It’s hard not to feel bad for Willie Desjardins. It really is.
The Vancouver Canucks coach has been, by all measures, a successful coach throughout his career. During his eight-year tenure as the bench boss of the WHL’s Medicine Hat Tigers, he picked up two WHL titles and had one Memorial Cup final appearance on his resume, and, within four years of transitioning to the pro game, Desjardins’ Texas Stars were Calder Cup champions.
Even in his first season with the Canucks in 2014-15, Desjardins took a club from which little was expected and nearly captured a Pacific Division title. Granted, their post-season run ended in a disappointing six-game defeat at the hands of the Calgary Flames, but Desjardins’ first year was somewhat successful, nevertheless.
But the past two seasons have been trying, to say the least. In 2015-16, the Canucks took a significant step backwards, posting 75 points to make for their worst full-season point total since the 1998-99 campaign, and the early results this season aren’t giving much promise that 2016-17 is going to turn out any better.
Despite winning their first four games of the campaign, it was hard to have much faith in what the Canucks were accomplishing, and though the wheels haven’t exactly fallen off in Vancouver, they’re being held on with duct tape and a prayer. The Canucks have dropped eight straight games, lost four by way of shutout and have been beaten by a margin of three in four of those losses. Over the eight-game losing streak, Vancouver has scored just 10 goals and the Canucks’ basement-dwelling offense has mustered 19 markers all season.
And Vancouver’s futility might be costing no one more than their coach.
Desjardins admitted ahead of Saturday’s 6-3 defeat at the hands of the Toronto Maple Leafs that he’s on the hot seat, and he said it’s not exactly unfair. He acknowledged that the lack of “life,” the lack of goal scoring and, most importantly, the lack of wins put him in this predicament. Unfortunately for Desjardins, it’s hard to see exactly how he’s supposed to get himself out of this situation because it’s as much bad luck as anything.
He doesn’t have a remarkably strong roster, nor does he possess one that, in the grand scheme of things, is expected to accomplish all that much. The losses are piling up faster than anyone would have expected and eventually, even if it’s just as a way to try to jumpstart the team, Desjardins could be sent packing. We saw it with Todd Richards in 2015-16, who was canned by Columbus after seven straight losses to start the year. The Blue Jackets eventually turned things around, and, both at the time and in hindsight, it was hard to really put the blame on Richards’ shoulders for the outcome in the early part of that campaign.
The big guns for the Canucks, Daniel and Henrik Sedin, remain the two best offensive weapons Desjardins has, but nothing much else is working. Take Loui Eriksson, who signed a six-year, $36-million deal, for example. He hasn’t found the back of the net once, he hasn’t clicked as a winger alongside the Sedins and his 19 shots are the ninth-best mark on the Canucks. Brought in to be a goal scoring force for the Canucks, he’s fallen flat through the early part of the season and frustration has to be setting in.
Eriksson’s struggles best highlight the tough time the top six has had in Vancouver, and the spotlight has shone brighter on those troubles thanks to the Canucks’ lack of depth. Any number of pundits would have told you before the season began that Vancouver was exceptionally thin down their lineup, and that’s been incredibly apparent in the early part of the season with only one goal coming from a bottom-six player.
The only real beacon of hope is the Canucks’ underlying numbers, which sounds bizarre to say about a team that has dropped eight straight games and has lost the possession battle on most nights, albeit while still maintaining a somewhat decent Corsi For percentage at 5-on-5. But it’s an unsustainably poor shooting percentage that is the only thing Vancouver can really grab onto.
Heading into Monday’s game against the New York Islanders, the Canucks are shooting a mere 4.98 percent at 5-on-5, far and away the worst mark in the league. The next-worst team is the New Jersey Devils, shooting 5.26 percent and, in general, teams are shooting at or around 7 percent on the year. That makes it all the more likely that, at least in some small way, Vancouver starts levelling out over the course of the year and starts to find more goals. That’s truer yet given that no team in the past nine seasons has fared worse than 5.71 percent shooting, and that mark belonged to the almost historically bad 2014-15 Arizona Coyotes.
That said, that’s an awfully bleak glimmer of hope to grasp on to, and by the time the Canucks’ attack does start to level out, it might be too late for Desjardins. That brings us back to feeling awfully sorry for him.
What we know about advanced stats tell us that eventually things are going to start turning around for the Canucks, that things can’t really be this bad. But there’s no telling when that turnaround could happen, which means Desjardins could find himself out of work thanks to some brutal puck luck and a roster that simply hasn’t been able to get the job done.
(All advanced statistics via Corsica)
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