It was a 45-minute breath of fresh air, with the words flowing out of Alexandre Burrows clearly and deliberately.
The 39-year-old’s Zoom press conference provided a perfect explanation for why he was taken off the Laval Rocket bench, after just one year in the AHL, and promoted to replace Montreal Canadiens associate coach Kirk Muller on Feb. 24.
It was one thing for general manager Marc Bergevin to repeat on that day that both Dominique Ducharme (taking over as head coach for Claude Julien) and Burrows would offer new voices to a Canadiens team in need of them, but it was another to hear Ducharme’s voice for ourselves over the last couple of weeks and to finally, on Tuesday, get a sample of what the players are experiencing beyond what we see on the ice with Burrows.
It is there where he bounces from drill to drill with the energy of a 10-year-old who just chugged six Pixie Sticks, but it was in some backroom of Rogers Arena, with the Canadiens’ makeshift backdrop behind him, that Burrows gave us a glimpse of the serious and measured guy who’s also spending his time crafting power-play schemes and conducting video tutorials off-ice.
He spoke for a long time, but made it clear within seconds why he was the precise person chosen to join Ducharme’s bench. He told us what this opportunity means to him as a lifelong Canadiens fan who caught a lot of flak from his Vancouver Canucks teammates for never losing his allegiance to the team of his childhood, the team he would ritually watch play the early games while the Canucks were preparing to play the late ones.
But Burrows also talked about how the last season in Laval prepared him for this and how 998 NHL games (regular season and post-season combined) gave him all the insight he needed to make this transition. He then shared how long-time Canucks assistant coach Newell Brown inspired the mentality he’s brought to reviving a Canadiens power play that struggled immensely under Muller but is suddenly clicking under his guidance.
“He was always open,” Burrows said. “You could talk to him, share ideas, plans. We could comment on some stuff, so it was really working as a group.
“He always had a plan, made sure it was clear, and there weren’t any grey areas. And there’s plans on the breakouts, on the in-zone, on 5-on-3s, 4-on-3s, faceoffs, so it made it easier for players to play instead of always think, so it kind of became second nature going on the power play.”
That’s what it’s looked like for one unit of Montreal’s power play since Burrows took over.
Now Burrows has to get the other unit going. The one with Jonathan Drouin and Shea Weber rotating from the top of the point to the flank, with Nick Suzuki and Tyler Toffoli switching off with each other in the bumper position, and with Josh Anderson in front of the net.
It’s a unit filled with cerebral players in Drouin, Suzuki and Toffoli — crafty playmakers not unlike Henrik and Daniel Sedin, with whom Burrows enjoyed the greatest success of his career.
When asked how he could lend some of what the Sedins did so successfully to this trio of bright Canadiens, Burrows pointed to simplicity.
“I think we don’t have to force plays,” he said. “Even with the twins, they were efficient by being the experts at simple plays... It wasn’t always the crazy, between-the-legs saucer pass and back door and tic-tac-toes. The way they had success was by keeping it simple over and over and becoming experts at that. It comes down with execution.
"It comes down with knowing where teammates are going to be on the ice, because the game is so fast now [that] if you take that extra second to hope that, or you’re wishing or holding onto the puck for an extra second to find a lane or find a guy and hoping that the guy’s going to be there, it’s going to be too late and you’ll be breaking out once again. So, we try to keep it clear, simple, efficient and direct.”
But the challenge with that is avoiding being predictable.
The Canadiens have been particularly predictable on this unit — certainly in the way they break into the zone and attempt to set things up from there, but mostly with Weber’s shot being habitually overused. It’s part of the reason Weber’s got just two power-play goals this season despite producing 102 over his previous 15 seasons in the NHL.
When Burrows was asked if it was time for the Canadiens to remove Weber from the power play and opt for someone more mobile in his place — Alexander Romanov wasn’t specifically brought up, but he’d be a logical choice for such an assignment — he explained why he wasn’t going to do that.
“Shea’s got one of the best shots in the league or the best one-timer I’ve seen,” Burrows said. “He’s a weapon, for sure, on your unit. Team’s PKs are going to shadow him as much as they can so they don’t let that shot come out. For me, I have different [formations] and Shea, when he’s on the flank, I’d love to see him tee it off every time he has a chance. If we’re able to tee it up for him, that would be a great play. If he’s at the top and we have Jo on the flank, it’s different looks.
“But sometimes he might be a decoy and we’ll run another play knowing that they’re going to shadow him. A lot goes into it. I’m not worried about Shea. I know how he prepares, I know how he cares about this team. He’s the ultimate captain, I’ve seen only good things about him so far — the way he acts and conducts himself, the way he cares about his teammates, the way he cares about [how] the team does, so I’m not worried about him at all.
"But as we move forward, we’ll need him to shoot that puck and we’ll need to find for him or create lanes for him to let that shot go because it’s one of the best weapons in the league.”
When asked what this unit, presumed to be the top unit by this reporter, can borrow from the one that’s actually clicking, Burrows revealed much more about what he’s trying to establish with both units.
“I think for both units we’ve kept it pretty simple since Day 1,” Burrows said. “We have a different plan, and we have this wolf-pack mentality that we can strike from anywhere. We can strike from the low plays, we can strike from shots from the top, we can shoot from the flanks, we converge towards rebounds, and that’s the way I see it.
“I know both units can do the job and we’ll keep getting better. It’s a work in progress, it’s going to take some time. You look around the league, the best units have been together for four, five, six years of the same guys in the same spots doing the right things over and over. That’s how I got taught to play the game. I think if we can be direct, keep it simple and efficient, that’s how we’re going to have some success when the game’s on the line and we need a big power-play goal late in the game or it’s playoff hockey and the game’s on the line and we need to score a goal.
"If we keep the same mentality, I think the odds are on our side that we’ll be able to shine when the light’s the brightest.”
Burrows said it with passion and conviction and communicated it directly, which is at the heart of why he was given this job.