WHISTLER, B.C. – The Vancouver Canucks know a return to the playoffs will largely hinge on rediscovering their mojo with the man advantage.
The club had the NHL’s top power play when they went to the Stanley Cup final in 2011, but that unit with mostly the same cast plummeted all the way to 26th last season.
That stinging lack of success proved fatal for a team that scored the third fewest goals in the league overall, and was a big part of why Vancouver missed the post-season for the first time in six years.
However with some new faces—and more importantly new ideas—the Canucks are confident they can get that critical element of their game back on track.
“In this league you win by having great special teams. If you look at the best teams on the power play, they’re the ones making the playoffs,” said captain Henrik Sedin. “It was impossible for us to make the playoffs with the power play we had last year.”
New head coach Willie Desjardins said one key will be to have two units going instead of leaning on Daniel and Henrik Sedin, as was the case under John Tortorella last season.
“I just don’t like (having) guys on the ice when they’re tired. I don’t think that’s fair to them and I don’t think they get the best results,” Desjardins said. “Last year the Sedin unit had a good year, it was just that there was nothing off the other unit. For us to be good we need both units.
“I think the Sedins get rested more and then when they’re out there, they’re more effective.”
A big part of any team success in 2014-15 for the Canucks will probably come down to how Radim Vrbata and Nick Bonino fit in on the power play. Vrbata signed with Vancouver in the off-season after recording 10 goals and 11 assists on the man advantage with the Phoenix Coyotes last season, while Bonino—who arrived from Anaheim in the Ryan Kesler trade—finished with seven goals and 13 assists playing 5-on-4 with the Ducks.
Judging by how things have gone at training camp ahead of Tuesday’s split-squad games against the San Jose Sharks, it looks like Vrbata will start on the first line and first power-play unit with the Sedins.
“(Vrbata’s) got tremendous hands, great shot, great finisher and he can make plays,” said Henrik Sedin. “I just have a good feeling about our power play this year.”
Vancouver bottomed out on the man advantage in Tortorella’s only season behind the bench, but the slide actually started in the lockout-shortened 2013 campaign when it fell to 22nd under Alain Vigneault.
“We saw some clips from last year and it didn’t look like a bad power play to me,” said Vrbata. “There’s lots of skill and smart guys who can play.”
While the Canucks were abysmal playing up a man last season, the penalty kill also faded late to finish ninth after being at or near the top of the league for long stretches.
“Our power play was not good enough,” said Henrik Sedin. “Our PK was not good enough and we lost ourselves there in January. We couldn’t get it back and that was tough.”
Desjardins is a big believer in players that have had success in the past, and has faith this group can find a way to break through with the man advantage in situations it couldn’t last year.
“The first unit for sure is good, real good,” he said. “Then you have Bonino, you have (Alexandre) Burrows, that’s been a scorer in the past … you have lots of guys who have done it, so why can’t they do it this year? They can put up some numbers.”
Henrik Sedin said with all the video in today’s game that it’s critical for power plays to be unpredictable.
“The other teams spend so many hours watching your power play and penalty kill and everything,” he said. “You have to have a foundation where you start, but then need to build from there.”
Veteran assistant coach Perry Pearn will work with a power play that has defencemen Kevin Bieksa, Dan Hamhuis and Alexander Edler, among others, vying to man the points.
Like his captain, Desjardins hopes the Canucks will be able to provide more varied setups after becoming a little too predictable in recent years.
“We’ve talked about a lot of different situations. Perry’s had a lot of experience and is a real smart guy,” he said. “He’s good with the power play, but I think there will be a couple of different looks.
“At the same time, this power play has been real good in the past.”