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Can the Canucks penalty kill avoid making history?

The Canucks' penalty kill percentage of 65.5% is on pace to be the worst in NHL history by a wide margin.
Vancouver Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet illustrates a drill during practice.

The Vancouver Canucks’ penalty kill this season might be the worst of all time.

As recently as ten games ago, the Canucks were still on pace for the worst penalty kill in NHL history but only just barely. The worst penalty kill since the NHL started tracking the statistic belongs to the 1979-80 Los Angeles Kings, with a 68.2% penalty kill percentage. Ten games ago, the Canucks were just below that mark at 68.1%.

Over the last ten games, the Canucks’ penalty kill has somehow gotten even worse.

The Canucks have allowed 13 power play goals on 29 opportunities in their last ten games, killing off an appallingly bad 55.2% of their penalties. 

That ten-game stretch has dragged their penalty kill percentage for the season down to 65.5%. That’s nearly seven points worse than the next worst penalty kill, belonging to the Seattle Kraken at 72.3%.

The penalty kill isn’t the only reason why the Canucks have a 20-26-3 record and are 27th in the NHL at the All-Star break, but it certainly hasn’t helped. The Canucks have a minus-45 goal differential while shorthanded, by far the biggest contributor to their minus-30 goal differential in all situations.

If the Canucks’ penalty kill was even league average, killing off 78.2% of their penalties, they would have a minus-27 goal differential while shorthanded — an 18-goal difference. That’s a significant swing, even if the Canucks would still be a minus-12 in all situations.

So, what would it take for the Canucks to avoid making history by surpassing the 1979-80 Kings for the new benchmark as the worst penalty kill of all time?

Can the Canucks have an average penalty kill?

First, lets make the assumption that the Canucks won’t get any better at avoiding the penalty box. Surprisingly, the Canucks are actually one of the least penalized teams in the NHL. Their 147 minor penalties are actually the third-fewest in the NHL this season.

On average, the Canucks are shorthanded 2.90 times per game, so let’s assume that continues. That would put the Canucks on the penalty kill another 96 times in the team’s remaining 33 games.

If the Canucks kill off every single one of those penalties, they will finish the season with a penalty kill percentage of 79.4% — just one per cent above NHL average. That’s how bad they are right now: they could literally be perfect for the rest of the season on the penalty kill and just barely be average for the season.

That’s not realistic, of course, which means an NHL-average penalty kill is completely out of reach for the Canucks. But the Canucks don’t have to be perfect to avoid making history.

If the Canucks allow 26 power play goals on the hypothetical 96 power plays they give their opposition, they’ll finish the season with a 68.5% penalty kill — just above the 1979-80 Kings. That would be a penalty killing percentage of 72.8% over their final 33 games, the same as the Montreal Canadiens, who have the fourth-worst penalty kill in the NHL this season.

That doesn’t seem out of reach. The Canucks don’t even have to be good on the penalty kill; they just have to be slightly less bad.

"Mike works on this eight hours a day."

The question is, can the Canucks’ penalty kill be slightly less bad? In order for that to happen, something has to change and, despite the coaching change and a blockbuster trade, several things have remained the same for the Canucks and their penalty kill.

The Arizona Coyotes had a strong penalty kill under Rick Tocchet's tenure as head coach but the Canucks don't have the same speedy players that the Coyotes had to work with. More importantly, the coach actually in charge of the penalty kill hasn't changed.

Mike Yeo survived the firing of Bruce Boudreau and Trent Cull, which isn’t surprising because Yeo was a Jim Rutherford and Patrik Allvin hire. Yeo previously worked for the Pittsburgh Penguins as an assistant coach and, even though his time in Pittsburgh didn’t overlap with Rutherford’s time in the organization, there are plenty of connections there.

Yeo has coached the penalty kill all season. He’s still coaching the penalty kill now, though new assistant coach Adam Foote, expected to work primarily with the defencemen, may bring some new ideas to the table.

“Mike works on this eight hours a day,” said Bruce Boudreau earlier in the season. “And sometimes you have to build him up because he takes so much pride in doing this and talking to players and everything, and when it's not working, he blames himself and that's not the right thing to do.”

