Willie Desjardins looking forward after Vancouver Canucks disappointing season

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Willie Desjardins, head coach of the Vancouver Canucks addresses TeamSnap Hockey Coaches Conference in Toronto, Ont. (07/15/16)
Willie Desjardins, head coach of the Vancouver Canucks addresses TeamSnap Hockey Coaches Conference in Toronto, Ont. (07/15/16)

Toronto, Ont. -- One of the videos in Vancouver Canucks’ head coach Willie Desjardins’ 60-minute presentation: “Building the foundation for a winning team culture” at the TeamSnap Hockey Coaches Conference on Friday showed prospective Navy SEALs during what is known as “Hell Week”.

“Hell Week” is a gruelling and agonizing period when prospective SEALs are pushed to their limits.  Sleep deprived, banged-up and hungry, they try to overcome mental and physical exhaustion to make it to the next phase - operational training.

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One of them has made a mistake, they are forced into the water.

At the point the clip starts, it’s dark outside and they are lying flat on their back in a body of water. Linked arm-in-arm they sing the Christmas carol  “Silent Night,” to keep alert as the cold surf washes over them with torturous rhythm.

Figuratively, that is what last season felt like for the 59-year-old, especially during the latter stages when Vancouver began to slip out of the Western Conference playoff race.

“It was the hardest year I have ever gone through.  I was disappointed in myself, I was disappointed in the team,” Desjardins told Yahoo Sports Canada. “It was like those guys sitting in the water, singing “Silent Night”.  It was like fending this year off ‘till you can get going another year, that’s kind of what it was the last bit (of the season).”

Losing defenceman Alex Edler (Broken Leg) and forward Brandon Sutter (Broken Jaw) to season ending injuries in a game against the Colorado Avalanche on Feb. 9. was a massive blow. 

Edler lead the team in average ice-time, chewing up nearly 25-minutes per game while Sutter, a shutdown centre, who had already missed 33 games due to a sports hernia (and subsequent surgery), only played 20 games the entire season.

Not having the services of another top defenceman in Dan Hamhuis, compounded matters.  He missed 24 games with a broken jaw in his second straight injury plagued season.  On July 1, he left via free agency to play with the Dallas Stars.   

Injuries aside, the Canucks average of 2.27 goals per game was second last in the NHL and they had the 27th ranked power play.  Over the final 30 games Vancouver won just 10 times in regulation and once in OT.

It was a tough pill to swallow after they showed promise a year earlier in Desjardins’ first season as an NHL head coach.

The Canucks finished the 2014-15 regular season with 48 wins (101 points) and returned to the playoffs after a one-year absence before being knocked out in the first round by the lower seeded Calgary Flames.

The congenial bench boss spoke with Yahoo Canada Sports at the Mattamy Athletic Centre after he finished his presentation.  When asked if it may have been different if given last offseason instead now, he laughed lightly.

“It might have been a little bit more believable,” Desjardins said with a disappointed smile. “That’s life, a lot of times it is how you come from the bad times, not the good times.  It is probably a little bit more human, a little bit more humbling…it doesn’t mean you don’t believe, the belief stays.”

It also doesn’t hurt that he has had a past history of success in the game at various levels.

In his eight years with the WHL’s Medicine Hat Tigers from 2002-2010, he guided the team out of years of futility to winning the league championship twice (2004, 2007).  In 2014 he led the Texas Stars to their first Calder Cup victory.

He has also been awarded coach of the year honours in both the CHL and AHL.

The close friends he has made over the years both at the rink and away from it helped him through the most trying times this past season.

Desjardins says the culture is good with the Canucks but “can be refined a bit” for next season, “We can be better.”

His coaching style is far different than the man he replaced in Vancouver.  Desjardins prefers to empower rather than admonish when things aren’t exactly where he wants them to be.

The foundation in his dressing room is evolving, there is an old guard represented by veterans Daniel and Henrik Sedin along with Alex Burrows as well as emerging leaders like Bo Horvat and Chris Tanev. They will all be joined by a few notable newcomers this season.

Desjardins feels the Canucks offseason acquisition of strapping defenceman Erik Gudbranson from the Florida Panthers will be culturally beneficial to his team.

“There is a really passionate guy that brings that to the game,” he said.  “I talked (in the presentation) about how much you need that (for a winning team culture).”

The trade which involved shipping forward Jared McCann and draft picks has been questioned, especially from an analytics perspective.

There is also the matter of skilled Finnish defenceman Olli Juolevi who the Canucks drafted 5th overall in June and how he factors into reshaping the blueline.   The highly skilled, smooth skating d-man is the teams’ highest selected rearguard since Bryan Allen was chosen at No. 4 in 1998.

“If he could step in this year it would be amazing, I wouldn’t expect him to but I didn’t expect Ben Hutton to step in (last season) either,” Desjardins said. “If he doesn’t , it certainly isn’t something out of the ordinary, he’s 18.

Hutton, who turned 23 on April 20, was a surpise addition to the lineup out of training camp last season and went on to play 75 games.

Another fresh face in Vancouver is free agent signing Loui Eriksson.  The Swede has plenty of international experience playing with the Sedins and now the trio will get a chance to see what kind of magic they can weave playing together in the NHL for the first time.

He will join a team that is ready for redemption according to Desjardins.

“I’m excited because we have good people and I know they felt every bit as disappointed in last year as I did,” he said. “Everybody knows we don’t want to do that again.”

Follow Neil Acharya on Twitter: @Neil_Acharya

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