With the Vancouver Canucks ending weeks of speculation and formally ending the reign of head coach Willie Desjardins earlier this week, the team’s management group will once again be in the position of interviewing and hiring an NHL coach this offseason. At this early point, speculating on who will behind the bench for the Canucks next season is largely a guessing game. Many of the suspected candidates are either currently employed in the NHL or AHL and cannot be properly assessed until the offseason begins in earnest this June. So while it may be early to connect the dots and name names, speculation and conjecture is part of being a sports fan…doubly so if you’re a Canucks fan.
Guessing games aside, what we can do with some degree of certainty is sort through the statements of the Canucks management group to determine exactly the type of qualities that they’ll be seeking when they begin the formal interviewing process for a new head coach.
On Last Week’s Episode…
It was just three years ago that Canucks president Trevor Linden and general manager Jim Benning relieved head coach John Tortorella of his coaching duties and hired Desjardins in his place. At the time, Linden extolled the virtues of Desjardins and specifically cited his ability to connect and communicate with his players.
— Vancouver Canucks (@Canucks) June 23, 2014
At his introductory press conference, Linden described Desjardins as “hardworking…very honest and a genuine person.” He then went on to say that Desjardins “shares the values and beliefs in how we think a winning hockey team should perform. “ So, what exactly were those values and beliefs? Jim Benning shed some light on them when he spoke glowingly about Desjardins’ history, saying, “his teams play fast and work extremely hard. They play an uptempo, hard skating type of game and his teams play with that relentless attitude that we want our players to play with.” But, after three seasons in Vancouver, I don’t think many fans would describe the Canucks under Willie Desjardins as hard, fast or uptempo. Hardworking? Sure, maybe…but that won’t get you far in today’s NHL.
At his season-ending press conference for the 2016-17 season where the team announced Desjardins’ dismissal, Linden reiterated that the head coach did in fact impart some of his work ethic on his team, saying “the guys played hard for him and competed every night…but a change was needed.”
The Next Episode
Desjardins should be given some credit for helping develop some of the team’s younger players, but he lost sight of the team’s player development mandate by chasing after wins and losses with a tooth and nail strategy. Notwithstanding any positive impact he had on his team, it’s clear that he did not live up to expectations in Vancouver.
Moving forward, the team seems committed to youth and developing their younger players in the hopes that they can take the next step. When asked specifically about their next coach working with such a young group, Linden replied, “we’ve got a young group of players and we’re going to need a coach that can work with them and develop them into good pros.” When asked if he felt the team needed a veteran coach with experience, Linden said, “I’m not certain if experience plays that big of a role.”
So, parsing those comments together it looks as if Canucks management is finally on board with a youth movement and will hire a coach that can support and foster that movement.
The Early Candidates
So, who will this new coach be? Who is even available at this moment in time? Gone are frontrunners Ken Hitchcock and Gerard Gallant, who were scooped up this week by the Dallas Stars and Vegas Golden Knights, respectively. While new candidates will appear and disappear between now and the team’s stated deadline of the NHL Entry Draft, it’s worth at least a look at the current top prospects.
Using the criteria they’ve established for themselves, all signs seem to point to the team promoting Utica Comets head coach Travis Green from the team’s farm system to the NHL for next season.
Green, a homegrown BC product, has done a commendable job in four seasons with the Comets. He’s taken the team to within a victory of the Calder Cup and has developed Alex Biega, Frankie Corrado, Brendan Gaunce, Sven Baertschi, Hunter Shinkaruk and Jacob Markstrom into NHL regulars. His ongoing work with promising forward Jake Virtanen also seems to be producing results that the Canucks hope can pay dividends as early as next season. Green’s steady approach with young goaltender Thatcher Demko also appears to be working, as the 21-year-old looks like a surefire NHL goaltender in the making.
If the Canucks are indeed searching for a coach that can work with its young group and get them to take the next step, who better than someone who already knows the team, its system and its management structure?
The Washington Capitals assistant coach has been groomed as a future head coach for about two seasons now and it’s expected that this offseason he’ll finally make the jump. Having served with the Pittsburgh Penguins as an assistant coach from 2010-2014 then with the Capitals since then, he’s experienced tremendous success at the NHL level so far in his career.
Young players who have developed under Reirden’s watch in Pittsburgh and Washington include: Jordan Staal, James Neal, Brandon Sutter, Matt Niskanen, John Carlson, Marcus Johansson, Andre Burakovsky and Dimitri Orlov. Pretty impressive. Of course, he likely won’t be given a generational talent the likes of which the Penguins and Capitals have had should he choose to come to the Canucks, but his work and success with second tier players cannot be ignored.
Reirden is expected to garner some interest from other NHL clubs this offseason. So if the Canucks are keen on bringing him aboard, they’ll have to convince him to take the position over other opportunities.
With Ken Hitchcock returning to Dallas earlier this week, is it so crazy to think that Marc Crawford could return to Vancouver? Still known simply as “Crow” amongst the team’s fanbase, Crawford is second all-time in both games coached and wins for the Canucks, surpassed only by his successor Alain Vigneault. Since being dismissed by the Canucks in 2005, Crawford has gone on to coach in Los Angeles, Dallas, Switzerland and now, he finds himself back in the NHL as an assistant coach with the Ottawa Senators. No doubt that Crawford’s familiarity with both the Vancouver market and the Canucks franchise gives him an advantage over other candidates. He’s also the most experienced candidate mentioned thus far. But, what’s truly ironic when considering Crawford as the next coach of the Canucks is that he merits consideration even if you were to erase his NHL history.
During his four year European stint, Crawford coached the ZSC Lions of the Swiss NLA to the the 2014 Swiss Championship, the 2016 Swiss Cup and three NLA regular season titles. Along the way he mentored Toronto Maple Leafs phenom Auston Matthews as well as Florida Panthers pivot Denis Malgin and former Canuck Ronalds Kenins. He returned to the NHL this season to be Sens head coach Guy Boucher’s right hand man and has done an admirable job thus far.
When searching for the right coach to develop his team’s next set of star players, would Linden turn to the coach who developed the franchise’s last true homegrown star players? Of course, Linden had a front row seat for the development of Henrik and Daniel Sedin under Crawford, but is he willing to bring in a coach with such a fiery reputation? Even more important, would Crawford welcome a return to Vancouver given the circumstances surrounding his dismissal?
Whomever the Canucks decide to hire as the next head coach of their team, there’s no doubt that he’ll have his work cut out for him. After fighting to stay in the playoff picture for much of the season, the team ultimately slid in the standings to end up a dismal 29th overall. Even worse…next season doesn’t look much better.
“The next coach will have some challenges because we’re going to be young and players are going to make mistakes,” said Linden when describing his team’s next bench boss. “There are going to be growing pains and we need a coach who understands exactly where we are in that development curve.”
The Canucks entered the 2016-17 season with some reasons for optimism. Loui Eriksson was expected to reignite the Sedins’ offence, Erik Gudbrandson was expected to give the team a legitimate top four defence corps and Jacob Markstrom was expected to establish himself as a bonafide starting goaltender. In the end, none of those scenarios came true and the Canucks struggled their way to a 69 point finish. Heading into this offseason there isn’t much about the team to give fans optimism for 2017-18. Might the team’s fortunes change with the right coach in place? Canucks fans sure hope so.