Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
To fix their penalty kill in 2024, Canucks could get back to being dangerous shorthanded
1 month ago
The Vancouver Canucks enter the calendar year of 2024 at the top of some fairly important statistical categories.
They’re still tied for first place in the Western Conference despite their only game last week being a regulation loss. They’ve got the most goals for in the NHL, and the highest goal differential at a whopping +43.
The Canucks also sit in the top-ten for leaguewide power play percentage with 23.6%.
Things are clearly clipping along nicely. But if there’s one obvious statistical priority for 2024, it has to be fixing the penalty kill, which currently resides at just 77.5%. That’s the ninth lowest success rate in the league, and it’s closer to last place than it is to tenth.
As far as surface-level measures go, it could be said to be the one blemish on the 2023/24 Canucks’ record. But that’s not exactly a new issue in Vancouver. So how do they go about making it better?
A year ago, the Canucks started off their season with a PK so bad it was verging on historical territory, hovering in the 60s for the first few months under coach Bruce Boudreau.
Then, Rick Tocchet took over in January 2023, and the situation immediately improved.
But improving from a historically-bad start and approaching the status of “good enough” are two distinct things, and in this case there’s a clear difference.
For as better as the Canucks’ PK looked under Tocchet during the back-half of 2022/23, they still only ended up at a 78.4% rate across 36 games, which was the 12th-worst record over that same time period.
It’s true that 12th-worst is a lot better than worst-of-the-worst, but it still qualified the PK as a weakness, not a strength, of the team.
So why does it feel as though the penalty kill is so much more of a problem this season than it was during the latter half of last season?
Because it’s not, really, by the numbers. Through 36 games thus far this season, the Canucks are at 77.5%, a drop of less than a single percentage point from the post-Tocchet record last year.
Part of the answer is relativity. The PK did improve under Tocchet, and it was easy enough to see that improvement with the Boudreau Canucks as a point of comparison. Conversely, the current Canucks are rolling in nearly every other regard, so their PK stands out more now as a performative sore thumb.
But there’s more to it than just context. There is a noticeable difference at play here.
Last season, Tocchet’s PKers were defined by their dangerousness. This season, that aspect of the PK has all but disappeared.
In 2022/23, the Canucks finished with the second-most shorthanded goals in the league with 15. But 13 of those shorthanded goals came after Tocchet’s hiring in late January.
Elias Pettersson and JT Miller led the way, tying one another for the league lead in shorties with five each.
So far in 2023/24, the Canucks have scored just four shorthanded goals. That’s still good enough for a four-way tie for 12th place in the league, but it’s a far cry from their previous rate. Miller has one of those shorthanded goals, and Sam Lafferty, Teddy Blueger, and Tyler Myers have the others. Pettersson has yet to score his first shorthanded goal of the year.
There’s another way the NHL measures penalty kill success aside from the raw PK percentage, and that’s Net PK, which incorporates shorthanded goals for (and against) into a team’s special teams rate.
In those 36 post-Tocchet games in 2022/23, the Canucks tied for fifth place in the NHL at a Net PK of 90.1%, buoyed largely by those 15 shorthanded goals. Through 36 games on the 2023/24 schedule, the Canucks are at a Net PK of 81.1%, which has them in 20th place.
Part of the change in approach has to do with a change in personnel.
Last season, Tocchet found himself with few dedicated PKers on hand. So, Miller and Pettersson wound up prominent in the rotation almost by default, and with that came more opportunities to score shorthanded. In those 36 post-Tocchet games, Miller averaged 2:04 per game shorthanded and Pettersson averaged 1:59.
This offseason, GM Patrik Allvin and Co. specifically set out to acquire penalty killers, and acquire penalty killers they did, specifically Teddy Blueger and Pius Suter. In 2023/24, it’s now Nils Åman who leads the forwards in average shorthanded time with 1:51, followed by Blueger, then Pettersson, then a resurgent Dakota Joshua, then Suter, and then finally Miller in sixth place.
Pettersson is averaging 1:35 shorthanded per night, and Miller is averaging 1:29.
Clearly, there is more sharing of responsibilities going on now. But, really, what good has that done?
As they look to put together a penalty kill truly worthy of a playoff contender, the Canucks have essentially two paths they can go down.
The first is to hope for in-house improvement from the current corps. They do have a better PK personnel, on paper, than they have in past years. They are about to embark on a back-half schedule that has more time and space for practice. A fully healthy blueline will help in that regard.
But if that doesn’t work, the Canucks could also look at going back to what made their penalty kill, if not outright successful, than at least more impactful in 2022/23. And that’s employing Pettersson and Miller more frequently and in a PK style that seeks out and thrives upon opportunities to turn the puck back up ice against the power players.
Really, all we’re really talking about here is an extra half-minute or so of PK time for each of them, as well as a little extra license to push back. It’s an extra responsibility, sure, but there are two of them to share it, and it helps that the Joshua-Blueger-Garland line is on hand to eat up more 5v5 time in compensation.
In other words, what we’re saying here is that, of course, the Canucks should try to allow fewer power play goals against. But if they can’t manage that, they know they have the ability to, at the very least, get back to scoring more shorthanded goals.
And if the choice at hand is one between an ineffective PK that scores and an ineffective PK that doesn’t score, that’s a pretty easy choice to make.
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