Over the years, the Jack Adams award, supposedly given out to the NHL’s best head coach in any given season, has been doled out to the bench boss who leads the biggest surprise of the season, and the 2014-15 campaign has certainly brought a lot of those, including excellent seasons from the Nashville Predators, Calgary Flames and New York Islanders among others. However, flying under the radar in the conversation of the NHL’s most pleasant surprises, are the Vancouver Canucks, led by rookie coach Willie Desjardins. Desjardins has taken a Canucks team that was driven into the ground by John Tortorella, and turned them into the probable second seed of the Pacific division, and has done so utilizing a calm, players-first approach, and implementing a four-line attack that has been seldom used in Vancouver in years past. Should the Canucks find their way into the post-season, and it seems like a safe bet at this point, there is no doubt that Willie Desjardins should be among the names considered for the Jack Adams at years end.
When Willie Desjardins was first introduced as Canucks coach, he preached that he wanted to implement a system that promoted creativity and offence, a stark contrast to Tortorella’s philosophy, which involved nothing more than dumping the puck in behind the net. General manager Jim Benning did his best to give Willie some more weapons to work with, acquiring the likes of Radim Vrbata and Nick Bonino in the off-season, and for the most part, everything has lived up to expectations. The Canucks currently rank 10th in the NHL in goals per game at 2.82 goals for per contest, which, compared to last season where they ranked 28th with a goals per game of 2.33, is astronomically impressive. What makes it even more impressive, is that it’s been done without sacrificing anything on the defensive side of the puck. They currently rank 13th in the NHL in goals against per game with 2.68, which is actually better than last season when they tied for 16th with a goals against per game of 2.63.
Another area where the Canucks are significantly improved is on the power play, where they currently rank 14th with an efficiency rate of 18.7%. While, on paper, those numbers are nothing particularly impressive, it’s huge when compared to last season’s 15.2% that ranked them 26th overall. For large chunks of the campaign, the power play has been a problem for Vancouver, but has still shown great improvement from not only last year, but also the year prior.
Oddly enough, the Canucks have taken a major step backwards in terms of possession numbers, dropping all the way to 20th from 9th in terms of even strength Corsi, which is bizarre considering their vast improvement in pretty much every offensive category. Their putrid faceoff numbers are likely the primary cause behind this, and yes, they need to improve on their possession stats at least slightly heading into the playoffs, but for now, it’s the two points that matter, and Desjardins has his Canucks doing just that more often than not.
In addition to reviving the hockey club as a whole, Willie Desjardins has been able to spark more than a few Canuck skaters, and in a lot of cases, has them hitting career highs offensively, the most notable name being veteran winger Radim Vrbata. Vrbata was brought in during the off-season to help ease the pain of losing a perennial 20 goal scorer in Ryan Kesler, but general consensus was that he would do little more than just that, pot 20 goals. He has absolutely obliterated expectations, currently sitting on 31 through 76 games, just four off his career high of 35 in 2011-12, and 11th overall in the National Hockey League this season. Points wise, Vrbata looks poised to beat his career best of 62 points, also set in 2011-12, with 61 points so far this season with three games to go. For many Canuck fans and media, Vrbata has established himself as the runaway MVP of the team this season.
However, he’s done more than just set a fire under Vrbata. He also has ex-Florida Panther and 2013-14 trade deadline addition Shawn Matthias having the best season of his career goal-wise with 18 total on the year, four better than his previous career high of 14 in 2012-13 (albeit in a 48 game schedule) and also points-wise, with 27 points (his previous best was 24.) In addition to Matthias up front, Derek Dorsett, acquired in the off-season from the New York Rangers, is having his best offensive campaign to-date, with 25 points in 76 games, besting his previous career-season of 20 points back in 2011-12 with the Columbus Blue Jackets. On the blue line, newly-extended Chris Tanev is putting together his best campaign points wise of his career, which is, admittedly, only 20 points, but is worth pointing out nonetheless. Meanwhile, Swiss defender Yannick Weber has quietly gone about his business putting up a career-high 19 points and nine goals (a goal total which ranks first among Canuck defenders.)
All this goes without mentioning the tremendous bounce-back season from the Sedin twins (who will both hit 70 points by seasons end), Alex Burrows (who is pushing 20 goals, after a historical goalless drought last season) and Alex Edler (who after being a league-worst minus-39 last year, has established himself as a legitimate top-pair defenceman.) There is no doubt that these players enjoy playing for Desjardins, and that he is able to get the most out of the roster he has to work with.
After seeing all that Willie Desjardins has done for this Vancouver Canucks squad, there is no reason that he should be left out of the Jack Adams conversation. He has turned a boring, sterile hockey club into a team that can roll four lines, and play a fun, uptempo style. Has he been perfect? No, he hasn’t. A little less Linden Vey and a little more Bo Horvat on the power play would likely make more sense on most nights, but on a whole, it’s hard to complain about a whole lot that he’s been able to do this season. It’s safe to say that Willie has done a “real good” job.
Markus is a Vancouver Canucks columnist out of Victoria, BC. Markus is also a Staff Writer for Last Word on Hockey, an Editor and Staff Writer for country music website The Shotgun Seat, and founder of This Is Country Music.