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Vancouver Canucks coach Willie Desjardins laughs when he’s asked if he can recall if any of his teams at any level missed the playoffs with him as a head coach.
“I missed one year in Japan. That’s the only year I ever missed,” said Desjardins recounting his time with the Seibu Bears in the mid-90s.
Between the Medicine Hat Tigers of the Western Hockey League and Texas Stars of the American Hockey League, Desjardins has never missed the postseason in major junior or the American Hockey League as a head coach for a full season. Since 2002-03 between the WHL and AHL, Desjardins has won three championships.
“I think I get good players and I think we have a good culture,” Desjardins said. “I think you try to establish a culture where certain things are acceptable and certain things aren’t. I believe if you play the game right you always have a chance to make the playoffs. If you have the right culture with your team you always have a chance. I think that’s why to me it’s good to have the right people, the right leadership and value the right things.”
In his second year as an NHL head coach with the Vancouver Canucks, Desjardins has found his quest to keep his personal streak alive difficult. He’s had to balance a team with a mix of veterans and young rookies. He’s needed to figure out how to develop his younger players, giving them ice-time so they can improve, while also putting his team in the best scenarios to win.
With 52 points, the Canucks find themselves three points behind the final playoff spot in the Pacific Division and four points back of the Wild Card. The Canucks rank 26th in goals scored per-game at 2.33 and 22nd in goals allowed per-game at 2.71. According to War on Ice, the Canucks rank 29th in CF% at 46.7 percent.
Every year, there’s one team that seems to struggle in either overtime or shootouts, and lends to that group drifting away from the playoffs. This year it’s the Canucks, a team with a combined 12 OT and shootout losses. The Canucks are just 3-9 in overtime, and at one point found themselves playing for shootouts where they’re 4-3. This was all part of Desjardins survivalist tactic to grind out as many points as possible from his group.
“Our last three games have been disappointing because we’ve had chances to get more points.” Desjardins said about a stretch where his group lost three one-goal games, including a shootout. “When you look at that side we’re a little bit disappointed because we know how tough it is and how those points come in handy.”
The biggest struggle for Desjardins has come with how to handle his younger players. Jake Virtanen and Jared McCann – both 2014 first-round draft picks – are an important part of the Canucks’ future. Though the Sedin twins have continued their near point per-game ways (Daniel with 44 in 51 games and Henrik with 37 in 45), both Virtanen and McCann are this team’s future.
Desjardins wants to play them, but knows he needs to hit a sweet spot. He can’t play either too much and he can’t play them too little either. Virtanen has five points in 26 games and has averaged 10:11 of ice-time. He was loaned to Team Canada for the World Juniors. McCann has 12 points in 45 games played, averaging 12:32 of ice-time. Desjardins also stuck with young center Bo Horvat, who’s averaged 17:02 of ice-time in spite of a minus-24 rating.
“We need to develop and we need our young guys to develop and get better, but at the same time you owe it to put your best group on the ice to win. In a given play in the game you deserve to put your best guys out there,” Desjardins said. “And with young guys they never prove they’re the best guy or not and somewhere along the line they have to have the chance to prove it.”
But when you have players like the Sedins, it’s hard to try to infuse younger players into major forward roles. They’re still All-Star level players and continue to prove they’re part of the league’s elite. Daniel just notched four points at the NHL All-Star Game in Nashville.
“They’re so creative, so patient, so smart on where they go. They have such great reads with each other. It’s amazing. And I think when you coach them every once in a while, you get a chance to appreciate their level,” Desjardins said. “They’re not the greatest skaters in the league. They don’t have the best shots in the league. They don’t beat you all the time one on one, yet they produce at an unbelievable level. How do they do it? In my mind they do it with their heads and their hearts and they have good skills.”
Desjardins said he’s not focused on whether the Canucks are rebuilding or in a ‘win-now’ mode. When he gets to the rink, the goal is clear. And it’s this attitude that is the key ingredient as to why he always makes the playoffs.
“For me it’s win every day. That’s the way it is,” Desjardins said. “It doesn’t matter if we have 10 rookies in the lineup, I still believe that’s the day you have to win. I think that’s what you develop. Your players have to have that attitude coming to the rink and you try to never lose sight of that.”
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