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Photo Credit: © Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports

Who is going to kill penalties for the Vancouver Canucks this season?

When the Vancouver Canucks open up the all-new, all-different 2021 NHL season, they’ll do so having undergone a bevy of changes across the roster.

The top-six is updated, the bottom-six is reconfigured, the crease has been shaken up, and the blueline is nigh unrecognizable.

Another aspect of the lineup that has also experienced a serious shift in personnel, but that hasn’t got a lot of offseason talk, is the penalty kill.

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In 2019/20, the Canucks enjoyed middling success on the penalty kill, with their 16th-ranked, 80.5% PK sticking out in stark contrast to their fourth-ranked power play.

If the Canucks want to be better in 2021, the penalty kill is an area with clear opportunity for improvement. But who are the players who will be called on to translate that opportunity into actual shorthanded results?

Who killed penalties for the Canucks in 2019/20?

Player (2019/20) Shorthanded TOI Shorthanded TOI/60 Power Play Goals Against/60
Chris Tanev 235:13 3:25 7.14
Alex Edler 181:49 3:05 7.92
Jay Beagle 166:50 3:02 6.83
Tim Schaller 143:04 2:48 6.71
Tyler Myers 109:55 1:37 6.00
Brandon Sutter 104:16 2:22 6.91
Jordie Benn 103:38 2:21 5.79
Tanner Pearson 73:10 1:04 7.38
Loui Eriksson 69:58 1:26 6.86
Tyler Motte 68:05 2:00 3.53
Oscar Fantenberg 45:23 1:16 10.58

Head coach Travis Green and his coaching staff relied heavily on a core group of penalty killers in 2019/20. Given the team’s overall PK rate, it’s perhaps not the worst thing in the world that some of that core group has since departed, though it won’t make much of a difference unless others can step into the void and perform better.

Chris Tanev was the team’s most frequent penalty killer by a rather wide margin, though his effectiveness fell somewhere in the middle of the pack. Tim Schaller, gone near the Trade Deadline in the Tyler Toffoli trade, was the fourth-most frequent PKer overall and the second-most among forwards.

The recently waived Loui Eriksson was the fourth-most frequent PKer among forwards whenever he made it into the lineup. Departed UFA Oscar Fantenberg also put in his time, though his results were downright disastrous.

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That makes for at least four regular penalty killers that will need to be replaced, and possibly more if the Canucks are looking for a true refurbishment.

Core penalty killers remaining

Alex Edler and Jay Beagle enter the 2021 season as the clear leaders of the PK corps; though Edler’s results from last season — especially in the playoffs — suggest a reduction in shorthanded minutes could be beneficial.

They’re joined by Brandon Sutter, who racked up shorthanded time while healthy, and Tyler Motte, who took some time to earn Green’s trust but soon established himself as perhaps the most effective penalty killer. Motte may not have been a go-to penalty killer at the outset of 2019/20, but he enters 2021 as the centrepiece of the unit.

Jordie Benn and Tyler Myers individually proved to be the team’s most effective blueline PKers in 2019/20, though it should be noted that, in general, they faced easier power play competition than Tanev and Edler, often being thrown out against second units and the like. Benn, for the record, isn’t projected to be in the lineup all that often.

Tanner Pearson also got some PK reps in, but usually only as an option of last resort.

That leaves the Canucks with core leftover units of:

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Beagle-Motte

Edler-XXXX

and

Sutter-XXXX

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XXXX-Myers

Who joins the PK unit?

With Tanev, Schaller, and Eriksson all departed, there are at least three spots to be had on the Canucks regular PK rotation. So, who’s in the running?

As per Thomas Drance of The Athletic, some of those decisions have already been made, for the time being, at least.

Travis Hamonic

Shorthanded TOI Shorthanded TOI/60 Power Play Goals Against/60
155:38 3:07 8.48

Hamonic killed penalties with greater frequency than anyone on the Vancouver roster in 2019/20, save for Tanev. That being said, Hamonic bled power play goals against at a higher rate than any of the Canucks’ PKers not named Fantenberg. As such, he’s a bit of a conundrum. The Flames had the eighth-best PK in the league, Hamonic played the most minutes on it, and that leads one to believe that he deserves the bulk of the praise for their strong team numbers; and yet, statistically-speaking, he was also one of Calgary’s most porous penalty killers.

As with Tanev, much of this can be chalked up to quality of competition; time and again, Hamonic was put out to face down top power play units, leaving his teammates to take on the lesser talents on second units. He might not be an upgrade on Tanev, but he appears to be at least an adequate replacement as a blueline PK leader.

