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Will Canucks be forced to shop for penalty killers in free agency for the second straight summer?

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Photo credit:Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Jeff Paterson
9 days ago
The Vancouver Canucks showed last July 1st that they could address one of the team’s biggest weaknesses in free agency when they signed penalty killers Ian Cole, Teddy Blueger and Carson Soucy on the first day of the National Hockey League’s open market.
Twelve months later and the Canucks have to be prepared to retrace their steps since their top six penalty killers by time on ice in the playoffs are all pending unrestricted free agents in three weeks time.
In order, Cole, Blueger, Elias Lindholm, Tyler Myers, Nikita Zadorov and Dakota Joshua led the Canucks in short-handed ice time in the team’s 13 post-season games. All are on expiring contracts. In fact, lump in Filip Hronek who was eighth on the list and is a restricted free agent and Carson Soucy is the only one of the club’s top eight penalty killers under contract for next season.
Now, the Canucks will likely be able to retain a few of the incumbents, but there simply isn’t enough money to spread around to keep them all in the fold. And so while the club needs to upgrade its scoring wingers this off-season, it may also need to reshape its cadre of penalty killers. 
Of players with deals in place for next season, Pius Suter, Phil Di Giuseppe, Nils Aman and Ilya Mikheyev can all shoulder some of the load up front. On occasion, JT Miller and Elias Pettersson can step in, too. And along with Soucy, Noah Juulsen showed this past season that he can contribute on the kill on defence and it’s expected that’s an area he’ll see his workload increase next season. 
But that’s not enough. 
This is a facet of the game where Vasily Podkolzin should be able to help out. However, of his 205 minutes in the NHL this past season not a single second was spent on the penalty kill. If the 2019 first rounder is not going to be a high-scorer in this league, he’s going to have to carve out a role for himself and he has the Hockey IQ and workrate that should lend itself to killing penalties. But until it happens, it’s hard to count him among the candidates.
So the Canucks could very well have penalty killers on their July 1st free agent wish list for the second year running. Last summer, they were able to add pieces that bumped the worst penalty kill in the NHL in the 2022-23 season (71.6%) to the 17th-ranked outfit at 79.1%. It was sizeable growth, but ultimately still wasn’t in the top half of the league by ranking. So there is plenty of room for improvement.

The Candidates

So who might be available and on the Canucks’ radar? A cursory glance at pending unrestricted free agents on some of the top penalty killing teams in the league this season offers some intriguing names:
CAROLINA: The Hurricanes led the NHL successfully killing off 86.4% of all of their penalties. Veteran forward and former Vancouver Giant Jordan Martinook averaged 1:25 per game short-handed. The season before he averaged 2:01 on the PK. Of his 14 goals on the season, one of them – against the Canucks – came while short-handed. Former Canuck Jalen Chatfield is another option. He wasn’t one of Carolina’s primary penalty killing defencemen, but he did see some time while short-handed. And he has flourished in a system that has made strong penalty killing a priority so it’s quite likely he could take on additional responsibilities in that regard.
LOS ANGELES: The Kings were second in the NHL on the PK (although that didn’t mean much in their opening round series against Edmonton). Still the Kings killed 84.6% of their regular season penalties. Matt Roy, a right shot defenceman and pending UFA, led LA in short-handed ice time and was 14th in the league in that category. He was also seventh in the league in shot blocks. The 29-year-old is coming off a season in which he scored five times and produced 25 points while averaging nearly 21 minutes a game and almost three minutes a night as a first-guy-over-the boards penalty killer.
NEW YORK RANGERS: Alex Wennberg didn’t add a lot of pop to the Rangers after being acquired at the trade deadline, but the veteran centre did kill penalties. Throughout his career he has struggled on face-offs (46.2%), so that has to be taken into consideration. Despite that, he was used as one of the top two PK forwards for much of the season in Seattle before being dealt to the Big Apple so he has plenty of penalty killing experience.
TAMPA BAY: Last year the Canucks plucked Ian Cole after a successful season with the Lightning. Maybe Lightning can strike twice if they opt for Matt Dumba, Calvin de Haan or old friend Tyler Motte all of whom contributed to the fifth best PK in the league (83.3%). Motte, now 29, logged 2:11 per game on the kill this season and scored two of his six goals while short-handed. Meanwhile, Dumba led Arizona in average PK ice time all season before being dealt to Tampa, where he averaged 1:57 per game on the kill. And de Haan, who has been linked to Vancouver in the past, spent an average of 1:56 per game while short-handed.
FLORIDA: The Panthers are busy in the Stanley Cup Final and will have to scramble when the season is done to get some business done with key free agents. Perhaps Kevin Stenlund will shake loose as a UFA. The 27-year-old was second on the Panthers in total short-handed ice time and led all Florida forwards on a per game basis. The Cats had the sixth best penalty kill in the league this season. Of his career-high 11 goals, Stenlund scored a pair while short-handed. Veteran blueliner Dmitry Kulikov is another pending UFA who has contributed on Florida’s successful PK in the regular season and in the playoffs.
BOSTON: The Bruins have a couple of intriguing pending UFAs who have spent plenty of time on the penalty kill. Langley’s Danton Heinen averaged 1:14 per game on the league’s seventh best penalty kill. At times throughout his career, he’s been linked to the Canucks. He scored 17 goals and produced 36 points, which will interest many teams, and his PK utility certainly adds value. Veteran blueliner Derek Forbort’s season was cut short by injury, but in the 35 games he played, he was second on the Bruins, averaging 3:01 of short-handed ice time.
DALLAS: The Stars finished the season with the eighth best PK in the NHL. Hulking right-side defenceman Jani Hakanpää was injured for the playoffs and the Stars missed him as blueline depth. In 64 regular season games, he was second only to Esa Lindell in short-handed ice time averaging 3:16 per game. At 6’7”, he fits the mould of the kind of defencemen the Canucks covet.
NEW JERSEY: A couple of names jump out from the 10th best penalty killing team in the NHL this past season. Hard-nosed defender Brendan Smith has been through the NHL battles and finished second on the Devils in short-handed ice time this season at 2:48 per game. He’s 35 now, so he’d be viewed as a depth signing at this stage of his career. The other name is Tomas Nosek. The 31-year-old was limited to just 36 games this season, but was among New Jersey’s regular rotation of penalty killers. It was a disappointing season, but the 6’3” winger brings size and could be a bounce back candidate who could help kill penalties.
There are surely plenty of other candidates the Canucks will examine in the weeks ahead. But that’s a list of players headed to free agency who contributed to some of the top penalty kills in the league this past season.

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