While the surroundings look familiar to Newell Brown in his second go-round as an assistant coach with the Vancouver Canucks, very little remains from the days when the team was riding high atop the National Hockey League standings. The 55-year-old, who worked alongside Alain Vigneault on the Canucks staff from 2010 to 2013, was introduced as part of new head coach Travis Green’s staff on Wednesday afternoon at Rogers Arena. Brown will handle the Canucks forwards next season and has been tasked with breathing new life into the league’s 29th ranked power play. That’s a far cry from the league’s best unit Brown oversaw in his first season in Vancouver which clicked at 24.3% the year the Canucks won the President’s Trophy and made it to the Stanley Cup Final.
Brown is well aware that much has changed with the organization and that there is only one direction to go after languishing at the bottom of the standings the past two seasons.
“It’s a different situation now,” he told a small group of reporters. “We know we have to put our work boots on and get some things done here. But we have a lot of good young players in the organization and some good veterans as well. So, there is lots to work with but we also know we have our work cut out for us.”
Brown returns to Vancouver after four seasons with the Arizona Coyotes. He hopes that working with young players in the desert will serve him well as the Canucks continue to integrate youth into their line-up. But when it comes to the power play, Brown will in all likelihood be working with Canucks veterans – most-notably Daniel and Henrik Sedin who remain from his first stint with the organization.
Back then, the twins worked with Christian Ehrhoff, Sami Salo and Ryan Kesler to punish opponents with the man-advantage. The weaponry is different now – and not nearly as potent. Brown recognizes that and cautions that the league has changed considerably since he last worked here. He’s hoping he’s adapted with those changes to put a system in place that will allow the Canucks to have success with the personnel they possess.
Last year’s power play was a disaster converting just 32 times in 82 games sputtering at 14.1%.
“The power play has become a lot more specialized,” Brown explains. “Teams are really studying what you’re doing and putting good defenses against what you’re trying to accomplish on the ice. You have to change with the times and adjust to what’s going on in the game. Hopefully, over the last four years, I’ve evolved in that area as well and hopefully bring some new ideas to the team and try to find that success we had before.”
Brown says he’s watched a small sample of video of the Canucks power play from last season but feels from coaching against it and preparing for it, he has a solid handle on where improvements can and will be made. Most notably – and this should come as music to Canucks fans ears – he stresses the importance of mixing up all aspects of the power play to keep opponents guessing.
“I don’t think you can do just one thing,” he says. “I like having unpredictability to your power play — lots of movement and lots of motion – but you can never get away from the fundamentals of shooting the puck and having good net presence. That is always going to be timeless for the power play.”
Brown says it’s far too early in the process – it was his first day on the job after all – to speculate on personnel and power play groupings for the Canucks next season. He says coaches will meet throughout the summer to discuss ideas, but he doesn’t expect any final decisions to be made until much closer to the team’s training camp in September.
Brown, who coached Travis Green when the two were together in Anaheim more than a decade ago, feels strongly about the importance of gaining the attacking zone to be able to set up with the man-advantage. To that end, he envisions a handful of entry strategies to made the Canucks power play tougher to defend.
“I like three or four different breakouts,” he says. “I like the speed breakout, I like the drop pass breakout and a few other variations. I think you have to have all those things in your playbook today because teams do pre-scout so close. You don’t want them to know what you’re doing every game.”
Brown stressed the importance of getting the power play working early in the season so that the Canucks aren’t fighting to find confidence with the man-advantage. That was a problem for the hockey club last year to the point after the All-Star break on many nights, the team often appeared to know the end result before a power play began and looked like a group that didn’t believe it could strike with the opportunity.
He says it isn’t always about scoring with the power play, but doing enough with man power chances to apply pressure that can change games.
“The power play can create momentum for a team in a game and for sure you want to score on it, but when you go on the ice you want to look like a good team,” he says. “You want to look like you’re getting into the zone well, setting up well, getting shots and creating momentum for the team. If you do that, the by-product is you’re going to score your share of goals.”
One thing missing from the Canuck power play attack last season was the option of one-shot scorer especially at the top of the left circle. Radim Vrbata had success there a few seasons back, but it wasn’t until Brock Boeser joined the club for the final weeks of last season after leaving the University of North Dakota that the club possessed a triggerman in that position.
Brown is excited to see if the 2015 first rounder – and his shoot to score mentality – can fill that void next season.
“It’s a great weapon to have,” he says. “Anytime you can one-time the puck and have someone who can shoot it efficiently like that and have a chance to score when he does shoot it, I think it’s a great advantage and a really nice weapon to have. If that comes to fruition, we’ll be looking forward to that.”
So will Canuck fans who suffered through too many fruitless power plays last season. Newell Brown isn’t promising miracles now that he’s back in the fold, but he certainly sounds like he has some ideas that should be able to give the Canucks power play a much-needed makeover.