Born: February 11, 1957 in Climax, Saskatchewan (teehee!)
Pre-Canuck Accomplishments: WHL Champion in 2004, also Coach of Year in Both WHL and CHL. Gold as Assistant Coach on 2009 WJC Team Canada. Head Coach of Team Canada at WJC in 2010. Won Calder Cup with Texas in 2014.
Hired: June 23, 2014
Fired: April 10, 2017
Record With Canucks: 109-110-27 (so close to .500!)
Bo Horvat- Willie Desjardins is the only NHL head coach that Bo Horvat has known. During their three seasons together, Horvat has gone from being considered a dependable two-way prospect to a potential first line center and the de facto leader of the team moving forward. Desjardins took a measured approach to Horvat’s development, starting him on the 4th line and only increasing his ice time incrementally despite Horvat’s rapid improvement. Some criticized Desjardins for this, stating that Horvat was succeeding in spite of him, while others thought this was being done to shelter Horvat’s development, but the results speak for themselves. Under Willie’s coaching, Horvat has severely outstripped even the most optimistic expectations anyone had for him, and it’s hard to pretend that Willie didn’t have anything to do with it.
Other Ascendant Forwards- Horvat is not the only forward to see his career thrive under Desjardins. Sven Baertschi and Markus Granlund both went from being Calgary rejects to legitimate top-9 NHL players under Willie’s guidance. Again, some will try to mitigate Desjardins’ influence here, but other coaching staffs had tried and failed with both Baertschi and Granlund. Something about Desjardins’ coaching style has allowed multiple forward talents to blossom. For all the talk of him holding back the youth, Desjardins obviously did little to hinder the arrival of Brock Boeser at the tail end of the season.
Defensive Development- As good as the development of a few key forwards has been under Desjardins, the development of the defensive core has been arguably better. Chris Tanev and Alex Edler were already established as NHL talents before Willie was hired, although Tanev has certainly solidified himself as a top pairing D under Desjardins. However, all three of Ben Hutton, Troy Stecher, and Nikita Tryamkin launched immediately successful NHL careers with Desjardins as head coach. Defense is supposed to be the toughest position to break into in the NHL, and yet three longshot prospects made the team and thrived in a matter of two seasons. All three now look like bonafide top-4 defenders, and Canuck fans should know firsthand that defensive development rarely goes so smoothly.
Earning Minutes- While the extremes to which Desjardins took this philosophy are certainly debatable, the fact that he demanded that young players earn their minutes instead of just being handed them probably had a positive impact on the team’s development. The Canucks have seen the dangers of gifting icetime thanks to the folks over in Edmonton, and Desjardins took a nearly opposite approach. While this seemed to limit immediate opportunities for some young players, it also gave them a long-term opportunity to truly earn their spot in the NHL by ousting more tenured veterans. Players like Horvat, Baertschi, and Stecher really had to fight for their NHL spots, and keep playing well to keep them, and that policy seems to have pushed them to great heights.
Respect For Veterans- On an aging team, respect for veterans is important, and Willie definitely had that. His detractors would say he had too much of it, but Desjardins’ appropriately reverent treatment of the Sedins, Alex Burrows, and Ryan Miller likely had a positive effect in the locker room and avoided the sort of personality clashes that often plague losing teams.
Team Building- Willie Desjardins just seemed like a great guy, and a coach that the players liked on a personal level. He was a master of team building, bringing in assistant coach Perry Pearn specifically due to his camaraderie-developing skills. Fans don’t always see what goes on inside the locker room, but some of the things we did see were extremely positive. The gag Desjardins pulled on Jake Virtanen and Jared McCann when they made the big leagues, or the welcome he gave Brock Boeser to the NHL, are just a few of the examples of how Desjardins helped bring his team together through some trying times.
Media Honesty- Plenty of fans made fun of Willie’s “real good” manner of speaking, but he was also a straight-shooter, and that’s not something fans can always count on from a coach. Desjardins was always honest with the media, perhaps to a fault, and that continued right through to his tearful final press conference.
Offensive Woes- Simply put, the Canucks struggled to sustain any level of consistent offense during Desjardins’ reign as coach. After a strong first season, during which the Canucks placed 8th in goals for, it was all downhill. In both of Desjardins’ final two seasons with the team, Vancouver was second-last in offense. Willie’s teams were consistently outshot and outchanced, and this season in particular saw a bizarre phenomenon wherein the Canucks would go for tens of minutes without getting a single shot. Desjardins didn’t have the most talented rosters to work with, but he also didn’t make the most out of them, either.
