Willie Desjardins is the newest coach of the Vancouver Canucks and he certainly has his work cut out for him. The Canucks went from one of the top teams in the West to a basketcase franchise in an almost inconceivably short period of time and one of the reasons was based on structure.
Vancouver has been the worst franchise in the NHL at developing talent over the past five years, graduating zero impact players and getting only spot duty from Frank Corrado (a rare late-round gem), Nicklas Jensen and Jordan Schroeder – the last of whom is apparently on the trade block. Kevin Connauton has played in the NHL, but for Dallas, thanks to the Derek Roy trade.
John Tortorella, The Experiment That Must Never Be Mentioned Again, has never been known as a coach who relies on youth, so that explains this season, but since-deposed GM Mike Gillis also shoulders much of the blame even before he brought in ‘Torts’ behind the bench. The squabbles that led to the trading of top-10 selection Cody Hodgson are another black mark on Gillis’ rap sheet, no matter how you feel about the progression of Zack Kassian, whom they got from Buffalo in return.
But let’s circle back to Desjardins, shall we? Last seen hoisting the Calder Cup after taking the Texas Stars all the way to the American League championship, Desjardins has long been regarded as a teacher by teams that have hired him. He’s a guy that knows how to deal with young players and his two titles in the Western League with Medicine Hat back up his resume as a winner, as well.
Now the question revolves around what kind of team he will inherit in Vancouver. Even if Ryan Kesler is dealt, Desjardins will still have a good core of veterans to work with. I’ve been told that Henrik and Daniel Sedin are very comfortable with new president of hockey operations Trevor Linden, so the Twins aren’t going anywhere. Kevin Bieksa, Alex Edler and Dan Hamhuis are all impressive blueliners who won’t take last year’s result lying down. Goaltending is…a work in progress. But let’s focus on skaters.
For the Canucks to rise from their collective funk, they will need new energy. Jensen will help in that regard and part of his delayed arrival this year was due to injury. Corrado will thrive on the back end thanks to the vets that can help him along the way, he just needs to be given the chance. But the biggest change will come if top 2013 pick Bo Horvat can crack the lineup.
Horvat was taken ninth overall in 2013 with the pick acquired in the Cory Schneider trade with New Jersey. Yes, that will follow him around for awhile. But the talented two-way center has proven himself to be clutch in the past, notwithstanding this year’s Memorial Cup when his whole London Knights team forgot to show up as hosts.
Desjardins can start Horvat in a bottom-six role, much in the same way Philadelphia developed Sean Couturier and Matt Read. Thanks to his offensive upside, Horvat has the chance to be more than that if necessary, but let’s not put too much pressure on the kid. Either way, Desjardins is a great hire because of that need for a youth infusion in Vancouver. If he can get more out of the kids, then the veterans won’t have to do everything themselves and stop-gap solutions that have since proved disastrous (David Booth, Derek Roy) won’t have to be deployed again.
New GM Jim Benning has his guy behind the bench now and with the sixth pick overall at the draft this week, his new coach may even have another young asset to add to the depth chart right away.