The Vancouver Canucks on Monday fired head coach Willie Desjardins after failing to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs for a second consecutive season.
The Canucks had won six in a row early in January and appeared to be turning a corner but subsequently dropped four straight, lost five of seven to end February, had a six-game losing streak in March and were defeated in their final eight games of the season.
"We made a very difficult decision to relieve Willie Desjardins of his duties as head coach today," Canucks general manager Jim Benning said in a statement released by the Canucks. "It's been a challenging season and we all share responsibility for the results however, we felt this change was necessary as we continue to develop a young team and look ahead to the future."
Assistant coaches Doug Lidster and Perry Pearn were also fired.
Vancouver was 29th in the 30-team NHL with a 30-43-9 record for 69 points, the fewest by a Canucks outfit over an 82-game campaign since 1999 when they had 58 points (23-47-12). Only Colorado (22-56-4) had a worse season performance-wise than Vancouver in 2016-17.
Desjardins was hired in June 2014 to replace the fired John Tortorella but inherited a team that had one 25-goal scorer during the 2013-14 campaign in Ryan Kesler (now with Anaheim) while Henrik Sedin topped Vancouver in points that season with 50 in 70 starts.
Vancouver returned to the playoffs in 2015 following a 48-win campaign under Desjardins, but injuries factored in the team's 31-38-13 performance last season.
Canucks to add Hitchcock?
The 60-year-old departs with a 109-110-27 mark with the Canucks, who might turn to Travis Green as Desjardins' successor. Green, 46, is head coach with their American Hockey League affiliate in Utica, N.Y., who are 34-30-9 and battling for a playoff spot.
Another intriguing name is Ken Hitchcock, whom the St. Louis Blues fired on Feb. 1 after the 65-year-old went 248-124-41 and made the playoffs in each of his five seasons, reaching the Western Conference final last spring.
Benning first learned of Hitchcock's passion for hockey 40 years ago when the latter sold sweaters in the basement at United Cycle in Edmonton before coaching the Western Hockey League's Kamloops Blazers in 1984.
"In between doing orders he would talk hockey," Benning told CBC Sports earlier this season. "Back then, he was coaching Bantam teams in Sherwood Park, Alta., and always had good teams.
"He's always been about trying to figure out how hockey is being played and how to make it better. It doesn't surprise me the success he's had through the years because I know he's put a lot of thought into it."
Third-year centre Bo Horvat, 21, was the only Vancouver player this season to reach 20 goals and top 50 points (52). Henrik and Daniel Sedin were the only other players to surpass the 35-point mark with 50 and 44, respectively.
Vancouver's special teams had mixed results under Desjardins, with a power play that ranked 11th in 2014-15 (18.9 per cent), dropped to 27th last year (15.8) and was 29th this season with a 14.1 per cent success rate.
The penalty kill was second two seasons ago, slipped to 17th the next year and ranked 28th this season with a 76.7 per cent efficiency.
Desjardins was also criticized this season for his use of the Sedin twins along with host of other players.
After a nine-game losing streak in October and November dropped the Canucks to 4-8-1, calls to fire Desjardins grew louder.
Long-term strategy to 'draft and develop'
"That [tough] start we had," Benning told CBC Sports at the beginning of February, "we were in all those games. … We've been playing the right way all year, playing with good structure."
On Jan. 25, Vancouver was 23-20-6 and occupied the second wild-card spot in the West before things cratered in spectacular fashion.
A 3-0 loss to the Arizona Coyotes the following night where Vancouver didn't register a shot until just before the midway point of the second period started a downward spiral that would see the club go an NHL-worst 7-23-3 over its final 33 games — a 42-point pace over 82 games.
Benning has spent nearly three seasons restocking the Canucks' prospect pool and before the March 1 trade deadline had no desire to move a future asset for a pending free agent, even if it helped secure a playoff berth.
"We're not going to give away draft picks at the deadline," the third-year GM said at the time. "Our long-term strategy is to draft and develop our own players to get to where we need to be."
These days, Benning, who took over from the fired Mike Gillis in May 2014, feels better about his younger team despite the fact only one player from the 2009, 2010 and 2011 drafts remains in the organization — right-winger Alex Grenier, who was tied with Darren Archibald in Comets' scoring this season with 44 points in 66 games entering play Monday.
"We've drafted well the last few years," Benning said. "We've got [2015 first-round pick and recently signed] Brock Boeser and [2016 first-rounder] Olli Juolevi coming. We drafted some other players from the third to the fifth round that are playing well in [centre Adam] Gaudette and [right-winger] Will Lockwood. I like the depth in our prospect pool.
"I think we've overhauled our defence. Alex Edler is now our oldest defenceman at 30 … and Luca Sbisa's really come into his own this year and he's 27." Chris Tanev is 27, Erik Gudbranson and Ben Hutton are 25 and 23, respectively, and Troy Stecher and Nikita Tryamkin are 22.
In goal, Jacob Markstrom is being groomed to take over from 36-year-old Ryan Miller and Benning noted recently that Thatcher Demko, 21, "has come along nicely" this season as a first-year pro with Utica, sporting a .911 save percentage in 43 games.