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Photo Credit: © Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Why the penalty kill has been an early bright spot for the Canucks

While driving play at 5-on-5 is undoubtedly the most crucial factor to winning games, winning the special teams battle doesn’t hurt either. The Canucks’ penalty kill has been excellent so far, going a near-perfect 12-for-13 over their first four games. Obviously a 92.3% pace isn’t going to last, but if their first four games are any indication, the PK may be an area of strength for the team moving forward. Check out this source if you want to learn more about hockey penalties, but this article will provide some context to the penalty kill’s performance and analyze the personnel and systems that have made it successful thus far.

The only other team with a perfect PK rate coming into last night was the Coyotes, who killed off seven penalties before allowing their first shorthanded marker of the season on Tuesday night. What helped Arizona maintain their flawless rate is the low number of times they have been shorthanded, which is contrasted by the Canucks, who have  found themselves shorthanded 3.2 times per game thus far, slightly above the league average of 3.13. They haven’t done themselves any favours in that department through for games, which actually makes their PK rate more impressive.

To briefly provide more context, we can see that the penalty kill is an area that the team has improved over the last three seasons.

PK% League Rank
2015/16 81.1 17th
2016/17 76.7 28th
2017/18 78.3 21st
2018/19 81.1 11th

The Canucks’ PK struggles are a fairly recent development. It was a real strength of Canuck teams from 2010/11 – 2014/15 as they finished top 10 in each of those seasons.

In Travis Green’s first season behind the bench in 2017 saw a marked improvement at 4-on-5, a trend that appears to be continuing into his third season.

According to data retrieved from HockeyViz.com, the Canucks have given up their fair share of shots from the slot on the PK and Markstrom has been great in bailing them out on those opportunities allowed. On a positive note, many of the shots the team has given up are from the outside of the home-plate area. Moving forward the Canucks will need to see more of that and less of the high-danger chances that Markstrom is bailing them out of right now.

canucks pk shots allowed

For further context, visit hockeyviz.com to see this same Viz for all teams dating back to the 2007/08 season.

Besides PK systems, which we will talk about later on, personnel is a big factor in PK success. Through the first four games, the team’s most common units have been Sutter – Pearson – Edler – Tanev and Beagle – Schaller – Myers – Benn. Loui Eriksson saw PK time during the first game against Edmonton but has been scratched since, allowing Pearson to step in and excel alongside Sutter.

The forward pairs used have no shortage of shorthanded experience. Sutter and Beagle have been killing penalties for years while Pearson was featured on dominant Los Angeles PK units, learning from one of the best in Jeff Carter. Before arriving in Vancouver, Schaller also spent time on the PK during his two years in Boston.

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On the back end, Green understandably likes to send out Edler and Tanev as his first unit when he can, with Tyler Myers and Jordie Benn following up. Both new faces that make up the back end of the 2nd unit PK have experience killing penalties in Winnipeg and Montreal.

Myers’ PK time on ice (TOI) from his time in Winnipeg reflects use on a 2nd unit, while Benn’s PK TOI in Dallas then Montreal, indicate that he was relied on much more than he is now in Vancouver.

The biggest reason the PK has performed well over the first four games is that they’ve been executing Green and co.’s system effectively. The best penalty kills across the league will make it difficult for the opposing team to carry the puck into the offensive zone and get set up. Green wants to see entries broken up at the blue line when teams choose to carry it in like the Kings opt to do below.

In the example, the Kings do the Canucks a bit of a favour by making a sloppy dish, but Myers still does a great job of anticipating the pass and cutting off the other King to bank it up the boards to his supporting forward who doesn’t do more than he needs to and gets it out.

We have noticed a lot of entry breakups over the first four games and it will continue to be a factor if they Canucks are able to string together successful kills. Below is another example against a more skilled powerplay unit in Calgary.

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It’s a similar entry play at the blue line, but this time it’s Pearson taking away space from Sean Monahan to create a turnover to Sutter, who is then able to feed a driving Pearson for a counter-attack resulting in a short-handed shot. The Canucks have yet to score a shorthanded goal, but creating more turnovers like this is likely to lead to some in the future.

Although breakups that result in clears or counter attacks are ideal, they won’t always happen. The team is going to face teams with better speed and puck handlers who will have an easier time getting set up. However, in those cases, the Canucks have done a great job of keeping shots many from those set-ups to the outside. We see this against the Flames here when then are able to gain the zone and settle it down with Johnny Gaudreau and Mark Giordano along the wall.

In the clip, the Flames take two shots. One from Gaudreau from the very top of the circle, which the Canucks won’t mind giving up and another from Giordano as he walks the line eventually finding a lane to lay in a weak wrister. The PK can live with these shots and wait for their opportunity to pounce on a rebound and clear it, as they successfully did on this play.

While their record likely isn’t what they had hoped it would be early on, the Canucks can at least be happy with the way they’ve handled themselves at 4-on-5. The coaching staff has had a good idea of who they wanted out there on day one and have stuck to their guns and the stability has paid off. If they can continue to do more of the same, breaking up carry-in entries and working to keep more shots to the outside, they could turn this short-term success into a season-long strength.