The recent appointment of Barry Trotz as Head Coach of the Washington Capitals has left Jim Benning and the Vancouver Canucks with a slightly shallower pool of candidates. While the majority of fans (including yours truly) heaved a heavy sigh of relief at Trotz being taken off the market, it did leave the Canucks with fewer options in their own search.
The belief is that there are only two or three (if Dan Bylsma is fired) real candidates. Even though there is a possibility that a wildcard will sweep Trevor Linden off of his feet like the smooth talkin’ John Tortorella somehow managed to do to Mike Gillis, expect the new coach of the Vancouver Canucks to come down to Los Angeles Kings assistant John Stevens, or Texas Stars’ head coach Willie Desjardins.
For the sake of argument however, I am firmly putting my support behind the moustachioed man from Climax, Saskatchewan: Willie “Big Willie Style” Desjardins.
The “Career Coach”
The Lord Linden has been very clear about his criteria for a new head coach. First off, he wants a “career coach” that I assume means all those part-time, non-committed NHL coaches can stop writing their cover letters now.
Personally, I don’t really understand this particular requirement as any coach that would warrant serious consideration should probably consider coaching in the NHL as their chosen profession. Still, if we are to believe that “career” is a synonym for longevity and experience, Willie Desjardins nails it.
The man has worked his way up and paid his dues in the business, beginning with his tenure at the University of Calgary in 1985 and a short stint coaching in Japan (for some reason…). However, it was Desjardin’s work with the Medicine Hat Tigers (Linden’s old stompin’ grounds, I might add) that put him on the map. Beginning in 2002, Desjardins was head coach and general Manager of the Tigers and led them to two Memorial Cup births in 2004 and 2007, ultimately falling short in both years.
Since his days with the Tigers, Desjardins has spent the past four seasons in the Dallas Stars’ organization as Associate Coach of the Stars (to current Canuck Assistant Glen Gulutzen) and is currently leading the AHL Texas Stars into the Calder Cup Finals.
If you are looking for a diverse set of experiences look no farther than Desjardins.
It was in Medicine Hat that Desjardins developed his reputation for player development. And the players don’t even seem to hate him for it! When the Canucks were looking for a new coach last year, former Desjardins disciple Steve Marr wrote the following about his old coach:
Willie has a vision and knows exactly how he wants his teams to play, and his style most notably is suitable to how the Canucks have been built. He knows exactly how to deal with his players because he understands that every player needs to be dealt differently based on their character and personality. He knows what buttons to push, and if and when he needs to push them. He knows how to get the best out of each individual so that they can contribute to their team’s success.
If you haven’t already, I highly recommend reading the entire blog as it is a wonderful insight into the positive aspects of playing for Desjardins.
To me, that sounds like an ideal fit for a team that happens to have a lot of different characters and personalities to deal with like Zack Kassian and (pending buyout decision) David Booth. And coming from a former player? That’s just icing on the cake.
There is a level of sincerity in that article that is very rare for a hockey player when talking about a former coach. It may be because Marr is an eloquent writer, but this kind of assessment should be considered as a letter of reference, especially after the Canucks players endured a year of John Tortorella. In fact, this was Marr’s intention when he voluntarily wrote this for the Province last year.
Former Canuck Doug Lidster, who currently serves as Desjardin’s Assistant Coach in Texas, also provided a glowing review that echoes what Marr said last year:
Lidster raving about Texas coach Willie Desjardins who is a coaching candidate in Vancouver.
— News1130 Sports (@News1130Sports) May 28, 2014
Lidster says Desjardins is a terrific team builder and at the end of the day he's a winner.
— News1130 Sports (@News1130Sports) May 28, 2014
Then again, if Desjardins is hired by Vancouver, that opens up a spot for Lidster to take over as Head Coach for Texas. So perhaps his compliments were made in his own self-interest. But that’s probably an overly cynical way of looking at it. Maybe…
Countering the Lack of Head Coaching Experience Argument
Although it appears the man from Climax is ready to explode onto the scene (teehee), there is a lingering concern that may potentially hurt his application.
Some have argued that in comparison to his competition for the job (John Stevens and possibly Pittsburgh’s Dan Bylsma), Desjardins lacks NHL head coaching experience. Personally, I don’t have an issue with that because he appears to have everything but NHL head coaching experience.
Has Tampa Bay Head Coach John Cooper been terrible because he wasn’t an NHL head coach? His Jack Adams nomination suggests his hasn’t been half bad. What about the aforementioned Dan Bylsma, who won the Stanley Cup about four months after being hired mid-season? There are more examples but you get the idea.
My point is that every coach needs an opportunity. All you can ask is that they have earned their shot with enough experience in other leagues. Desjardins has been a WHL and AHL head coach, an associate coach with the Dallas Stars, has international coaching experience and has even served as a general manager with the Medicine Hat Tigers. There isn’t much else he can do to deserve his chance.
Is it risky for the Canucks to take on a 57 year old rookie coach? Of course it is. Especially when you look at the absolute tire fire Dallas Eakins was in his first year in Edmonton. But unless Scotty Bowman or Al Arbour is coming out of retirement, every coach that Vancouver could hire will be a risk to a certain extent. Even if the Canucks manage to land the big prize in Dan Bylsma (when he is eventually canned by Pittsburgh), questions surrounding his relationship with players will follow him to British Columbia.
With the plethora of experience that Desjardins brings to the table, not having been an NHL head coach should not work against him, especially considering the men (Linden and Benning) that are responsible for hiring a new coach are rookies themselves.
Every coach that the Vancouver Canucks could consider will come with both a list of achievements and some baggage that cost them their previous jobs. The main challenge is to find the coach that is adaptable and that can work with multiple personalities in an environment that has been labelled as stale. We have seen what happens when a new coach comes in with a “my way or the highway” attitude. And it’s ugly.
It’s time to give Big Willie his shot in the big leagues. After much anticipation and build-up, it appears the time for the man from Climax has finally come.