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Vincent Desharnais working on making more plays with the puck

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Photo credit:James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports
Jason Gregor
6 months ago
Vincent Desharnais always has a smile on face. You can tell he enjoys every day in the National Hockey League. The Oilers drafted him in the seventh round, 183rd overall, in 2016 after one year at Providence College. He played four years at Providence and was named Hockey East’s best defencemen in his final season in 2018-19. When he left school, he didn’t sign an entry-level, two-way NHL contract, instead he had to sign an American League deal.  His pro career started in the ECHL in 2019-20 where he played 31 games, and then six AHL games mixed in.
The following year he played six games in the ECHL and 37 in the AHL. He was moving up. In his third pro season he was a regular AHL D-man and played 66 games. He was injured and missed out on attending his first NHL training camp. In March of 2022, he signed his first NHL contract. A two-year, two-way deal. He was excited. He trained hard all summer to be sure he could make a good impression in training camp. But then he injured his hand right before camp and didn’t take part in training camp or the preseason. He was crushed, but he was convinced he could play in the league.
He played his first game in Bakersfield on November 2nd. He played five games, but then another injury kept him out a month. He was no stranger to adversity.
He returned December 17th and played eight more games, before getting the call he was going to Edmonton. Seventy-eight months after being drafted, Desharnais was going to the NHL. He had a very emotional phone call with his brother and parents. “There were a lot of tears. More tears than words,” he said.
On January 11th, 2023, Desharnais made his NHL debut in Anaheim. He played 15:04. The Oilers won his first six games. It was an amazing start to his career and the Oilers were 28-5-3 in the 36 games he played. He missed four games with a minor injury. He played 12 playoff games and learned a lot. He was determined to return to Edmonton and be more of a contributor. He spent the summer working on his skating, but he also spent a lot of time working on his puck skills.
He scored his first NHL goal during the Heritage Classic — another milestone for a player who was considered a longshot to play in the NHL.
Desharnais has skated in 57 NHL games. He’s played the 66th-most games from his draft class and 20th most among defenders. And 15 of those ahead of him are already out of the NHL. Not bad for a 183rd overall pick. But he’s far from satisfied. He feels he has lots of room to grow, and the arrival of Paul Coffey has helped him and all of the D-men.
I spoke to Desharnais about Coffey, the recent improved defensive play and the areas he is looking to improve.

Jason Gregor: How has Paul Coffey impacted you and the entire defence corps?

Vincent Desharnais: I think the first thing that we were kind of missing, we were struggling with was our confidence as a team. I think that’s what Kris and Paul did when they came in, they really focused on trying to bring positivity, trying to bring a smile every day and just trying to get better in confidence. We used to be a confident group in here, we know what we have. We were missing that, and those guys brought that back, which is great for us. Personally, with Paul, he’s been really good at communicating on the bench. Even sometimes you’ll have a bad shift, make a bad mistake, and instead of just yelling, he knows that we know. And he’ll just tell us ‘right back, next shift. I need you, I need you to be back.’
It helps so much with the confidence of letting go of the mistake that just happened and you can put behind you and then have a good shift which is great. I think that all of the D-men have been playing so much better with him behind the bench. It’s nothing crazy that he’s doing, it’s the small little details, I guess that he’s positive, communicates a lot with us. I think that brought us together as a D core and we feel more connected together.

Gregor: I understand he’ll sit down in a video session with the defenders as a group, and then he shows good plays that you make, but also good plays made by other guys and says, ‘You can do that.’

Desharnais: Yeah exactly. I remember the first time he talked to us when he came in, he said I’m expecting you guys to learn from each other. When someone makes a mistake, the person next to him listen, and pay attention and learn from that mistake. I want to learn from you guys too. It doesn’t matter how old I am and what I’ve done, I want to learn from you guys because you are smart players.
So right away it gave us confidence. It kind of builds the relationship and you feel more confident and more comfortable going to talk to him if we have questions and what not. I know I’ve been repeating confidence, but I think that’s the biggest thing he brought to our D-core, the confidence to make plays and confidence of trusting your partner and not just kind of throwing the puck everywhere and trying to clear the zone.

Gregor: Is it different at all that you have a Hall of Famer, one of the greatest defensemen ever, pumping you guys up as a cheerleader? I’m know you’ve mentioned about your family is your biggest supporter, but now you have a Hall of Fame coach who is that, is that a different in a way?

