WillieDesjardins

For Desjardins, responsibilities include both winning and entertaining

It wasn’t just that the John Tortorella-coached Canucks lost. It was also that they lost ugly.

Really ugly.

In 2013-14, Vancouver finished with the 28th-ranked offense in the NHL and, for the first time since 2008, missed the playoffs. This just three seasons after the club finished with the top-ranked offense and won the Presidents’ Trophy, with much of the same personnel.

To be sure, not all of the team’s descent can be pinned on Tortorella. That would be wholly unfair. The Canucks actually began to deteriorate offensively when Alain Vigneault was still behind the bench — a fact former general manager Mike Gillis somewhat took ownership for in one of his last interviews on the job.

“I really feel that over the last couple of seasons, we’ve chased goalposts that have been moving and got away from our core principles of how I want this team to play, and how we want to perform, and the tempo that we want to play with,” Gillis said in April.

“People love to pick someone to blame, but the reality is, as an organization, we’ve deviated from some of the things that made us successful, and some of the things that I know will be successful.”

Gillis didn’t save his job with that quasi-mea culpa, but Willie Desjardins, the head coach that new president of hockey ops Trevor Linden and new GM Jim Benning hired to replace Tortorella, fits the description that Gillis would surely have laid out.

“I’ve watched Willie’s teams play a lot in the last 12 years, including recently in Texas,” said Benning. “His teams play fast (i.e. not “slow”) and work extremely hard. They play an up-tempo, hard-skating type of game.”

In the last couple of decades, there have been three eras of Canucks hockey that fans in Vancouver have really connected with. First was the one in the 1990s with Pavel Bure and Linden leading the offensive charge; the next was the West Coast Express years from 2002 to 2006, led by Markus Naslund and Todd Bertuzzi; and the third was propelled by twins Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin, with each winning an Art Ross Trophy in 2009-10 and 2010-11, respectively.

All three of those eras scored a lot of goals, and looked good doing it. Bure was arguably the most exciting player in franchise history. The West Coast Express helped fans forget about the ill-fated Mike Keenan and Mark Messier era. As for the Sedin era, Canucks ownership and management are hoping that Desjardins, a first-time NHL coach at age 57, can breathe new life into that one.

And Desjardins, who passed up the opportunity to coach Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh, believes it’s possible.

“I like what I have to work with, I like it a lot,” he said after he was hired.

“We want to be an entertaining, high-paced, fast team.”

Questions, of course, remain. Like:

— Are the Sedins just too old? Couldn’t that be why they’ve been tailing off? The NHL is a young man’s game, and the twins are 33.

— Is the whole team just too old? On the back end, Kevin Bieksa is 33 and Dan Hamhuis is 31. Alex Edler isn’t exactly old at 28, but he’s not young either. Up front, Alex Burrows is 33 and Chris Higgins is 31, while new addition Radim Vrbata is 33. Heck, Jannik Hansen used to be the kid with the young, energetic legs. He’s 28 now.

Tortorella, for all the criticism he’s received and continues to receive (the word “scapegoat” occasionally comes to mind), wasn’t wrong when he called the Canucks “stale.” They do very much need an injection of youth.

And so in addition to reviving the Sedins and all the other Canuck veterans who underperformed last season, Desjardins will also be responsible for bringing along the club’s youngsters, like Zack Kassian, Linden Vey, Nicklas Jensen, Bo Horvat, Luca Sbisa, Chris Tanev, and Frank Corrado.

Add it all up, then throw in the fact the Canucks play in the very tough Western Conference, and you’ve got a pretty tall task.

“We want to be a good team and make the playoffs and that’s our focus,” said Desjardins.

But don’t forget to be exciting and entertaining, too.

Looking to make the leap: Nikita Zaitsev

BUFFALO, NY - DECEMBER 26: Defenseman Nikita Zaitsev #2 of Russia dumps the puck in as forward Cody Eakin #21 of Canada tries to block the puck during the 2011 IIHF World U20 Championship Group B game between Canada and Russia on December 26, 2010 at HSBC Arena in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
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This post is part of Toronto Maple Leafs day at PHT…

“I think he’s going to surprise a lot of people. The physical part of the game will be different for him in the NHL, but the way he moves the puck and skates and how defensive you now have to be to play, it just really makes you think he can be really successful for the Leafs.”

That quote was from former NHL defenseman Ryan Whitney, speaking in May about newly minted Toronto defenseman Nikita Zaitsev, who went up against Whitney in the KHL.

So needless to say, expectations for Zaitsev this season are fairly high.

And they’re high for reason. At 24, the undrafted blueliner has a wealth of professional experience — seven full campaigns, split between Novosibirsk and CSKA Moscow — and really came into his own over the last few years. He routinely led CSKA in d-man scoring, and was named a KHL first-team all-star in ’14-15.

That pedigree should translate into plenty of opportunities in Toronto.

And hey, Toronto has plenty of opportunities to offer.

It’s likely one of the big reasons Zaitsev chose the Leafs over other interested suitors like Calgary, Vancouver, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh (per Sportsnet). The Leafs are still in the early stages of their rebuild, and it shows on defense — based on current projections, Zaitsev could open as a top-four guy alongside Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner and Matt Hunwick, leapfrogging the likes of Martin Maricin, Roman Polak and Connor Carrick in the process.

