Given the specialists on the Vancouver Canucks’ roster, the penalty kill ought to be a strength. Jay Beagle and Brandon Sutter have a permanent spot in the Canucks’ bottom six partly because of their penalty-killing prowess and there is plenty of shorthanded experience on the rest of the roster.
You wouldn’t know it from the way the 2020-21 season started. The Canucks gave up 9 power play goals in the first 6 games of the season on 31 power play opportunities, giving them an ugly 70.9% penalty kill percentage.
There are plenty of reasons why the penalty kill might struggle out of the gate, but the biggest reason was the loss of their two most important penalty killers in the offseason: Chris Tanev and Jacob Markstrom. Troy Stecher, an underrated penalty killer in his own right, also departed in free agency.
New players joined the penalty kill that hadn’t played the position for the Canucks last season, like Nate Schmidt, Antoine Roussel, and Travis Hamonic. Compounding things, the penalty kill had to hit the ground running with a shortened training camp and no preseason that left little time to work on special teams.
Since that rough start, however, the penalty kill has reasserted itself, allowing just two goals in the last seven games.
“They’ve been getting the job done here as of late and it’s good to see,” said head coach Travis Green.
Familiarity breeds chemistry
According to Sutter, a big reason for the penalty kill’s improved play is simply spending more time playing together, particularly since he has a new partner on the ice.
“I would say it’s probably a little familiarity with what we’re trying to do,” he said. “Last year, me and Rouss didn’t kill together at all, now we’re together a lot out there. Obviously some new defencemen too, it’s just getting a feel for what we’re trying to do.”
“I think at the start of the season, I was maybe not as confident as I used to be playing in that position,” said Roussel, who played just 25 seconds total on the penalty kill all of last season after regularly killing penalties in previous seasons.
“I was playing with Suttsy, he’s always easy to play with in that situation,” he added. “We’ve been pretty consistent playing together, so we get the rhythm and it’s become a habit. Now it’s become pretty easy to read what he’s going to do and what I’m going to do in the same situation, so we read each other pretty well.”
Chemistry between penalty-killing units is perhaps an underrated aspect of playing shorthanded. With one fewer player on the ice, a missed read by one player can quickly turn into a grade-A scoring chance. It’s vitally important to move as one unit and support each other, so a lack of familiarity can cause problems.
As the Canucks have had more practice time, they’ve been able to focus more on special teams. Most of the focus has been on improving the team’s 20th-ranked power play, but any time the power play is getting reps, the penalty kill gets a chance to practice as well under the direction of defence coach Nolan Baumgartner
“When we’re working on the power play in practice, we try to have our penalty killers going and those guys are competitive, they want to shut down our power play in practice,” said Green. “Baumer’s worked hard with our group. I know it wasn’t great at the start of the year, but that’s just a small portion of the year.”
"It’s easier said than done to shut down a team."
The penalty kill also goes through video in pregame meetings, analyzing the tendencies of opposing power plays, from how they break out of their own zone and try to gain the blue line to how they create chances in the offensive zone. All the pre-scouting in the world can’t prepare players for the creative abilities of top players like Connor McDavid, however, so they need to be on their toes with their reads in the moment.
“Every power play’s a little different and obviously the skill level of certain power plays is a lot higher, it varies from team to team,” said Green “Individual talents sometimes take over, where those aren’t things that are even necessarily a tactic or a planned play...It’s easier said than done to shut down a team.”
It’s a lot better to prevent the power play from getting into the offensive zone in the first place. Over the last couple weeks, the penalty kill has been better at defending the blue line.
“Through the neutral zone, we’ve been a lot better, that’s been the key,” said Sutter. “Once you’re set up in the zone, every team’s got skilled players, they’re going to make plays and passes through you and over you. The least amount of time you can spend down there, the better, so we want to try to break up as much as we can up ice and through the neutral zone and that makes our jobs a lot easier in our own end.”
It also helps that the team has been more disciplined as a whole. Compared to giving their opponents 31 power play opportunities in their first six games, the Canucks have granted their opponents just 19 power plays in their last seven games. Not only does that give the power play fewer chances to cash in, it also keeps the penalty kill fresh and rested for when they are called upon.
Finally, there’s the most important penalty killer: the goaltender. While Braden Holtby has improved from how he started the year, Thatcher Demko has been one of the best goaltenders in the NHL on the penalty kill.
Demko has a .918 save percentage at 4-on-5, which ranks fifth among the 35 goaltenders that have played at least 40 minutes in that situation. Holtby, on the other hand, is ranked 25th with an .833 save percentage at 4-on-5.
As it becomes clear that Demko is likely to start more games as the season progresses, that will help the penalty kill as well.