Photo Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Canucks penalty kill was a cost inefficiency this season, and there’s no easy fix

The Vancouver Canucks’ penalty kill in 2019-20 was modestly successful this season, killing off 80.5% of penalties during the regular season (16th in the NHL) and 80.0% of penalties in the post-season (15th in the NHL). Being roughly league average on the kill is nothing to write home about, for better or worse. As a team with playoff aspirations, the Canucks will undoubtedly be looking for any edge they can get to improve their squad next season, but that’s going to be easier said than done, especially when one looks closer at the cost inefficiency of the parts involved.

The problem for the Canucks’ PK this season wasn’t with their level of success in terms of keeping the puck out of the net, but in how much money they spent to do so. Their penalty kill was a cost efficiency; relative to the rest of the NHL, their most frequent penalty killers were being paid too much and accomplishing too little in every other manpower situation.

The Canucks’ six most frequent penalty-killing forwards in 2019-20 were Jay Beagle (165 minutes), the departed Tim Schaller (143 minutes), Brandon Sutter (103 minutes), Tanner Pearson (71 minutes), Loui Eriksson (68 minutes) and Tyler Motte (67 minutes). The sextet had a total cap hit of $20 million this past season.

That in itself isn’t egregious, as 10 NHL teams paid more for their six top penalty-killing forwards.

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The major difference here is that most of the teams that are paying a lot for their penalty killers are also paying those players to score goals.

Take Vegas for example. Among its six most frequent penalty-killing forwards in 2019-20 were Mark Stone, Paul Stastny, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith, who get paid $9.5M, $6.5M, $5.9M and $5.0M, respectively, while putting up 63, 38, 46, and 54 points in the Covid-shortened season. All told, the Golden Knights’ six most frequent penalty-killing forwards count for $31.75 million against the cap and 231 points, for $137k per point.

Penalty Killing Cost Efficiency

Combining cap hit and total points allows us to see how much money teams are spending on their top penalty killers while accounting for their ability to provide value in other areas.

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Vegas is in the middle of the pack, having both a large cap hit and a high point total. The most efficient team in the NHL in this particular metric is the New York Rangers. Their top six penalty-killing forwards (which included Mika Zibanejad, Ryan Strome, and Jesper Fast) cost just $12.8 million against the cap in 2019-20 while scoring 209 points — just $67k per point.

At the other end of the spectrum are your Vancouver Canucks. That $20 million they spent on their group got them just 97 points, the third-lowest total in the NHL, resulting in a whopping $206k per point. The Canucks managed to kill penalties at a league-average rate, but used the league’s most cost-inefficient penalty kill to do so.

So what does all of this mean?

It’s a clear illustration of something that we’ve known for quite some time, but might have let ourselves forget about: this Vancouver Canucks team was clearly constructed with a top six and bottom six in mind.

As the NHL has moved away from such a model towards three (or more) scoring lines, the Canucks have indicated their interest in following suit, but the nigh-unmovable contracts they handed out years ago have made that tricky. The Canucks’ third line, as it appeared in the NHL playoffs, did hardly any scoring, and is comprised more of traditional role players and penalty killers than scoring support, at least at this stage of their respective careers. Of the group of Canucks listed above, only Tanner Pearson could be considered a legitimate top six forward this season, with the rest being routine third and fourth liners, if they could stay in the lineup at all.

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The chart below demonstrates that most of the Canucks most frequent penalty-killing forwards are a largely unproductive group, while the spread of other NHL penalty killers shows that this isn’t necessarily the norm. (See an interactive version here.)

The Canucks were one of only two teams in the NHL this season to have just one forward play more than 50 minutes shorthanded and score 20 or more points (the other being Buffalo). No team had zero such players. Some teams, like Carolina, Philadelphia and Minnesota, had five or more.

As avid watchers of the Canucks, we all know that their offensive players don’t do any penalty killing, though it might not have been apparent to everyone that the Canucks are actually the exception to the rule in this regard.

The league’s top scorer this season, Leon Draisaitl, spent 192 minutes killing penalties this year. Other offensive stars such as Brad Marchand, Teuvo Teravainen, Aleksander Barkov, Anze Kopitar, Claude Giroux, Dylan Larkin and Elias Lindholm each played over 100 minutes shorthanded in 2019-20.

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When it comes to scorers in Vancouver, however, it’s a different story. After Pearson, the only top-six forwards who killed penalties with any semblance of regularity were J.T. Miller (41 shorthanded minutes) and Bo Horvat (28 minutes). Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, Jake Virtanen and Josh Leivo each had between 1 and 5 minutes of shorthanded ice time across the entire 2019-20 campaign, while Antoine Roussel, Micheal Ferland and Adam Gaudette saw no time at all.

Interestingly, Tyler Toffoli spent 170 minutes on the penalty kill in 58 games with Los Angeles this year, and all of 16 seconds in 10 games with Vancouver.

What’s clear is this: Travis Green doesn’t seem interested in playing his offensive performers on the penalty kill.

Why don’t the Canucks have stars kill penalties?

An important question is, if other teams have stars kill penalties, why don’t the Canucks?

Certainly the question of ability is there. Penalty killing is an acquired skill, and not all players can pull it off. Take Bo Horvat for example. Often billed as a two-way centre, Horvat couldn’t hack it as a penalty killer despite Canucks coaches trying him there for years.

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There’s also an injury worry. Penalty killing isn’t the same as when Pavel Bure racked up a franchise leading 24 shorthanded goals. In the modern NHL, it involves a lot of shot blocking, which can lead to broken bones or at least deep bruises. The last thing you want is Elias Pettersson breaking a hand blocking a point shot on the penalty kill — and you know that kid’s competitive nature won’t allow him to get out of the way of any slap slots in his vicinity.

Through some combination of ineffectiveness and risk aversion, the Canucks simply don’t seem willing to have their offensive performers out on the ice while down a man. The result is that the Canucks lineup is littered with players that, according to prognosticators, can’t come out of the lineup because they kill penalties (something a team does for only about 10% of its ice time, though under inordinately high pressure), but those same players tend to be liabilities at even strength (which accounts for about 80% of the team’s ice time).

There are three potential solutions to this inefficiency:

  1. Play top six forwards on the penalty kill
  2. Get more offence out of your current penalty killers; or
  3. Get cheaper bottom six players.

The first option is the easiest to execute, but it appears to be at odds with the coaching staff’s philosophy. Miller typically killed penalties as a last resort, while Loui Eriksson was eating popcorn and another penalty killer was in the penalty box. The Canucks don’t seem to trust the rest of their scorers (whether that’s wise or not is a topic for another day).

The second option is just wishful thinking. It’s asking too much of players that just aren’t built that way, and are getting older on top of that. The third option is appealing as well, but is easier said than done when many of the team’s bottom players have significant dollars and term attached that will make them difficult to displace.

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There’s no easy solution here. The contractual obligations are likely going to force the Canucks into another season of cost-inefficient penalty killing, unless they’re going to let some offensive performers try their hands on the PK with more regularity. It’s difficult to ascertain whether the team even acknowledges this to be an issue in the first place. They may well be okay with having penalty and scorers firmly in two separate camps. If that’s the case, this cost inefficiency isn’t going to go away anytime soon, not until they replace these bottom six players with ones that can actually contribute at both ends of the ice.