After some key departures, who is going to kill penalties for the Vancouver Canucks in 2021/22?
Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
1 year ago
When it comes to discussing the potential special teams of the 2021/22 Vancouver Canucks, much more ink has been spilled about the power play than the penalty kill, and it’s not difficult to decipher why.
For one, power plays are just way more exciting than penalty kills in general, and the Canucks in particular promise to be extra-potent with the man advantage through the additions of Conor Garland, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, and Vasily Podkolzin to an already dynamic set.
Shorthanded, however, the situation is a lot less certain, and there the Canucks should have a slightly more difficult time selecting their personnel after some key offseason departures.
Who’s gone from the PK unit?
Alex Edler: In terms of pure volume of shorthanded minutes, Edler has long been the Canucks’ top penalty killer, and while the rest of his game began to crumble as he neared the end of his tenure in Vancouver, Edler’s PK numbers remained relatively consistent. In 2021, Edler let in an average of 7.33 power play goals per 60 shorthanded minutes, which was decidedly middle-of-the-road for the Canucks in general, but more impressive than it looks, given that Edler was constantly put out against top power play units.
Jay Beagle: Like Edler on the blueline, Beagle has paced all forwards when it comes to PK minutes for three years running, but unlike Edler, Beagle’s efficacy has slipped. To wit, Beagle played more than 20 fewer shorthanded minutes in 2021 than Brandon Sutter, and yet he allowed three extra power play goals against. Like Edler, Beagle’s numbers are skewed by consistently being matched up against top units, but they’re also just plain worse than Edler’s.
Antoine Roussel: After not putting Roussel on the PK for a couple of years, head coach Travis Green listened to Chris Faber and made the switch. Roussel killed an average of a two-minute minor every game for the Canucks in 2021 and proved quite effective at it, allowing only 5.97 power play goals against per 60 shorthanded minutes, which puts him in the territory of the Tylers Motte and Myers. Still never the first option called on by Green, Roussel’s rates are probably a little elevated through a lesser competition.
Nate Schmidt: For all the talk of his defensive prowess, Schmidt didn’t kill an excessive amount of penalties for the Canucks. When playing the right, he ranked behind Myers and Travis Hamonic in the pecking order, and on the left he often sat while Edler killed nearly the whole darn penalty. Schmidt’s PP GA rates were a smidge better than Edler’s, but that’s almost certainly due to facing lesser power play units, so perhaps Green had it right in restricting Schmidt’s shorthanded deployment.
Jordie Benn: If there was one thing that Benn did well for the Canucks, it was kill penalties. No regular Vancouver PKer allowed fewer power play goals on average than Benn, who only let four in across nearly 50 minutes of shorthanded time in 2021. In contrast, Hamonic played an additional 25 minutes and let in 12 more goals. Again, quality of competition plays a role here, but not enough to take all that much away from Benn’s clear-cut effectiveness.
Jimmy Vesey: Vesey killed a surprising amount of penalties in his short time in Vancouver, and turned out to be even more surprisingly good at it. Through 30 shorthanded minutes, Vesey was on the ice for one goal for and two against, leaving him with a rather sparkling -1 rating on the penalty kill. Who knew?
Loui Eriksson: Soon, there will come a day when you won’t read Eriksson’s name on this site anymore. But not this day! Eriksson killed seven minutes of penalties in 2021 and did not surrender a single power play goal. Talk about going out on a high note!
Tyler Myers: The penalty kill, where size matters and defenders are expected to stay relatively stationary, makes sense as Myers’ bread-and-butter. Indeed, Myers played nearly as many shorthanded minutes as Edler, mostly against opposing top units, and came away allowing five fewer power play goals against, an average of nearly two fewer per 60 shorthanded minutes. Myers is the definitive lynchpin of the Canucks’ PK unit now.