Desharnais: Umm, maybe, I’m not sure. Obviously the first day you’re like, ‘Holy, it’s Paul Coffey. He’s my dad’s favourite player of all time.’ At first you think about it and it is nuts, but then you just let it go and at the end of the day, he’s a great person. He’s a great hockey guy, he’s a hockey brain. He loves hockey so much. Obviously, you listen to him, and whatever he tells you, you think ‘This guy knows what he’s talking about, he’s been around.’ But it’s been great to have him, and he brought a different voice, a different energy and I think that’s what the team needed.

Gregor: Have you sent a selfie of you and Coffey to your dad yet?

Desharnais: [Laughs]. No, but he actually met him last year. They (parents) came down for the first two games against LA in playoffs and after the second game, we walked past him and I said, ‘Hey Paul, meet my parents.’ My dad’s English is not the best, but he just forgot how to speak. All he could say was ‘Big fan! Big fan!’ [Laughs]. He didn’t know what to say, it was one of the first times I’ve seen my dad speechless. My dad always talks and he kind of just froze because he was so impressed by him. Kind of cool to have him as my D coach right now.

Gregor: Lately there has been more continuity with the defence pairings. Every defenseman, not that you don’t like seven, but most prefer six and you get used to the same guys. Darnell [Nurse] spoke yesterday about how everybody is making plays. And he specifically said look at Vinny and Kulak and how many good plays they are making, and it seems to be a little bit infectious now. Does that come from Paul saying learn from others making mistakes, but also watch the good plays the other guys make?

Desharnais: Yeah, for sure and then there’s no, ‘Oh well because it’s Nurse, we’ll just show Nurse here because whatever is positive is positive.’ Just seeing clips of me doing the right things, yes, it’s good for the other D-men, but it’s good for me because I see it and I feel, ‘Okay I can make this play.’ They show a clip of Nurse doing it and then they show a clip of me doing it afterwards. It helps and Paul’s message isn’t that because I’m on the third pairing I just have to clear the puck every time and maybe just ice it, instead he is showing and telling me that I can actually make plays too.
And obviously when you play every game with the same partner, you build a relationship, and you build some chemistry and now we’re sitting next to each other [Knoblauch and Coffey changed the seating in the room and all the D-men sit together and beside their partner]. I feel like you’re building a little more. So, when you are on the ice you don’t have to say as much because you know where the other guy is.
Same thing on the PK, I’ve been playing with [Mattias Ekholm] Ekky every game on the PK and we are starting to build something where we don’t have to talk as much because we know where the other person is going to be. And it feels good, it feels good when you get on the ice and you get a kill and you get back on the bench with your partner and it’s like, ‘Hey let’s go, that was a great shift, let’s build, let’s build.’ Instead of just always kind of mixing guys and switching partners, it’s kind of hard to build chemistry with that.
We just have to keep going, keep the wins going, one win at a time, one practice at a time and just keep getting better. I think the D core we have here, we’re playing great now, but I think the ceiling is higher than where we currently are, so we just need to keep getting better every day,

Gregor: I know you are a defensive guy; you take a lot of pride in the PK and everything, but you also are chipping in more offensively lately. Is it just convincing yourself ‘I can make more plays and I’m while I’m not here to score, I should chip in more than I had expected earlier?’

Desharnais: Yeah, for sure. I think I can make plays, especially in the O zone. I just have to be more confident with it. Like I mentioned earlier, when I first got here I kind of have the mindset that guys only need me to produce defensively. I just have to clear the zone, clear the zone and get the puck out. But I’ve been shifting my mindset to making more plays instead of just clearing the zone, making more plays and trying to skate and trying to go on offense. Be the fourth man in instead of just staying back or the odd time being the third guy driving the net. So just small things that I have the speed for it, I have the IQ for it, and I just have to keep doing it. I think the more I keep getting involved on the offensive zone, the more I can help the team. I know that I have it in me. I just have to keep practicing. I’ve been working a lot after practice with Stewy (Mark Stuart) with puck handling and making plays, making short little plays. I’m such a big guy with a big stick that sometimes it’s not always easy. But I’ve been feeling a difference already. Three more months of doing that after every practice and I think there is going to be something really nice there.
Desharnais is a late developer, which isn’t surprising considering his massive frame. He didn’t have the strength to move his massive 6’6″ frame around at 20 or 21. It has taken him time, but he continues to improve. He’s only played 57 NHL games and another 122 in the AHL. He’s far from a finished product. He’s become a very reliable penalty killer, and he moves well for a big man. As he outlined above, he’s working on improving his puck skills, and having Coffey and Stuart showing and telling he can make those plays will only help his confidence. He isn’t going to become Evan Bouchard offensively, but if he can chip in 15-20 points, while being a solid shutdown defender his value and worth to the Oilers increases.

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