Overreliance on Starting Goaltender- Desjardins respects his veteran players, and that reverence obviously extended to Ryan Miller. However, Desjardins also spent the last two seasons ignoring a perfectly capable backup in Jacob Markstrom. Yes, Miller was undoubtedly the better of the two, but he looked overplayed during several stretches, and the imbalance in play has no doubt hampered Markstrom’s development. There was probably a more even way to handle the two goalies.
Lack of Trust in Youth- The dark side of Desjardins’ respect for veterans was his lack of trust in young players. Even megatalents like Horvat and Stecher had to work hard to earn icetime under Willie, and players like Nikolay Goldobin with holes in their defensive game weren’t ever given much of a chance. Many young players developed well under Desjardins, but not all were given the full opportunity that their skill may have afforded them.
Lack of Physicality- The Canucks under Desjardins were one of the least physical teams in the Western Conference. This wasn’t strictly due to personnel, either. Big hitters like Derek Dorsett, Luca Sbisa, and Erik Gudbranson all saw their physical play decrease under Desjardins’ leadership. Youngsters like Virtanen and Tryamkin seemed a bit neutered by Willie’s system, and seemed to be less and less likely to throw hits the more they played under him. It will be very interesting to see how these two in particular respond to a different coach.
Too Honest With Media About Players- Willie’s honesty with the media could occasionally backfire. His honest assessments in the media of players like Goldobin and Tryamkin annoyed fans and seemed to do little to motivate either guy. Some things are best kept behind closed doors.
Picking Favourites- I can remember a time when Canucks fans were excited at all the Medicine Hat connections coming to Vancouver, with Trevor Linden, Desjardins, Dorsett, and Linden Vey all joining the fold. Boy, that notion ended quickly. Desjardins, like many coaches, had his favorite players, but Willie seemed to play his more than the average bench boss. Former players like Dorsett and Vey were given roles far above their skillset, and could often be found on the ice late in a one-goal game. After these players were removed from the roster, Desjardins found new favorites to inexplicably overplay. The name Jayson Megna will be forever imprinted in the brains of Canucks fans thanks to this annoying Desjardins habit.
The Powerplay- The Canucks have spent the last two seasons with a powerplay that ranks in the bottom five of the league, and those who watch every game are probably surprised it wasn’t in dead last. Desjardins’ powerplay setup became all too easily predictable, and its repetitive plays were handled with ease by most opponents. Under Willie, the Canucks often struggled to even get setup, and his overreliance on veterans like Brandon Sutter and the Sedins over others like Horvat and Baertschi certainly didn’t help matters. A non-physical team that can’t score on the powerplay makes for a bad combination, and that’s what the Canucks were under Desjardins.
Inability to Adapt- The word on Willie Desjardins from other coaches around the league was “predictable.” Willie seemed to have an inability to adapt to changes, and kept sticking to his original gameplans long after opponents had figured them out. The Canucks were described as easy to play against because of this trait, and it makes a lot of sense that Desjardins had a great first season and fizzled thereafter. When things got tough, Desjardins chose to double-down on some bad strategies rather than trying to innovate, and that likely cost him his job more than anything.
THE FINAL WORD:
It was definitely time for Willie Desjardins to go. Fans were sick of his bizarre deployments, players seemed to have tuned him out, and Jim Benning was semi-regularly admonishing him in the press. However, I do believe that fans will eventually look back fondly on Desjardins’ tenure as Canuck coach, and not just because of the high draft picks it yielded.
When Willie was hired, one of the best qualities ascribed to him was his ability to develop young talent. He seemed like the perfect coach for a team that was rebuilding and, in many ways, he’s helped that process along. Players like Horvat, Baertschi, Stecher, Hutton, Tryamkin, and Granlund will be a major part of the Canucks going forward, and they all got their NHL starts under Desjardins. As a long-time fan who has seen countless promising prospects come to Vancouver and flame out, it has been fantastic to see young players finally succeeding for the Canucks. Willie Desjardins deserves plenty of credit for this, even if he won’t be around to see the fruits of his labour. Such is the life of an NHL bench boss.