Desjardins Leery With Canucks Kids

Apparently Willie Desjardins hasn’t learned from Tortorella’s mistakes.

With the fiery coach now behind the bench for the Columbus Blue Jackets, shades of Tortorella are now being seen in the Canucks lineup with Desjardins deployment of his forwards, especially late in games. The Canucks have squandered two straight third period leads and are now 2-1-2 when leading after two periods.

For a team that is going to have to battle for every point in order to make the postseason, they can’t afford to throw away the lead late in games.

One strategy that Desjardins is going with late in games is taking away ice time for younger players in the Canucks lineup. Against Washington and to an extent against Detroit, the Canucks went down to three lines in the third period and limited the ice time of young forwards Jake Virtanen, Jared McCann, and Sven Baertschi. This led to increased ice time and higher pressure for some of the veterans on this team.

The trio of Brandon Sutter, Henrik Sedin, and Daniel Sedin are all in the top 25 for ice time per game among NHL forwards. Of those 25 players, Daniel and Henrik are easily the oldest players at 35-years-old. Sounds familiar to 2013-14, when Ryan Kesler and the twins were all in the top 15 for ice-time among forwards.

It’s the same rhetoric that Tortorella was presented with when he was determined to play the Sedin twins more than 20 minutes per night. It led to a drop off in production and eventually injuries. Tortorella never trusted the Canucks bottom forwards to play more than a few minutes per night and Desjardins is beginning to show that same lack of trust with his rookies.

Understanding Willie’s Reluctance

As an old-school hockey mind, it’s not surprising that Desjardins wants to limit ice time for his younger players. Last season, he showed reluctance with Bo Horvat during training camp and throughout the season. Later in the season he continued to give him fourth line minutes even when Horvat was clearly one of the best Canucks forwards.

He likely believes that adopting this same strategy to the Canucks rookies this year will lead to a situation similar to Horvat, where the Canucks rookies shine with lower expectations and limited responsibilities.

However it’s not working out for either Desjardins or his rookies. Sven Baertschi and Jake Virtanen both played under seven minutes against Detroit. Jared McCann played 11:48 against Detroit, but was nowhere to be found along with Baertschi and Virtanen against Washington.

His current deployment of the Canucks youngsters isn’t working. The Canucks were outscored 3-0 after 40 minutes in the last two games. They were outshot 29-16 by Detroit and Washington during that time span, and it’s suffice to say they aren’t closing effectively. Desjardins is going to have to find a way to roll four lines if he wants the Canucks to remain competitive in the third period.

Play the Rookies

Since the Canucks current deployment isn’t working, they have one of two options: Either play the kids more or send them down. Yes, they are going to make mistakes but that’s the only way they are going to learn.

In sheltered roles, Baertschi and Virtanen haven’t looked out of place so far. They both have the best Corsi among Canucks forwards at 55.9% and 53.2% respectively. This is likely increased because of their high percentage of offensive zone starts, but at least they aren’t holding the Canucks back in that regard. The goals haven’t come yet, but it might not be too long until they both find the back of the net.

The speed of these youngsters is also drawing penalties. Horvat, McCann, Virtanen, and Baertschi have drawn a combined eight penalties together, while McCann has taken the only penalty of the four forwards. Those eight penalties drawn have accounted for almost 30% of the Canucks powerplays so far.

There are inevitably going to be some mistakes. Even though McCann saw his ice time increase against Detroit, he had a brutal turnover in the third period that let to a glorious chance for Detroit.

When Chris Higgins comes back from injury, there is a good chance that Virtanen and/or McCann could get sent back down to junior if Desjardins decides that he doesn’t want to increase their ice time. Desjardins has shown a tendency to give McCann more ice-time, so of the two Virtanen seems more likely to be sent down. McCann was also more dominant in his junior showing last year, whereas Virtanen’s NHL ready speed and size seems like the main reason why he is still with the big club.

Pairing veterans with youngsters might be the way to go for Desjardins in the short-term. The Baertschi-Horvat-Virtanen line that exploded for ten points against the Oilers in a preseason game has looked ineffective in the regular season. McCann has fit in well between veterans Prust and Dorsett, while it looks like Virtanen will get a shot with the Canucks two leaders in points, Brandon Sutter and Alex Burrows, against Montreal on Tuesday.

Sending either of them down likely wouldn’t hurt their development, but it would be a shame to see them sent down to junior without being given a fair chance to prove themselves. The Canucks committed to the youth movement by keeping three rookies on the roster, and it seems a little bit early to give up on that goal.

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