If Yeo isn’t to blame, then you have to point the finger at the personnel, which hasn’t changed much.

"We've got to get some other guys to penalty kill."

The Canucks still have the same cadre of defencemen to work with, none of whom have been particularly good on the penalty kill in the past even before this season. Arguably their best penalty-killing defenceman is Riley Stillman, who has been awful in every other situation, making it hard to even keep him in the lineup.

There will be some changeover in personnel, of course. Bo Horvat led all Canucks’ forwards in ice time on the penalty kill, so someone will need to replace those minutes. Tocchet has said he wants more contributions on the penalty kill from the team’s bottom-six forwards.

“We’ve got to get some other guys to penalty kill and I’m going to be straight up on that one — I can’t keep rolling those guys out,” said Tocchet of the team’s top players. “I’m not saying it hasn’t worked, but we want those guys to have some juice on the other end and track hard.”

“I’m not saying you can’t have top guys on the PK, I’m saying you can’t have a steady diet,” he added. “Commitment without the puck is a mindset. There’s a certain way to tackle it.”

That likely means more ice time on the penalty kill for the likes of Dakota Joshua and the recently-recalled Vasily Podkolzin, Nils Åman, and Philip Di Giuseppe. There’s potential there — Åman was a fairly steady penalty killer early in the season even as everyone else struggled — but is that enough with no change on the defence?

Changing the system from wedge to diamond

The other thing that seems to have changed is the system. 

The Canucks have typically used a wedge+1 formation on the penalty kill, which has become the standard in the NHL in recent years. Three penalty killers form a triangle in the middle of the ice to take away passing lanes through the slot, with one penalty killer pressuring the puck. 

While this scheme is designed to give the power play less time and space with the puck and take away cross-seam passes, it hasn’t worked that way for the Canucks this season. It’s a system that requires a lot of quick thinking and strong defensive reads, as the “+1” frequently changes depending on where the puck moves, so players have to rotate in and out of the wedge.

It’s possible that the Canucks simply don’t have the personnel with high enough defensive hockey IQ to play this system.

In the few games since the coaching change, the Canucks seem to have switched up their scheme, moving to a diamond formation on the penalty kill. This is a much more simple system that is exactly what it sounds like: the penalty killers form a diamond, with one penalty killer in front of the net, one penalty killer at the top of the zone, and two penalty killers on the flanks.

The benefit of the diamond is that there is always someone close to the shooters on either side of the ice, limiting the effectiveness of cross-seam passes.

The problem with this system — and one of the main reasons why the wedge+1 has become so ubiquitous in the NHL — is that it leaves a lot of space open in the middle of the ice, especially if the penalty killers on the flanks stay wide and don’t collapse to the slot. The bumper in the middle has become one of the most dangerous players on the power play, as Horvat has shown so effectively this season.

You can see the end result on this power play goal by the Seattle Kraken. Off a faceoff loss, the Canucks move into a diamond formation, leaving Jordan Eberle open in the middle. The puck comes to him and Oliver Ekman-Larsson jumps from the net front to pressure him, only to leave Alexander Wennberg open for the tap-in goal instead.

The diamond formation also left Kirill Marchenko completely unpressured in the middle of the ice to tip a point shot in when the Canucks faced the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Let’s keep in mind, the new coaches have had just three games and very few practices to work with, so perhaps it’s just that the Canucks haven’t had enough time to practice the diamond formation on the penalty kill and it could still work for them. The early returns, however, are not promising.

What about Thatcher Demko?

There’s one other personnel change that could be coming, however, beyond any other trades the Canucks might make in the coming month. Thatcher Demko could return soon.

Spencer Martin and Collin Delia have two of the worst save percentages in the entire NHL on the penalty kill at .774 and .786, respectively. That’s not entirely their fault, given the dangerous cross-seam passes the penalty killers in front of them have given up but the Canucks and their fans have grown used to having a goaltender repeatedly bail out his teammates.

If Demko can return and get back to his game-stealing self, perhaps he could help the penalty kill be, at the very least, slightly less bad.

Of course, before he got injured, Demko was even worse on the penalty kill than Martin and Delia, with a .717 save percentage. Maybe there’s only so much a goaltender can do.