The Vancouver Canucks have secured their third first-timer: after hiring rookie NHL executive Trevor Linden as team president and long-time scout and assistant executive Jim Benning as general manager, the team has installed Willie Desjardins as head coach.
Desjardin’s hiring, announced Monday morning, comes one year, minus two days, after the Canucks hired John Tortorella – and the difference between the two men is an easy symbol of how much has changed for the team in a single calendar year.
In Tortorella, the Canucks gambled on a man who could ignite the team to greater success but it exploded and the coach devolved into a solo act, estranged from everyone, players and management. He was a shouter, a screamer.
In Desjardins, the Canucks latch to the opposite: the 57-year-old is a veteran minor-league coach, has the pedigree of a winner, and in lieu of experience as an NHL head coach, Desjardins arrives not as a one-man show but as another piece of a collective management team. The three first-timers are a group of men in their jobs who themselves have the look of a promising, cohesive team: Linden the leader, Benning the brains behind the roster, and Desjardins the calm savvy influence behind the bench.
Harmony was the first theme Linden mentioned on Monday in a Canucks video about the hiring, declaring he was “super excited” to have Desjardins on board. The prime reason? “He relates well to players,” said Linden – not needing to mention that the last guy failed on the same measure.
There’s no room for ego or solo missions. The three have a tremendous trick to pull over: produce a reasonable competitive team in the two seasons while building a truly competitive team for the seasons thereafter.
Desjardins has waited for this moment his whole life – and as the shot at a NHL head coaching gig arrived, he had choices: the Pittsburgh Penguins offered him a contract and the Saskatchewan-native chose Vancouver. Instead of Pittsburgh, where there is considerable pressure to deliver immediate results, Desjardins went with the hockey-mad market that realizes there is rebuilding to do and Desjardins comes to a role where he and his bosses have time to produce real results.
“I’ve looked forward to this day for a long time, wondering if it was ever going to happen,” said Desjardins in a video on canucks.com Monday morning.
Speaking in the usual vague generalities, Linden, Benning and Desjardins all agree on how a hockey team should play: hard-hitting, and up-tempo. What goes unsaid is the Canucks, especially last season, are neither of those things. This is where Benning surges back into the forefront this week, capped by the NHL draft on Friday and Saturday.
The trade of Ryan Kesler, and what it brings the Canucks, will be a key to defining what the Canucks can accomplish on the ice in the short-term. It could be a rodeo of action, league-wide. Benning, in his usual understated way, is readying for it, saying in an interview last week: “There’ll be more movement going into the draft and around the draft than we’ve seen in other years.” Calgary’s new GM, Brad Treliving, was more declarative on Monday: “It’s going to be as busy and as volatile a draft week we’ve ever seen.”
This is a propitious milieu in which to work for Benning, a man known for his talent-spotting acumen. In last week’s interview, he spoke about considering changes across the team’s roster, and is working under his own first-day declaration from last month, that the Canucks are a team that can be turned around in a hurry.
Desjardins is the latest piece of the puzzle being quickly assembled by Linden, whose moves as a rookie team boss in a turbulent situation have been impressive, not unlike his immediate impact in the NHL on the ice as an 18-year-old for the Canucks when he scored 30 goals in his first campaign.
When Linden was hired in early April - right after Mike Gillis was fired and before the season ended and Tortorella was ejected – the Canucks were in a shambles. At that seeming nadir, with big questions around season ticket renewals, Linden and the Canucks promised buyers a money-back guarantee on their deposits for three months – giving them until July 11 to decide for sure whether they want to invest in the team, giving them the time to see Linden’s moves, GM, coach and roster.
Linden has skated well so far in a bad situation. The biggest, toughest strides are coming right up.