Asked to appoint the 17th head coach in franchise history, Alex Burrows hesitated like a Daniel Sedin release.
The Vancouver Canucks winger briefly paused before following through with a suggestion of what the successor to Alain Vigneault would need to bring behind the bench.
“I don’t know — it’s tough to say,” Burrows initially said Wednesday. “A guy who has been around and knows the league and knows the teams in the Western Conference and can prepare us the right way. I thought we were well prepared and he (Vigneault) wasn’t the one going on the ice and making plays. There was only so much he could do and I’m not sure what he could have done better.
“We always knew what the other team was going to do and what we needed to do to beat them. Sometimes, we just didn’t put it on the ice like we should have.”
Sometimes? The reason Vigneault, associate coach Rick Bowness and assistant Newell Brown were jettisoned wasn’t complicated.
The Canucks couldn’t score, couldn’t win when it mattered most and became so tentative and predictable on the power play that they plummeted from first to 22nd in two seasons. The short season isn’t why they had the 19th-ranked offence and were 25th in faceoffs.
The suffocating Western Conference placed a premium on goals; run-and-gun offences have run off to the Eastern Conference. But how do you explain only eight goals in being swept by the San Jose Sharks, two wins in the last 14 playoff games and just 20 goals in that span? That’s no anomaly. No mulligan. No mirage.
The long fall dates back to a vengeful 4-3 win in Boston on Jan. 7, 2012. It was a championship effort, but no Stanley Cup was awarded that night and the Canucks were never the same. They won on great goaltending and low-scoring, one-goal wins became the mantra.
Burrows tried to rationalize the latest campaign being hampered by Ryan Kesler limited to 17 games and David Booth being injured in training camp testing and then lasting just a dozen games before being sidelined again.
“A shortened season was different for everyone and not many days between games,” suggested Burrows. “Kesler’s injury (fractured foot) at that time of year (Feb. 15) and it seemed like we never took full strides. That didn’t help when one of your top guys, who plays the most in every situation, is missing and for a long time we were trying to fill holes all the time. That was probably the biggest thing.”
So was not moving Roberto Luongo before the season, waiting until the trade deadline to fill a third-line centre void and never adding veteran grit to get through the first round. But that’s on general manger Mike Gillis and not Vigneault. He coached what he had and often went with his gut, whether right or wrong. You could argue his line combinations, but not a willingness to find the right fit, and one was to align Burrows with Henrik and Daniel Sedin.
“Alain has always been really fair,” said Burrows. “If you worked and played hard, he’ll give you some ice time and he wasn’t shy about telling you what was going right and what was wrong. You could go into his office and have a chat about how we should be playing or what we could do better.”
Yet, in a way, that was the great failing. The Canucks would meet and talk and talk. They would practise yet seldom execute.
Jason Garrison was a prime example of some strange thinking. Struggling to acclimate to a new team and work his way on to the power play with a booming slapshot, he was on the second unit in the final game of the season with Dan Hamhuis, while Daniel Sedin and Alex Edler manned the points on the first unit. Garrison had a team high 15 shots in the playoffs and a new-look power play might make a difference next season. Those drop passes through the neutral zone and Henrik Sedin setting up on the right half wall neutralized the left-shot Garrsion, who became the club’s most consistent blueliner down the stretch and into the playoffs.
He sees the power play returning to top 10 status.
“It’s there for sure,” said Garrison. “This team has done it before and it’s just a matter of making sure that we have a game plan every night and execute. With the twins leading the charge, there are so many possibilities and so much potential.
“This year, I had more power play practice and meetings than in the (three) years that I’ve played. It’s a special-teams game and we really need to implement one. We’ve got to be better.”
Not only did Garrison recover from chronic groin problems that were addressed during the lockout, the White Rock native went from having trouble finding the net to finding the way out of his own zone after he became the big offseason free-agent signing. But he became one of the few good-news stories.
“It was a little bit of everything,” he said of finishing with eight goals in 47 games. “Continuing to get ice time and the coaches did a great job sticking with me and making sure I knew what was going on. My comfort level is a lot better.”
Imagine if the power play finds the same comfort level? It would be the first step in a long climb back to prominence.