Vancouver Canucks: Willie Desjardins’ Line Experiments Need to Stop

Mar 22, 2016; Winnipeg, Manitoba, CAN; Vancouver Canucks Head Coach Willie Desjardins looks on during second period play at MTS Centre. Winnipeg Jets won 2-0 over the Vancouver Canucks. Mandatory Credit: James Carey Lauder-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 22, 2016; Winnipeg, Manitoba, CAN; Vancouver Canucks Head Coach Willie Desjardins looks on during second period play at MTS Centre. Winnipeg Jets won 2-0 over the Vancouver Canucks. Mandatory Credit: James Carey Lauder-USA TODAY Sports /
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Vancouver Canucks head coach Willie Desjardins is making some controversial lineup decisions. Could they hurt the younger players long-term?

The Vancouver Canucks opened their 2016-17 season on Saturday night with a 2-1 shootout win versus the Calgary Flames. The Flames were coming off two straight losses to the Edmonton Oilers. Desperate opponents are often the most dangerous. But, between Ryan Miller‘s heroics and some late Sedinery, the Flames ended up being the least of Vancouver’s concerns.

The biggest threat to the Canucks right now are the Canucks themselves. And I’m not just referring to Loui Eriksson scoring on his own net.

Instead, I’m referring to head coach Willie Desjardins.

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Willie D has a penchant for making baffling lineup decisions. In his first season, the coach moved 30-goal scorer Radim Vrbata off his line with Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin. Then he refused to increase the twins’ ice-time in the Canucks playoff series with the Flames, despite the Sedins’ dominating puck possession.

Last season, he alienated Vrbata further by shuffling his linemates throughout the preseason. Then he played center Brandon Sutter on the wing.

To open this season, Desjardins pulled out some more bizarre trios. After the Canucks barely snuck out a win, he reverted to “normal” lines for the next game. After a rocky start against the Carolina Hurricanes, those lines eventually combined for four goals.

Surprise, surprise.

If the Canucks’ coach wants the team to win now, why split up players who have proven chemistry? Why not play your most talent scorers together and start them in the offensive zone?

Just like too-many-men penalties, complicating easy lineup decisions is becoming a theme of Willie’s tenure with Vancouver.

Could the line juggling hurt the young players?

Besides drawing the ire of fans, there is actually a bigger concern. Desjardins’ bad lineup combinations could hurt the Canucks’ young players long term.

By playing young players in roles they are not suited to or not ready for, the coach is taking a huge risk. Young players might not develop their talents or have their confidence destroyed. Or both.

For example, based on last season, you would expect Bo Horvat to be played as an offensive player while being sheltered defensively. So playing him in a shutdown role is the exact opposite of what he needs.

Meanwhile, the coach believes Markus Granlund has top-six potential and wants to see him grow into a playmaker. While Granlund might develop into a reliable producer someday, the Canucks are asking him to become that player right now by deploying him with Sven Baertschi and Jake Virtanen.

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Desjardins is taking an unnecessary gamble with Granlund’s future on the off-chance he can score a few more goals right now. That is too much to ask.

Most distressing of all is Willie over-playing Brendan Gaunce.

Prior to this season, Gaunce had played only 20 NHL games. He made the Canucks at the last minute this year. It took four years of hard work and development for Brendan to make it this far. Those four years could be undone by giving him so much responsibility so early.

Gaunce looks like he may become a competent bottom-six NHL forward. Instead of keeping him on that path, Willie D is throwing him off the deep end into a role he is not suited for. That is a recipe for failure.

Don’t over-think it, Willie.

The Canucks are desperate for more goals. But in their desperation, they cannot dump too much responsibility onto players who aren’t ready. It is bad enough when fans expect too much of a player. It is worse when it is the coach.

Not only is it unfair to the young players, there is a chance that these lineup experiments could cost the Canucks long-term. If the kids waste their time trying to become something they are not, they might never recover.

Which means that the Canucks might be stuck cleaning up Willie Desjardins’ failed experiments even after he has moved on.

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Willie wants his lineup to be as competitive as possible, but he needs to go about it the right way. If the experiments get too out of hand, the effects could be devastating.

The Vancouver Canucks coach needs to set his younger players up to succeed. These crazy line experiments aren’t helping. Going back to normal in game two against the Hurricanes was a first step in the right direction.