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Why the Vancouver Canucks’ penalty kill will finish in the top 15 this season

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Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Noah Strang
10 months ago
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Last season, the Vancouver Canucks’ penalty kill was an absolute disaster. For the majority of the year, the team seemed destined to set a new NHL record for futility while down a man. Thankfully, a slightly improved performance over the last portion of the year resulted in them avoiding the history books.
The Canucks still ended the 2022-23 NHL season dead last in the NHL with a penalty kill percentage of 71.60%. It felt like it was inevitable that every game, the Canucks would allow at least one power play goal, instantly digging themselves into a hole that they often struggled to get out of. The only bright spot was the team’s 14 shorthanded goals, tied for second-best in the league.
There was some improvement once head coach Rick Tocchet took over in late January. They posted a penalty kill percentage of 78.4% when Tocchet coached last season, ranking 21st in the NHL over that time frame.
Addressing this anemic penalty kill was clearly atop the Canucks’ to-do list for this past offseason. The first day of free agency saw the team bring in multiple players who have extensive experience on the penalty kill. However, the team’s penalty kill has been quite poor for a number of years and has gone through plenty of “penalty kill specialists” without any significant improvement. Will this year’s new additions be any different?
Despite the team’s atrocious performance last season, the Canucks should be much improved on the penalty kill this season. That’s not just because they’ve acquired players that have shown consistent success as NHL penalty killers, but also because of the new coaching staff and the improvement we can expect from the goalies.

Improved personnel

The Canucks brought in several players that will be expected to be major contributors to the revamped penalty kill.
To start, Teddy Blueger has a great reputation around the league as a strong penalty killer. Over the past three seasons, he ranks in the top 25 of all forwards league-wide in short-handed ice time per game and he’s become a solid face-off man, winning more than 52% of his draws in each of the past two seasons. Pius Suter is another centre that has previous penalty-killing experience and could help the Canucks’ second unit.
Besides the two centres, the Canucks also brought in defencemen Ian Cole, Carson Soucy, and Matt Irwin. All three figure to be upgrades on the defencemen that made up last season’s units.
In 2022-23, Cole led all Tampa Bay Lightning players in short-handed minutes, playing a major role for a unit that ranked 15th in the NHL. Soucy is 6’5″ and played on the Kraken’s second unit last season. Last but not least, Irwin posted the best goals-against per sixty penalty kill minutes across the league last season while with the Washington Capitals.
All five of these new additions — Blueger, Suter, Cole, Soucy, and Irwin — will get some minutes on the Canucks penalty kill this year. That’s almost a complete overhaul.
Not only have the Canucks brought in a ton of new penalty killers, they also made some discoveries about players already on the roster last season. Elias Pettersson and J.T. Miller brought new life to the penalty kill and were both attacking threats despite being down a man. While Tocchet has said that he doesn’t want to overwhelm his star players with too much responsibility, you can be sure that they’ll be an option in the back of the coach’s head.
“We’ll save those guys. Save some miles on Petey. Save some miles on J.T. and Quinn, yes. I can sporadically put them out there, obviously situational,” Tocchet said this summer.
Having a forward as smart as Pettersson and who earned Selke Trophy votes last season in your back pocket for big kills isn’t too bad at all. All in all, the penalty kill units are going to look completely different from the start of last season and that’s a good thing for the Canucks who are aiming for completely different results.
That’s not even to mention players like Ilya Mikheyev, Phil Di Giuseppe, and Filip Hronek who all have encouraging past results in short-handed minutes. In short, the Canucks no longer need to ice liabilities like Oliver Ekman-Larsson or Tyler Myers this year as they have a huge number of players with long track records of success at the NHL level on the penalty kill.

New defensive systems

The Canucks penalty kill did improve under Tocchet, finishing 21st by percentage during the games he coached. Not only did they get better at killing penalties, but they also started scoring bunches of short-handed goals. While that’s likely not sustainable, it did help the penalty kill unit perform better than its kill percentage suggests as the net goal differential was actually quite good.
Tocchet — and the rest of his coaching staff which is filled with former NHL superstars — didn’t have much time to implement new systems last season. They arrived midseason with the goal of applying any patchwork solution that would help them tread water for the rest of the year. They did so successfully, but with more time behind the bench and a better understanding of the roster, Tocchet and his assistants should hopefully be able to improve on last year’s results.
When Tocchet spent a full season behind the bench in 2018-19 with the Arizona Coyotes, the team finished third in the NHL with a 84.96% penalty kill. He is known for his emphasis on discipline and defensive structure and those qualities are what drives a good penalty kill. If he can replicate even half that success in Vancouver this season, the team will finish in the top 15 league-wide.

Better goaltending

Last but not least, the Canucks will get better goaltending when down a man this season compared to last. As the old saying goes, your goalie is your most important penalty killer and unforutantely for the Canucks, their netminder often let them down last season.
By goals-saved-above-average while short handed, Spencer Martin ranked second last in the NHL with -9.96 goals, Thatcher Demko was 13th last at -4.77 goals, and Colin Delia was 17th from the bottom at -3.42 goals. As a team, the Canucks ranked dead last in save percentage while short-handed. While some of that blame can go towards the weak defence, a lot of it rests on the shoulders of the goaltending group.
Canucks fans know that Demko is a better goalie than he showed last year. A lot of time to rest and recover from nagging injuries should help Demko return to form this year. That would be huge for a Canucks team that consistently relies on their goalie to bail them out of dire situations.
Last season, an 80% penalty kill would have ranked in the top 15 league-wide. That’s not out of reach for the Canucks this year. By adding a ton of players with strong resumes, having a coaching staff that has experienced past success, and getting some better goaltending, don’t be shocked if the Canucks penalty killing numbers get a big boost.

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