The great unknown, of course, is how his success in the KHL will translate into North America. Every NHL club is hoping to land the next Artemi Panarin, but it’s important to remember that 1) Panarin is a forward, and 2) jumped onto a line next to Patrick Kane.

The transition for defenders has generally been tougher, something folks in Philly saw last year with the failed Evgeny Medvedev experience.

Of course, Zaitsev has a few more things going for him than his fellow Russian. He’s younger than Medvedev by nearly a decade, and is a coveted right-handed shot (Medvedev’s a lefty).

And like most players coming over from the KHL, Zaitsev’s on a one-year, performance bonus-laden contract that amounts to a “prove it” deal in the NHL.

That should be enough motivation to help him make the leap.

And if it’s not, there’s always the leap back to Russia.

‘Canes extend GM Francis, who’s ‘rebuilt our organization the right way’

Ron Francis
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The Carolina Hurricanes locked in a key part — arguably the most key part — of their rebuild on Tuesday, signing GM Rom Francis to a contract extension through the 2018-19 campaign.

“Ron has rebuilt our organization the right way, stocking our team and system with young players who will help this franchise compete for the Stanley Cup year in and year out,” club owner Peter Karmanos said in a release. “I’m thrilled that he will continue to see the job through.

“The future is very bright for the Hurricanes in Carolina.”

Francis, 53, has been on the job in Carolina for the past two years, and has done a terrific job of stockpiling young talent through the draft and via trade: Noah Hanifin, Teuvo Teravainen, Sebastian Aho, Haydn Fleury, Jake Bean and Julien Gauthier, to name a few.

Francis was also instrumental in hiring head coach Bill Peters. At the time of the hire, Peters was something of an unknown — an under-the-radar assistant with no NHL head coaching experience — but has since developed into one of the game’s more respected bench bosses.

Peters was named the bench boss for Team Canada at the most recent world championship, and led the country to gold.

This fall, he’ll reprise his role as Mike Babcock’s assistant for Canada at the World Cup of Hockey.

“When you go back a couple years ago, there were a lot of questions about who we had hired,” Francis explained in July, when he extended Peters’ contract through 2019. “[Peters] wasn’t really well known, but in the two years he’s been here, he’s done a tremendous job.”

For all the praise Francis has received during his short time on the job in Carolina, there is one area of concern — goaltending. This summer, Francis made the curious move of bringing Cam Ward back on a two-year deal, resurrecting the Ward-Eddie Lack tandem that struggled at times last season.

It’ll be interesting to see how that move plays out.

It’s Toronto Maple Leafs day at PHT

BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 24:  Auston Matthews poses for a portrait after being selected first overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs in round one during the 2016 NHL Draft on June 24, 2016 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Jeffrey T. Barnes/Getty Images)
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In a lot of ways, the 2015-16 season represented more of the same for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The results were nearly identical to 2014-15, right down to finishing in the basement of the East (69 points last season, 68 the one the year before).

Indeed, Brendan Shanahan is probably correct in saying that the Maple Leafs earned the No. 1 pick “the hard way,” or at least “earned” the higher draft lottery odds that helped them land Auston Matthews.

The big question, really, is how long will fans be patient with the Maple Leafs taking baby steps in the right direction?

Off-season

Naturally, the team tried to make more a leap forward in seeking Steven Stamkos and, to a less dramatic extent, Jimmy Vesey.

They fell short in those regards, but that doesn’t mean that management merely idled while hoping for improvements from in-house development.

The Maple Leafs made bold changes in net, ending the Jonathan Bernier era while betting big on Frederik Andersen and also bringing in a promising backup in Jhonas Enroth.

Beyond those big moves in net, the Maple Leafs made some minor adjustments. They handed surprising money and term to Matt Martin while taking short-term fliers on veterans Milan Michalek and Roman Polak.

On paper, this team still looks quite a few steps away from being a playoff contender, but perhaps we’ll start to see things come together?

A lot of that rides on the work of Matthews, Morgan Rielly and other young players (William Nylander, Mitch Marner) who may or may not make a lasting impact on the regular season roster.

Will the rebuilding plan start to pay dividends? PHT explores the iconic franchise on Tuesday.

Keep your head up: Hurricanes reportedly hand Raffi Torres a PTO

VANCOUVER, CANADA - MAY 3:  Raffi Torres #13 of the San Jose Sharks celebrates after scoring the game-winning goal against the Vancouver Canucks for a 3-2 victory in overtime in Game Two of the Western Conference Quarterfinals of the 2013 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs, May 03, 2013 at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.  (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)
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From opting against fighting the NHL’s 41-game suspension to seeing his season derailed by knee issues, there was the feeling that the league had seen the last of controversial forward Raffi Torres.

Perhaps not.

The Carolina Hurricanes reportedly handed the 34-year-old a PTO, according to former Hurricanes defenseman Aaron Ward.

It’s something the Raleigh News & Observer’s Chip Alexander also mentioned on Monday.

With Bryan Bickell added to the mix during this off-season, the Hurricanes seem interesting in adding some beef. It’s unclear if Torres is really in the sort of condition to make a mark, but Carolina’s going to at least take a look at him.

Beware, pre-season opponents and training camp teammates.