucks winger Radim Vrbata talks to reporters as the NHL team’s training camp opened with player physicals at Rogers Arena on Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014.
Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning (left) sits next to head coach Willie Desjardins as the NHL team’s training camp opened with player physicals at Rogers Arena on Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014.2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ben Nelms
Vancouver Canucks rookie head coach Willie Desjardins (right) talks to reporters next to general manager Jim Benning as the NHL team’s training camp opened with player physicals at Rogers Arena on Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014.
Vancouver Canucks blueliner Yannick Weber talks to reporters as the NHL team’s training camp opened with player physicals at Rogers Arena on Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014.
 
 
 
 
 
 
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