Firings and hirings are very commonplace in professional sports. It’s one of the quantifiable knowns in a results-oriented business that depends rather heavily on luck. So it came as no surprise when the Los Angeles Kings announced that they’d fired head coach John Stevens. He became another unfortunate victim of the inability to fire the whole team, despite their general malaise and poor performances. While he had his share of the blame, it doesn’t all rest squarely on his shoulders, but he gets to be the scapegoat anyway. That leads us to Willie Desjardins, former head coach of the Vancouver Canucks and brief coach of the Texas Stars in the AHL.
What can Kings fans expect from the 61-year-old Climax native? It’s a little hard to say. His coaching career isn’t all that lengthy--only five total years at the professional level and only nine before that in the WHL. Let’s start with a little background on the Kings’ new (interim) coach.
Hailing from Climax, Saskatchewan, Canada, Desjardins played in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, played in college, and then finally, turned pro in the Netherlands, where he won a championship as captain of his Dutch club.
After leaving Climax, he was hired by the Medicine Hat Tigers in 2002 and led them to their first championship in five years in 2003-04. He stayed with the Tigers until 2010 when he was hired as an associate coach for the Dallas Stars. Two years later, he took over as head coach of their AHL team, the Texas Stars, and led them to the Calder Cup Championship in just two short years.
For a better perspective on his time in Cedar Park, Sean Shapiro, who is covering all things Stars for The Athletic, kindly answered some questions. During Desjardins’ brief tenure as Texas Stars’ coach, he implemented a system that allowed every player on the team to grow and thrive.
“He’s a players coach that likes to lean on the leadership group to set the tone of what does and doesn’t work with the group,” says Shapiro. “It’s an effort to try and make his players feel like they are part of something and take ownership. He was also big on opening up opportunities for younger players and unknowns in Texas. That’s part of his job in the AHL, but he really took it to another level and when players responded well in a limited role he’d find a way to give them more opportunities.”
Part of Desjardins’ success in Cedar Park was getting his players to buy in. By getting them all to take ownership, he was able to get his players to play as cohesive units.
According to Shapiro, “It started with the leaders of the team and he communicated well with them from the start. When they bought in right away and had the ‘This is our team’ mentality, it spread to the rest of the group. He also did a good job rewarding players that earned opportunities. Players in Texas saw that and realized that they had a chance getting a bigger role or more ice time, or whatever, if they did well in current spot -- it wasn’t just lip service.”
This, in effect, helped them go from (nearly) worst in the league in 2011-12 to champions in just two short years. While part of that is attributable to management’s improvement of the team’s roster, a big chunk of it also goes to Desjardins.
“Desjardins’ influence was on the identity and role the team was able to play,” Shapiro says. “They played quick with pace, which was more of his assessment of what he had as opposed to forcing a team into his system. That’s something he was very good at, reading what fits the players best and being willing to modify his approach to better fit his group. A lot also went into how he had the players take ownership. They wanted to win and play for him. That’s not something they had the prior season in Texas.”
Things went a bit differently for the Climax native once he made the jump to the NHL. The 2014-15 Canucks were largely considered overachievers, which became painfully clear during the playoffs and disappointing seasons in the following two years. To get a better idea on Desjardins’ brief time in Vancouver, Daniel Wagner of the Vancouver Courier News answered a few questions.
On the Canucks’ surprising season, Wagner says, “Some of the things [Desjardins] did certainly helped them bounce back after a tough season the year before -- his up-tempo system helped, lowering the Sedins’ ice time helped, and he had a progressive approach to certain game situations, like with an empty net -- but it became pretty clear in the playoffs and the following season that they weren’t as good as that first year suggested.”
Shapiro agreed that it was “fair” to suggest that Desjardins likes to rely on his veteran players, get them to buy in, and that will set the tone for the rest of the team.
“His approach with younger players was to make them ‘earn it,’ but this sometimes meant they didn’t get opportunities that it seemed they deserved,” says Wagner. “Most coaches will bench a player when they’ve made a mistake; that’s not unique to Desjardins. He sometimes took a tough love approach to younger players, though, healthy scratching them when it seemed, from the outside, like they were playing well, but perhaps weren’t following the system or doing enough defensively for his liking.”
Sounds like a familiar stance, and one that is certainly not unique to Desjardins, John Stevens, or even Darryl Sutter.
Based on his time in Vancouver, what can Kings fans expect of the Climax, SK coach? It’s hard to say exactly, but it seems like Los Angeles is getting another players coach, one who genuinely cares about each and every guy on the ice.
“Desjardins genuinely cares about his players and the Canucks always had a lot of positive things to say about him and the way he prepared them for their games. The issue in Vancouver was his deployment: rolling four lines, largely ignoring line-matching, and failing to make in-game adjustments,” says Wagner.
Much like John Stevens, the players are probably going to love playing for Desjardins, especially once they start to buy in to his system. The lack of in-game adjustments is a bit of a concern, especially since it seemed, at least at times, that Stevens was also reluctant to make any adjustment. Rolling four lines could really work in their favor, though. Pro: more rest for the top guys. Con: More ice time for the bottom six. Depending on the game and the situation, this could be a boon, and who knows, maybe they’ll actually be able to score a few more goals or at least do little more than just #gritty stuff.
What can we expect from Desjardins’ overall deployment system, besides just rolling four lines and largely even playing time? According to Wagner, aggression and pressure in the neutral zone.
“Generally speaking, he preached an aggressive style when he first joined the Canucks. That means pressuring in the neutral zone to force turnovers before the Canucks’ blue line, then attack with speed. When it worked, it created good opportunities in transition and prevented long shifts in the defensive zone. When it didn’t, it would lead to great scoring chances for the opposition.”
In a way, that sounds similar to what Sutter attempted to implement when he was in LA. When the team was on and they were playing well, they were aggressive, especially in the offensive zone and they were moving the puck up the ice quickly.
It sounds like the coach from Climax will ask the players to move the puck more quickly and just keep up the pressure. If he can get the team to buy into a sense of urgency every game, perhaps their old, aging roster can make something of this season and not look so disconnected every time they step on the ice. If he can at least get them to stop passing the puck into each other’s skates and doing blind drop passes, I’d call that a win.