Tyler Motte: In combining total number of minutes with overall effectiveness, Motte is undoubtedly the Canucks’ most lethal killer of penalties. When healthy, Motte played essentially the exact same shorthanded minutes as Beagle, and let in nearly four fewer power play goals against per 60. Put another way, opposing power plays scored at nearly half the rate against Motte as they did against Beagle. Put another another way, when Motte returned to the PK unit in late April, the Canucks did not surrender another power play goal for the rest of the season.
Brandon Sutter: The returning Sutter looks like a better fit than Beagle in the 4C slot for a number of reasons, and his superiority on the PK is one of them. Sutter played 20 extra minutes on the PK over JT Miller and Beagle, and yet they each let in three more power play goals against. Sutter’s PPGA/60 of 6.18 was middle-of-the-pack for the Canucks, but within the context of Sutter’s deployment — almost always centering the lead unit in Beagle’s lengthy absence — it’s downright impressive.
Travis Hamonic: In theory, Hamonic should be the perfect penalty killer; big, strong, mean, and prone to throwing himself in front of blistering shots. In practice, he was probably the Canucks’ worst PKer in 2021. Hamonic played fewer than half the shorthanded minutes as Myers, for example, and allowed only one fewer power play goals. Hamonic’s PPGA/60 was an abominable 12.77, highest on the team save for the anomalous Nils Höglander and Brogan Rafferty.
Hamonic will likely remain on the PK for 2021/22, but coach Green is probably glad to have other options now.
Matthew Highmore: Whether in Chicago or Vancouver, Highmore killed penalties with aplomb. He skated an average of nearly two shorthanded minutes per game, and only ever allowed two power play goals against total. Regardless of deployment, that’s a phenomenal rate, and may provide the edge Highmore needs to secure the final forward position on the Canucks’ opening day roster.
JT Miller: Dropped into the center rotation via Elias Pettersson and Beagle’s injuries, Miller ended up killing far more penalties in 2021 than anyone expected he would — with middling results. Of any regular PKing forward, Miller allowed power play goals at the greatest rate by far, even well over and above that of Beagle. Fortunately, it’s not a role Miller will have to play often in 2021/22 if all goes to plan.
Tanner Pearson: Before coming to Vancouver, Pearson had a history of killing penalties, and he’s continued to fill spot-duty there for the Canucks, cleaning up an average of a minute per game played in 2021. In that time, he came away with a -6 rating, which is a little better than the team average and should keep him in the mix as a third unit option.
Who might join the PK?
Jason Dickinson: Despite his well-earned reputation as a defensive stud at even-strength, Dickinson does not arrive in Vancouver with a stellar record on the penalty kill. Mostly centering the second unit behind Radek Faksa, Dickinson played an average of 1:41 shorthanded minutes per game and allowed an average of 7.67 PPGA/60 — both solid, if unspectacular, rates on a Dallas PK that ranked behind the Canucks in 2021. Expect Dickinson to still slot into the second PK unit in Vancouver, behind Sutter.
Tucker Poolman: Like Dickinson, Poolman comes in bearing accolades for his defensive work at 5on5, but having yet to earn his stripes as a top unit penalty killer. In Winnipeg, those minutes went to Derek Forbort and Dylan DeMelo before they went to Poolman, who only played an average of 1:19 shorthanded. In that limited time, however, Poolman was efficient, allowing only four power play goals against all season, mostly against secondary PP units.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson: Hands up if you knew that OEL was actually an excellent penalty killer? On an Arizona PK that ranked 11th overall in 2021, Ekman-Larsson played second unit minutes behind Niklas Hjalmarsson, but flashed far greater efficacy. In 80 shorthanded minutes, Ekman-Larsson allowed seven power play goals, and in 138 minutes, Hjalmarsson allowed 20 — nearly three times as many. Even with deployment considered, that’s an impressive swing.