Antoine Roussel

Shorthanded TOI Shorthanded TOI/60 Power Play Goals Against/60
0:26 0:01 0.00

Since arriving in Vancouver, Roussel hasn’t been asked to kill many penalties; performing spot-duty in 2018/19 and then accumulating a grand total of 26 shorthanded seconds last season. But, as our own Chris Faber pointed out in an offseason article, Roussel wasn’t just a regular penalty killer in his six years with the Dallas Stars, he was one of their most effective. Yet, for whatever reason, Green expended all other possible options before calling on Roussel in 2019/20.

And, for whatever other reason, it appears that Green has changed his mind as of 2021. Roussel will start the season on the second PK unit alongside Sutter, with Green no doubt hoping that Roussel’s shorthanded numbers carry over from Dallas despite two years of relative inactivity.

Olli Juolevi

The former 5th overall draft pick has been relied on to kill penalties since his days with the London Knights, and nothing about that changed as Juolevi transitioned into the pro ranks. Last season, Juolevi was one of several defenders who helped Utica along to a middle-of-the-road PK, but he’s clearly shown enough in camp to have Green hand him a special teams spot from the get-go.

Only time will tell whether or not he’s up to the task, but there aren’t exactly an abundance of other left-sided defenders competing with him for the spot — unless Green wants to put Quinn Hughes out there.

Who else can kill penalties?

Jake Virtanen

Shorthanded TOI Shorthanded TOI/60 Power Play Goals Against/60
1:57 0:02 0.00

Early reports out of training camp were that Virtanen was taking PK reps alongside Beagle in several drills. For many, this was welcome news, as his trademark combination of size and speed have long been theorized as the makings of a fine penalty killer. If it means a little extra defensive responsibility from the much-beleaguered local, all the better.

Unfortunately, it looks as though Virtanen didn’t make the PK cut to start the season, but it’s nice to know that it’s something Green is considering, and presumably something that Virtanen will work on in practice throughout the year.

Adam Gaudette

Shorthanded TOI Shorthanded TOI/60 Power Play Goals Against/60
0:13 0:00 276.93

Most are assuming that Gaudette will be a third-line center of the more offensive variety, the sort that requires mildly sheltered minutes and cannot be relied upon to shut down top lines. While that may be the expectation based on Gaudette’s track record, his statements this offseason tell another story.

Gaudette namedropped Patrice Bergeron as someone whose defensive game he aspires to, and while that’s quite a high bar Gaudette has set for himself, it speaks volumes about his willingness to add this component to his skillset. Let’s face it, Sutter’s injury history alone ensures that the Canucks will be on the lookout for another center who can kill penalties — and who isn’t Bo Horvat, who carries enough of a load at even-strength — and that should ensure that Gaudette gets a shot at some point. First, that power-play-goals-against rate is going to have to come down significantly, and then we’ll see about those Selke aspirations.

JT Miller

Shorthanded TOI Shorthanded TOI/60 Powerplay Goals Against/60
41:53 0:36 10.03

Miller is an option that Green used sparingly last year, and with good reason. Ideally, Miller and the rest of the Lotto Line are getting exactly their fill of even-strength and power play shifts, leaving little left for the shorthanded game. Or, in other words, if Miller has enough in him to kill penalties on top of what he’s doing elsewhere, just give him even more even-strength minutes. There’s no need to have one of the team’s best forwards killing penalties if it can be avoided (especially when he’s not all that good at it, anyway).

Nate Schmidt

Shorthanded TOI Shorthanded TOI/60 Powerplay Goals Against/60
93:58 1:36 9.58

At five-on-five, Schmidt took on some of the hardest minutes of any NHL defender, period, and still managed to post dazzling stats in every category; regular, advanced, and even fancy. Shorthanded, however, Schmidt was neither the Golden Knights’ first option or their best.

Like Miller, Schmidt is a player whose contributions elsewhere in the lineup are so valuable, it’s best not to have him killing penalties anyway. He’ll probably find himself doing it more than Hughes, but hopefully not that much more.

Bo Horvat

Shorthanded TOI Shorthanded TOI/60 Powerplay Goals Against/60
28:11 0:25 10.64

Green has been fairly reticent to play Horvat on the penalty kill thus far, and it’s not that hard to figure out why. The captain already pulls down about 20 minutes per game and meets all the toughest matches head-on, so PK duties on top of that is an unnecessary burden.

It’s something Horvat can do, but probably shouldn’t all that often. Good thing he won’t have to in 2021.

Jalen Chatfield

As of this writing, Chatfield is on the Canucks’ active roster, though he seems to be serving as a placeholder for Travis Hamonic. In all likelihood, Chatfield is headed to the taxi squad, where he remains the depth defender most well-equipped to kill penalties. In fact, it’s his specialty.

Nils Hoglander

Hoglander arrives in North America with a strong reputation for two-way play and some of the best possession metrics on his SHL team. If he sticks with Horvat and Pearson long-term, he’ll get more than his fair share of tough defensive matchups, and if he succeeds at that then he’ll probably be worth a look on the PK, too.