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Five keys for Vancouver's new coach

by Kevin Woodley

VANCOUVER -- After firing coach Alain Vigneault and two of his assistants on Wednesday, Vancouver Canucks president and general manager Mike Gillis was in no mood to look ahead at possible replacements.

"Today has been a bad enough day; can you give me a couple just to clear my head?" Gillis said when asked what style of coach he preferred. "I need a couple of days here before we start going down that path to collect my thoughts."

Noting that he's not one to rush into emotional decisions when asked about the two weeks that passed between missing the playoffs and firing Vigneault, Gillis said there are "a number of good candidates," without identifying any.

"The NHL is changing and evolving rapidly and we're going to listen and talk to the people we feel are legitimate candidates and we'll make our decision based on that process," said Gillis, who will be hiring his first coach after retaining Vigneault when he took over as the Canucks' general manager in 2008.


Vigneault out in Vancouver

By Kevin Woodley - correspondent
Consecutive early exits from the Stanley Cup Playoffs cost Alain Vigneault his job as the coach of the Vancouver Canucks.  READ MORE ›

"No timeframe. We're just focused on getting the right person, moving ahead and executing a plan we have that is going to get us back to the level we expect."

While the identity of potential candidates remains something of a mystery, the task at hand – and mandate – for any new Canucks coach is clearer:

1. Helping young players

Among the needs Gillis identified as part of what he called a "reset" at a season-ending address 10 days earlier was an influx of younger players. Whether there is enough talent in a thin prospect pool to make that work remains to be seen, but with salary cap concerns coming, there's little doubt the Canucks will get younger.

"It's critical," Gillis said. "Look at the cap system we are involved in. You have to have young players on your roster, have to embrace it and work with it and make them better. We have a really good core group of players and need to surround them with some younger, skilled players who can contribute."

Fair or not, the development of young players was a criticism of Vigneault, who was coaching as players like Alexandre Burrows, Ryan Kesler, Alexander Edler and Cory Schneider blossomed into elite players -- but also clashed with since-traded first round draft pick Cody Hodgson early in his career and left fellow young-but-promising forward Zack Kassian toiling on the fourth line for prolonged stretches this season.

With a need for Kassian to pay a bigger role in the offense and the possibility of 20-year-old defenseman Frank Corrado joining 23-year-old Christopher Tanev on the blue line – and maybe freeing up veteran defenders for trades to get help elsewhere – working well with young players is crucial for a new coach.

2. Emphasizing offense

Despite a lot of emphasis in that post-playoff address about the recent move towards more of a shutdown, grind-it-out style in the Western Conference, Gillis was back to talking up offense after firing Vigneault. He dismissed some of this year's trends as a product of the lockout-shortened season, and he pointed to the consecutive Presidents' Trophy seasons in 2010-11 and 2011-12 as a result of "a more upbeat style of play."

"I like an upbeat style of play," Gillis repeated.

The team he's built seems better-suited to that style, with an active defense core jumping into the rush. But the Canucks placed a greater emphasis on taking care of their own end this past season, with forwards asked to collapse down lower to help out rather than blowing the zone early to look for scoring chances.

Finding a way to score against teams that are collapsing more in front of their net will be a challenge for the new coach, especially if Gillis fails to add forwards more willing to fight their way into that tough scoring space. But don't expect anyone preaching a Dave Tippett-like, defense-only approach to even get that opportunity.

3. Fixing the power play

After being near the top of the NHL for three straight seasons, the Canucks' power play dropped to 22nd this season at just 15.8 per cent -- and it was at the bottom of the League for long stretches. While the Canucks tinkered with strange new looks – including putting their best goal scorer, Daniel Sedin, back at the point as far away as possible from twin brother Henrik and their back-and-forth magic – hard-shooting defenseman Jason Garrison almost never played on the top unit.

With so many questions about a lack of gritty, in-tight scorers on a team that struggled to create goals the past two playoffs, the Canucks can't afford to have a popgun power play. Finding a way to integrate Garrison, who scored nine of his 16 goals on the power play for the Florida Panthers in '11-12 before signing a six-year, $27.6-million free agent contract in Vancouver last summer, might help – if not on the ice, at least in the interview process with the GM that signed him.

4. Keeping Kesler healthy (and happy)

Finding a way to utilize Ryan Kesler, a prickly but powerful Selke Trophy-winning center, without wearing him out will be important. Limited by injuries the past two playoffs, Kesler was finally healthy this year, but largely because he missed most of the abbreviated season – first recovering from surgeries to fix previous playoff problems, and then because he broke his foot blocking a shot in the first game back. A move to the wing might help, but Kesler, who is a staple on the top power-play and penalty-kill units, bristled at such attempts by Vigneault this season.

Then again, some think Kesler is at his best when he's angry. Either way, without much depth at center behind him, Kesler remains a crucial component for the Canucks -- but he needs to be healthy come playoff time to do them any good.

5. For better or worse

For whatever reason, some players fall in or out of favor with certain coaches.

Whether a new coach can work with Keith Ballard, who is considered an amnesty buyout candidate after spending large chunks of the last three seasons – including this year's playoffs -- as a healthy scratch, remains to be seen. But finding a way to utilize a $4.2-million veteran defenseman like Ballard rather than simply sit him out will be just as important for any new coach as being able to get more out of the talented-but-inconsistent Alexander Edler than his predecessor did by seemingly never punishing or challenging even his most egregious mistakes.

That goes for individuals and the group as a whole.

Vigneault handed ownership and accountability of the room over to the veterans. After failing to meet expectations for two straight playoffs, the new coach may need to take it back.

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