Vasily Podkolzin: We don’t have the stats to back it up, but we do know that Podkolzin has been relied on to kill penalties already, both in the KHL and especially on the international scene. Throwing him right into the mix as a rookie seems cruel, but if he’s already stapled to a shutdown line alongside Dickinson, it may be the logical move. In the long-term, it’s a role that Podkolzin seems destined to play.
Nils Höglander: As a rookie, Höglander only killed a couple of penalties and got scored against once, skewing his PPGA/60 numbers to be the worst on the team. Ignore that, however, because Höglander’s unique blend of two-way responsibility, vision, and offensive explosiveness should qualify him as a shorthanded goal machine before too long. Expect Höglander to start taking reps on the PK in 2021/22.
Luke Schenn: On the champion roster of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Schenn didn’t get the chance to kill penalties all that often — clocking in at just 12:11 total shorthanded minutes. But he only allowed one power play goal against in that time, and has been similarly effective in the past. He’s a fine option to kill penalties for the Canucks whenever he’s in the lineup.
Phil di Giuseppe: Though he hasn’t done much PK thus far in his career, Di Giuseppe is a strong defensive presence at 5on5, as Sean Warren pointed out earlier this week, and that could translate into shorthanded opportunities for the Canucks.
William Lockwood: He’s in tough to make the team out of training camp, but whenever Lockwood does arrive full-time in Vancouver, he’ll almost certainly be killing penalties. He’s in the Motte-mold of a speedy, tenacious, hard-checking winger that can quickly turn power plays into shorthanded opportunities.
The question of the left side
As evidenced above, the Canucks will have no shortage of options to fill out their penalty killing units, but there is one glaring weakness, and — surprise, surprise — it’s on the left side of the defence.
Ekman-Larsson will take one of those shorthanded slots, and the Canucks have three basic options otherwise:
Quinn Hughes: Coach Green has shown quite the reluctance to place Hughes on the penalty kill thus far, and perhaps with good reason. But it’s something that is probably going to have to happen eventually. Maybe reps on the PK can be used as a method to improve Hughes’ positioning in his own zone?
Jack Rathbone: After his cameo last season, there are some who are already attributing more two-way chops to Rathbone than to Hughes, and that could lead to Rathbone getting a shot on the PK ahead of Hughes. Even if he succeeds in the role, however, Rathbone’s minutes should probably be sheltered and limited as much as possible in 2021/22.
Someone on their off-side: This seems like the option that Green will take more often than not in 2021/22. Handedness is a little less important when shorthanded than at 5on5, and so the easiest route is just to take one of Poolman and Hamonic and stick them on the right side of Myers on PK shifts.
Potential PK units
Assuming two full PK units and an extra set of forwards, the Canucks’ penalty killers in 2021/22 could look something like:
Tyler Motte/Brandon Sutter
Travis Hamonic/Tyler Myers
Matthew Highmore/Jason Dickinson
Oliver Ekman-Larsson/Tucker Poolman
Tanner Pearson-Vasily Podkolzin
Will the Canucks’ PK be better or worse in 2021/22?
This is really the question at the heart of it all.
Really, who cares who staffs the Vancouver PK in 2021/22, so long as it’s better than it was in 2021?
Well, there’s good news on that front.
Firstly, there’s plenty of upward potential after the Canucks finished 2021 with an efficiency rate of 79.8%, giving them the 17th-best penalty kill in the league.
They’ve removed three of their most frequent, and yet least effective, PKers out of the mix in Edler, Beagle, and Schmidt, and replaced them with Ekman-Larsson, Dickinson, and Poolman, each of whom look to be upgrades, at least on paper.
The PK depth lost in Benn, Roussel, and Vesey can be easily covered from within, and, as such, Miller will be able to avoid most PK shifts, so long as the team is healthy, allowing him to focus solely on offence.
So, yes, there’s a real chance that the Canucks have an improved power play AND penalty kill in 2021/22, and that alone could be enough to propel them back into the playoff picture.
And isn’t that special?
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