John Stevens was fired. Willie Desjardins was hired. And because it’s the NHL, you shouldn’t be surprised that the guy who was hired once got fired himself. We don’t necessarily know how long Stevens will be unemployed, or whether he’ll get another job at the top. We do, however, know that we’re probably going to feel one way now and another way in a year, or two, or three, about the decision by Rob Blake.
A coach’s firing can often be revealing. Which brings us to Willie Desjardins. An apparently very likable guy to his players in his own right, Desjardins lasted three years as head coach in Vancouver before being fired in the 2017 offseason. And to figure out what he’s bringing to the table, we’re going to look at that stint. (Mostly how it ended.)
Asking people who cover the team to evaluate a coach isn’t 100% foolproof; we’re seeing in the wake of Stevens’ firing that it’s apparently really hard to judge Stevens’ performance without mentioning what a pleasant presence he was around the media. (I can’t blame the media for pointing this out, either; I’m still fond of Robyn Regehr because he once gave me a detailed three-minute response to a question that probably didn’t deserve that kind of introspection.) Having said that, it’s the best option. The national media can tell you why Stevens was fired from a standings perspective, but watching the team day-in and day-out gives you what you need. After all, my initial perspective on Desjardins’ firing was “Welp, what was he supposed to do?”
So let’s start over at Canucks Army, who gave Desjardins plenty of credit and plenty of blame for his fate. And if you check the replies of any tweet on the Desjardins news, once you scroll past all the “lmao” and “L” and “why” replies, you’ll see a particular name over and over again: Jayson Megna. Megna had 8 points in 58 games for the 2016-17 Canucks, but he came to be the epitome of what was “wrong” with Desjardins’ coaching and deployment. He put players in positions where they might not — should not — be expected to succeed. That works out occasionally. It usually doesn’t, and Megna didn’t turn into a prolific scorer when he repeatedly played on higher lines. (Think Nick Shore without the possession numbers.) This was the most frequent complaint as Desjardins’ tenure wound down. J.D. Burke adds:
I remember at one point in this season, an executive from another team remarked that there wasn’t an easier coach to game plan for in the entire league. The constant and unbreakable rotation from senseless line to senseless line made playing the Canucks shooting fish in a barrel.
If you’re looking for a fan’s perspective, I can introduce you to a podcast literally named for Desjardins. Real Good Show, titled due to Desjardins’ tendency to say “real good” in interviews, started in the offseason after Desjardins took Vancouver to the playoffs in 2015. Though branded as a Canadian sports podcast, the Vancouver Canucks were the most frequent target of their ire, and their takes on Desjardins were often pessimistic and frequently hilarious. I listened back through the post-firing episode (#86) and while they echoed most of the previous concerns, they paid special attention to Desjardins’ frequent refusal to deviate from his plans. Check out this shift chart from Desjardins’ first playoff game ever and see if you notice a forward line pattern:
The Canucks won just two games in that first-round series, but Desjardins still found himself struggling to adjust down the line when things went poorly. Also cited in that podcast episode (which is NSFW, just so you know), was the 2016-17 Canucks’ 29th-ranked power play, which was perceived to have been largely left consistent throughout the season. The Canucks were out of contention early, so perhaps it was just an attempt to make that setup work. It didn’t look great from a coaching perspective, though.
So where does that leave the Los Angeles Kings, who specifically targeted an interim coach? Is Desjardins being asked to rescue this team from the depths with whatever adjustments he can muster, or is he presenting his own approach and drilling it in? Does Desjardins have the ability to adapt his style to a new team (which, admittedly, has some similarities to that Canucks squad)? Based on past returns, it seems like Desjardins is being called to adjust LA’s approach, and to make it work, not to mold his own approach to the talent he has at his disposal. If that sounds like what brought John Stevens to the Kings, well, you’re not wrong. Hopefully the approach is better. If it isn’t, it might be a frustrating rest of the season, regardless of how good Desjardins is for his players.