Special teams often represent the slight margin between victory and defeat.
Just ask the Phoenix Coyotes.
Here was a team mired near the NHL basement last season in power-play goals. The Coyotes had difficulty putting the puck in the net with the man advantage, and that failure compromised their success rate, translating into a 21-18-9 season.
The 51 standings were not good enough to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Overall, the Coyotes tied for 25th out of the 30 teams in power-play efficiency and finished 18th at home.
What a difference a season makes.
Coming into their home game on Saturday against Anaheim, the Coyotes were sixth in the NHL power-play efficiency. They were second best in the league, and only the Leafs had a better power-play percentage on home ice.
A quick glance around the Coyotes’ clubhouse and comments from head coach Dave Tippett point to one significant reason—bringing assistant coach Newell Brown on board.
Because the trend in hockey is specialization regarding special teams, Brown, an offensive-minded coach, was brought in to address the anemic power play. An assistant with Vancouver the last three years with previous coaching stints with the Blue Jackets, Ducks and Blackhawks, Brown brings an approach to the power play that the Coyotes now embrace.
Through previous association with Coyotes’ assistant coach Dave King, Brown seemed a natural fit. When King was the first head coach of Columbus and when the Blue Jackets entered the NHL at the start of the 2000-01 season, King named Brown his first assistant coach.
Since the end of last season, Brown renewed his connection with King and eventually was brought in to solve the power-play dilemma.
“Any execution begins with good players,” Brown said. “Players make all the difference. (In Phoenix), we have a group of dedicated players who are committed and take pride in their execution.”
To be fair, general manager Don Maloney and Tippett have tweaked personnel and brought in center Mike Ribeiro, who tied for the NHL lead last season in power-play points with Caps’ teammate Alex Ovechkin.
Plus, contributions from defensemen Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Keith Yandle, Michael Stone and Derek Morris cannot be underestimated. Coming into the Anaheim game, the Phoenix defensemen led the NHL with a combined 19 goals scored.
“On the power play, we’re making better decisions,” said right wing Radim Vrbata, who has chipped in with two power-play goals in the Coyotes’ first 22 games. “Once you make better decisions, the puck seems to find its way in the net.”
Unlike football and basketball, the rapid flow of the game prevents any firm approach. Brown is the first to recognize the fluidity of hockey and possible hazards.
“You can’t have set plays,” Brown said. “The game moves too fast. To execute on the power play, you have to have a mindset and recognize strategy.”
The key to overall success, Brown points out, lays in a psychological dimension.
“You know the other team is skating one player short and you have to execute at a higher level,” he said. “Also, it’s a matter of out-working the opposition. That’s a key factor. At the same time, you take what the opposition gives you. Many times, you can find openings and then it’s up the players on the ice to execute.”
Mark Brown is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.