Jim Nill won’t be surprised if his phone starts ringing after Calder Cup final.
The Dallas Stars general manager has heard all the talk about his minor league coach Willie Desjardins, who has led the Texas Stars to the AHL championship, being a hot candidate for an NHL job. Nill says he’ll even help make it happen.
“No teams have called yet, but that’s out of respect for our team still being in the playoffs in Texas,” Nill said in a recent phone interview. “He’s definitely an up-and-coming NHL coach and he deserves the opportunity. That’s a compliment to him and it’s a compliment to our organization, so we would not hold him back.”
For his part, Desjardins said he’s not worried about an NHL job right now. His focus is on the Calder Cup, but the 57-year-old Climax, Sask., native is considered a top candidate for the Vancouver Canucks as a replacement for the fired John Tortorella.
Desjardins isn’t the polar opposite of the fiery Tortorella. Nill and Shaun Clouston, Desjardins’ assistant with the Medicine Hat Tigers and now their head coach, use the word “intense” to describe him.
But what Clouston recalls about Desjardins, who won two WHL championships in Medicine Hat, is the amount of time and energy he put into one-on-one chats with players on bus rides from city to city.
“The game is over or maybe it’s an off day and we’re travelling to the next city and he calls a guy up from the back of the bus to the front of the bus and they’re just sitting side-by-side in their seats, and then a half an hour might go by, two hours—literally two hours might go by and they’re still talking.”
“I think that he does a great job of individually getting the best out of each player. So it’s not just x’s and o’s with Willie. It’s building relationships with each of his players.”
But the Canucks aren’t considering Desjardins for his communication skills alone. What he has shown in Texas is an ability to quickly mould a team into a contender while mixing and matching veterans and young players.
Half the battle at the junior and AHL level is developing players to get to the NHL. If Vancouver goes through a youth movement, Desjardins’ philosophy seems a good fit.
“I think you develop by playing to win,” Desjardins said in a phone interview. “You never just play to play, you play to win, and I think when young players realize that, their only choice is to learn to play that way as well. I think that’s how you develop. You set high standards and if players want to play, they have to meet those standards.”
Desjardins’ personal standards are high. In 10 seasons as a head coach he has just one season with a points percentage under .500 and has never missed the playoffs. His winning resume mirrors that of Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper and Anaheim Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau, whose titles at multiple levels punched their tickets to the NHL.
Unlike Cooper and Boudreau, though, Desjardins has NHL coaching experience from working as an assistant to Marc Crawford and Glen Gulutzan—who’s still on staff in Vancouver—for the Stars. If he’s running a bench next season, it’ll be with eyes wide open.
“I think the big thing in the NHL was just to get a chance to work with the players and see how they operate,” Desjardins said. “It was a good experience for me to go up and see exactly how things work at that level.”
Ultimately, Desjardins doesn’t see a major difference between coaching in the WHL, AHL and NHL. Players are older and stronger, he said, but the principles remain the same.
Those developed over a lifetime in hockey that included stints on Canada’s staff at two world junior tournaments and one world championship. Along the way, Dave King and Andy Murray were major influences as Desjardins developed his own style.
“He’s a very open-minded coach and he’s grabbing bits and pieces that he learns from either other coaches or analyzing other situations or reading books. He’s very open that way,” Nill said. “Everybody’s unique, everybody’s got their own style. And everybody has to coach the team you have.”
Nill and Clouston complimented Desjardins’ ability to adapt to different teams and situations.
“He likes to play a certain style, but he also knows you have to fill in the right holes,” Nill said. “You’ve got to be a square peg in a square hole type of thing, and he knows that. He makes players adapt and he gets the most out of players.”
If he’s tabbed to take part of the rebuilding or retooling effort in Vancouver, that will again be tested. Daniel and Henrik Sedin are beginning matching four-year contracts, and several players remain from the group that fell one victory short of the Stanley Cup in 2011.
One thing that helps Desjardins is a history of winning twice in the WHL and being three victories away from capturing the Calder Cup with different groups.
“Every team has different personnel and different strengths and weaknesses, but the underlying theme of all those teams is that they want to win and they have leaders that want to win,” Desjardins said. “If you don’t have the leaders that want to win, it’s difficult to win. The underlying theme is the leadership and what they want and the desire they have.”
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