‘Willie Watch’ could start early if Canucks can’t turn around losing ways

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This post is part of Canucks Day on PHT…

Things were almost too good to be true for Willie Desjardins for much of his first season as head coach of the Canucks.

For starters, he was the antithesis of his predecessor John Tortorella. In the span of a year, the Canucks emerged from a total regime change to a 101-point playoff team, with players buying into Desjardins’ approach of rolling four lines and making sure everyone felt they were contributing in some way.

Good times — until an opening-round playoff loss to the Calgary Flames and subsequent criticism toward Vancouver’s bench boss for player deployment in that series, specifically playing time for Daniel and Henrik Sedin.

That began the transition to the hot seat for Desjardins. ‘Willie Watch’ quickly became a thing in Vancouver.

Following a disastrous 2015-16 campaign that saw the Canucks fall to 28th in the overall standings, unable to score (29th in the league in Goals For per Game) and unable to play a strong puck possession game (27th in Corsi For at five-on-five), Desjardins’ future with the club is very likely to again be a focus for media and fans in the upcoming season.

The Canucks, as an organization, had unrealistic expectations last season.

They tried to sell the idea of getting younger and being competitive at the same time, and it was clear right away they weren’t capable of the latter.

Desjardins was given the task of trying to be competitive while introducing younger players — rookies Jake Virtanen, Jared McCann and Ben Hutton — into the lineup. Injuries also hurt the Canucks, who were without Brandon Sutter for much of the season, as well as defenseman Alex Edler. The absence of Sutter forced sophomore middle man Bo Horvat into a second-line center spot, a difficult role for a player who just turned 21 years old.

Given the circumstances, president Trevor Linden saw fit to keep Desjardins. In March, Linden told The Province there was “no reason” to make a change. He reiterated that to reporters following the end of the season, saying Desjardins would “definitely be back next year.”

The Canucks and GM Jim Benning have clearly made it a point of being as competitive as possible next season, which is sure to annoy fans who would right now prefer a rebuild.

With that in mind, the Canucks this offseason sent McCann to Florida for defenseman Erik Gudbranson and signed scoring forward Loui Eriksson as a free agent.

Desjardins has also thrown down the challenge to the younger players for next season.

(It’s worth pointing out that Virtanen, the sixth overall pick in 2014, will be eligible to play in the AHL next season, so his roster spot at right wing isn’t a guarantee.)

“When you have development and winning as two goals, they’re different. The NHL isn’t a development league,” Desjardins told TSN 1040 in the spring.

“I think now (the younger players) they’re in a spot where they’ve got to help us win. I think our goal is going to be clearer. We’re focused on winning. The young guys can come in and help on that. I’ve always felt that just giving things to players doesn’t help them. They have to earn it.”

OK. Winning is the goal.

If the Canucks are completely healthy at the beginning of the season and they still get off to a poor start, that could put even more pressure on Desjardins, as well as the organization.

There is also this to consider: The Canucks have a coach in Utica, Travis Green, that appears close to making it to the NHL. Green believes he’s ready for the NHL. He apparently was given a long look from the Anaheim Ducks, before they hired Randy Carlyle.

For Desjardins and the Canucks, winning could put all this on the back burner rather quickly.

If the losing continues in October and November, “Willie Watch” might begin early.