Simplify. Simplify. Simplify.
The idea of Henry David Thoreau, the original pond philosopher (and yes, Walden Pond does freeze), is working just fine for the Kenai River Brown Bears.
On Nov. 19, the Brown Bears were in first place by a point in the North American Hockey League West Division. Then came a 3-9 stretch that left the team three points out of the playoffs after a 3-2 loss to the Alaska Avalanche of Palmer on Jan. 20.
All 12 of those games came against either the Avs, who are second in the West, or the defending league champion Fairbanks Ice Dogs, who are first in the West.
“It was a pretty difficult stretch,” said Brown Bears coach Oliver David, whose team takes on the Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild today and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the Soldotna Sports Center. “We were hitting both of those teams at their climb.”
Still, David knew something had to change. During the 12-game struggle, the Brown Bears gave up an average of 4.1 goals and 33.6 shots per game. Kenai River scored 2.8 goals per game.
So David changed the way the team plays in the defensive zone by simplifying the system. The Brown Bears are 5-3-1 since that 12-game slide against the Ice Dogs and Avs.
In the current nine-game string, the squad is giving up 2.0 goals and 28.8 shots per game, while scoring 2.4 goals per game.
Kenai River is one point ahead of the Fresno (Calif.) Monsters in the race of the West’s final playoff spot.
“We’ve worked a lot on our defensive zone during practices,” defenseman Raymond Stenehjem, a 20-year-old from Anchorage, said. “In preparation for practice, we’ve watched video making sure we are doing our systems, and getting the puck out of the zone as quickly as possible.”
David said that last year and the first half of this year, he employed a defensive system that aggressively tried to retrieve the puck. He said the system was so aggressive that, at times, two defensemen would go to the corner in search of the puck and leave the front of the net vacant.
“It got to the point where scores were high, maybe guys were tired, and too many areas of the ice were left unoccupied for the other team to penetrate,” David said. “We tried to simplify and have more areas occupied.”
In their recently completed Super Bowl run, the New York Giants’ secondary improved late in the year when the calls on defense were simplified, leaving the players more time to concentrate on covering and tackling. A similar tack is paying off for the Brown Bears.
“Having the system simplified means we’re not running around like robots,” Stenehjem said.
That gives the team time to focus on the basics, like clearing rebounds, backchecking and making sure opponents’ shots come from less dangerous areas of the ice.
“The forwards are told to fly and the D chips out,” defenseman Ryan Walker, 19, of Detroit said. “Getting the puck and chipping it out is pretty easy. The forwards are also dropping farther back to block shots.”
Goalie Austin Severson, a 20-year-old from Seattle, also has gotten back on track. Severson got off to a 12-4-1 start with the Brown Bears. That actually includes a 3-2 mark at the beginning of the team’s 3-9 stretch against the Ice Dogs and Avs.
But then Severson was in net as the Brown Bears lost five straight to the Ice Dogs and Avs. Severson, who allows 2.72 goals per game, allowed an average of 4.0 during the five-game skid.
In the middle of the losing streak, the Brown Bears traded Paul Bourbeau, so Severson had to play every night.
“He’s one of my good friends,” Walker said of Severson. “We hang out every day. He was pretty frustrated, but he kept working hard and turned it around.”
David said the Bears were not planning on trading Bourbeau. The team only gets two import players and decided it wanted forward Marek Hemsky. That meant Bourbeau, who is Canadian, had to go.
“Severson is doing a great job,” David said. “He has recognized an opportunity and is rising to the challenge.”
Severson said playing nearly every night, for the first time in his career, is a challenge. David said in the first part of the season, Severson usually did not play as well on Saturday nights.
“I’m taking care of my body more and I’m focused more on preparation,” Severson said. “It’s helped a lot.”
Severson also said the simplified defensive system has helped a lot. Walker pointed out that many coaches would not have changed the system.
“It’s crazy,” Walker said. “Even in the NHL, they don’t change systems, they change players. It’s big that Oliver trusted the whole team and kept with us.
“He didn’t start trading everyone when we started losing games.”
Walker said David tells the team, starting at training camp, that the players are a family. That cohesiveness helped the team pull out of its swoon.
“You never want to quit on a family member and that’s how he has bred us as a team,” he said.
So what happens when the Brown Bears start playing the Avs and Ice Dogs again? After this weekend’s games, eight of Kenai River’s next 10 games are against the Avs and Ice Dogs.
Stenehjem said he believes the team has the right systems in place for the challenge, but added that a system is not the most important thing.
“Our systems need to have a lot of energy through the whole game,” he said. “We need to forecheck, backcheck, skate the hardest and talk the most when we don’t have the puck.
“We have to make sure we stick to that — working hard throughout the whole game.”