At this time last year, the Vancouver Canucks had the worst penalty kill in the NHL.
Through 17 games, the Canucks had allowed 23 power play goals against in 58 opportunities for a penalty kill percentage of 60.3%. It was a big reason why the Canucks had a 5-10-2 record to start the 2021-22 season, eventually leading to both general manager Jim Benning and head coach Travis Green losing their jobs.
It was a historically-bad penalty kill — if it had continued on that pace, it would have been the worst penalty kill in NHL history, beating the 1979-80 Los Angeles Kings and their 68.2% penalty kill.
This season, the Canucks’ penalty kill is once again at the bottom of the league, only slightly better than they were one year ago.
Through 17 games this season, the Canucks have allowed 21 power play goals against in 58 opportunities — two goals fewer than last season — for a 63.8% penalty kill that is once again on pace to be the worst in NHL history.
There are many reasons why the Canucks have struggled to start the 2022-23 season, but if you’re looking for just one, it’s the penalty kill. The Canucks have allowed at least one power play goal against in all but two of their 17 games so far this season, allowing opposing teams to get a lead or spark a comeback.
The other side of special teams has been clicking for the Canucks — they’re fifth in the NHL in power play percentage — but their awful penalty kill has completely negated any advantage created by their power play.
Room for improvement?
The 1979-80 Kings still have the dubious honour of holding the record for the worst penalty kill of all time. Last season’s Canucks got better as the season progressed, particularly after the coaching change.
Under new head coach Bruce Boudreau and assistant coach Scott Walker — with Brad Shaw also helping with the penalty kill — they improved significantly. After the coaching change, the Canucks had the 11th-best penalty kill in the NHL at 80.5%. They still finished 30th in the NHL overall but it was better.
The trouble for the current Canucks is that the changes that helped fix the penalty kill last season are already in place this season.
Adding Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes to the penalty kill was a key move last season and it made a big difference, as the two skilled players thrived in the defensive role.
But Pettersson and Hughes are already getting used on the penalty kill this season, with Pettersson leading all Canucks forwards in shorthanded ice time.
Pettersson certainly hasn’t been the problem — only Ilya Mikheyev has been on the penalty kill for a lower rate of goals against among Canucks forwards — but Hughes has struggled and is sixth in shorthanded ice time among Canucks defencemen. Perhaps Hughes should get used more on the penalty kill, but he’s been on the ice for the highest rate of goals against on the team, so it’s hard to justify him getting more time right now.
The Canucks penalty kill might be too aggressive
The other big change to the penalty kill was its aggressiveness, particularly in the neutral zone but also in the defensive zone.
Last season, Walker and Shaw had the penalty kill attacking puck carriers to protect the blue line, frequently turning back the power play before it could even get set up. Pettersson and Bo Horvat were particularly effective at this as a tandem, with good reads and quick sticks picking off passes and forcing the puck into the offensive zone.
Here’s the thing: they’re still doing that. Pettersson and Horvat, in particular, have still been aggressively forcing turnovers in the neutral zone and attacking the other way.
Likewise, under assistant coach Mike Yeo, the Canucks have been just as aggressive in the defensive zone on the penalty kill this season as they were in the second half of last season.
The breakdowns on the penalty kill haven’t come as a result of passivity — if anything, the forwards have frequently been too aggressive, pushing up high in the zone and leaving passing lanes wide open through the slot.
If there is a fix for the Canucks penalty kill this season, it’s not the same fix as last season.
Is Demko the problem with the penalty kill or vice versa?
There’s one other major issue, of course: goaltending.
The Canucks have the worst save percentage in the NHL on the penalty kill — an appallingly low .708. The question is, how much of that is the fault of the goaltenders and how much is the fault of the skaters in front of them?
Penalty killing is very much a team effort and a penalty kill that repeatedly gives up cross-seam and backdoor passes for one-timers and tap-ins will make any goaltender look dreadful.
Thatcher Demko has definitely struggled out of the gate this season, with his biggest issues coming on the penalty kill. He has a .689 save percentage on the penalty kill — 65th among the 67 NHL goaltenders with at least 10 minutes on the penalty kill this season.
But Spencer Martin isn’t much better. Martin has a .769 save percentage on the penalty kill, which is 58th in the NHL. With both goaltenders struggling that much on the penalty kill, the finger starts to point back at the skaters.
Is it personnel or systems?
The trouble is that there are two separate issues: personnel and systems. One is a management issue and the other is a coaching issue but neither are easy to fix in a hurry.
Personnel-wise, a major issue is that the Canucks’ best centre on faceoffs, Horvat, is only a good penalty killer on the forecheck and in the neutral zone. When he’s in the defensive zone, his reads are simply not good enough to take away key passing lanes.
The team’s second-best centre on faceoffs, J.T. Miller, might be their worst penalty-killing forward. He simply is not good enough defensively to be a go-to penalty killer.
Meanwhile, the team’s two highly-paid veteran defencemen, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Tyler Myers, keep getting lit up on the penalty kill. The team has instead started to rely more heavily on Luke Schenn and newcomer Ethan Bear but they have still had to rely on Ekman-Larsson and Myers.
General manager Patrik Allvin tried to add penalty killers in the offseason, paying a premium to get Mikheyev and adding the currently-injured Curtis Lazar, but the struggles of veterans like Horvat, Miller, Ekman-Larsson, and Myers are a real problem.
Systems-wise, the Canucks may need to drop back into a more passive penalty kill — at least in the defensive zone. The biggest issue has been both forwards getting caught too high in the zone while trying to pressure the puck, leaving too much space underneath that the defence can’t fill.
That may mean letting opposing power plays move the puck around the top of the zone with impunity but that’s preferable to letting them pass pucks through the slot.
“It’s easy to say it’s not letting goals,” said Pettersson after one game when asked what needs to change on the penalty kill. “I don’t know if it’s structure, if it’s being more aggressive, if it’s to have them more on the outside, I don’t know…We’ve just got to be better.”
Boudreau, at least, thinks confidence is key.
“Mike Yeo, I’ve never seen anybody work harder at trying to get this thing straightened around,” said Boudreau a couple of weeks ago. “What’s gonna have to happen is we’re gonna have to find a few kills one night and once a few kills go, it’ll be like winning — you’ll get the confidence and it’ll go the other way. And that’s what happened last year. The penalty killing wasn’t very good and then we had a string of maybe killing 10 out of 11 and then all of a sudden it turned the corner.”
It hasn’t turned the corner yet. If it doesn’t turn the corner soon, the coaching staff might not be around much longer to get things fixed.