One of the best things that happened during the past off-season this past summer was the hiring of Willie Desjardins as head coach of the Vancouver Canucks. After a long apprenticeship in junior and the minors, Desjardins finally reached the big time when the new Vancouver GM Jim Benning tapped him to replace John Tortorella who had inherited a squad with championship potential and coached them right out of playoff contention.
Desjardins had had a couple of false starts before landing this prize plum. When Dallas was seeking a replacement for Glen Gulutzan in 2013, I felt strongly that they would choose Desjardins since he was the head coach of their AHL affiliate. Instead they chose Lindy Ruff (who has done creditably well).
There was talk last summer that Desjardins would get the vacant Pittsburgh job but it was later discovered that Desjardins himself scotched that rumor (which was taking a big chance on his part) because Desjardins is a native Westerner (he was born in Saskatchewan) and wanted to coach a western NHL team. Imagine Desjardins pleasure and delight when the Vancouver job opened up? His patience paid off because now he is manning the helm of the Canucks and the team once more is back in playoff contention, in second place in the Pacific Division and the fourth best overall record in the NHL—only three points behind the league leader Anaheim.
Willie Desjardins has restored Vancouver’s offensive magic. The Canucks presently have the fourth best offense in the league and their special teams are ranked sixth in both the power-play and the penalty-kill. The Sedin twins along with Radim Vrbata form the power trio that fuels the Canuck offense. Free-agent Ryan Miller has been a Rock of Gibraltar between the pipes, reaffirming his sterling goal-tending skills.
Most important of all, Desjardins has restored the psychological equilibrium of the Canucks locker room. Gone are the mood swings of the Tortorella era which caused distraction and exhaustion, instead Desjardins strives for balance mixed with intelligence, caring, dedication, and commitment. The Canucks have become sophisticated assassins under Willie Desjardins, a team advancing steadily with mature resolution to the ultimate goal: the Stanley Cup.
Before he became an NHL head coach Desjardins had played in junior and also Canadian collegiate hockey (where he learned hockey at the knee of the legendary Dave King). He was at best a marginal player; and when his playing career ended he took up coaching at the Canadian University level and in Japan before becoming head coach of the Saskatoon Blades and the Medicine Hat Tigers in the WHL.
Medicine Hat is where Desjardins began developing his legend. In nine seasons of coaching Desjardin finished with a coaching value of +71 with nine playoff appearances and two WHL championships. In 2011 he was an associate coach with the Dallas Stars under Marc Crawford and Glen Gulutzan. He graduated from coaching in junior to the minors when he was named head coach of the Dallas AHL affiliate Texas Stars where he won two divisional titles and the 2014 Calder Cup. (According to my rating system his AHL coaching value was a +31 with an ASR of +15.50—very, very good indeed!)
Now Desjardins time has come and in the early stages of this present season he is proving that he can stand his ground with his brethren in the NHL coaching fraternity. Willie’s challenge is to do what previous Canuck coaching greats could not do: win the Stanley Cup. Roger Nielson, Pat Quinn, Mike Keenan, Marc Crawford, and Alain Vigneault had all tried and failed to do so; in Quinn’s and Vigneault’s cases they both came heartbreakingly close before falling in defeat.
Will it be different for Desjardins and the Canucks? The talent is there at the playing and coaching level; so, too, is the desire. Willie Desjardins and the Vancouver Canucks both have a lot to prove to the hockey world. And for Willie Desjardins and the Canucks it’s time for both to prove that their time has come.