It wasn’t all that long ago that penalty killing wasn’t given that much consideration. The philosophy was just keep the other team from using their man advantage to score. The PK is more than boxing out the middle portion of the ice. Special teams play has received more emphasis over the years. The ability to kill penalties figures in contract offers as well as trades.
When the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009, they had the 8th ranked penalty kill in the league. In three full seasons under head coach Dan Bylsma, the Pittsburgh Penguins never had a penalty killing group that finished the year outside of the NHL's top-ten units…until 2013. In 48 games played, they allowed 34 PPG.
2009-10 9th (84.1%)
2010-11 1st (86.1%)
2011-12 3rd (87.8%)
2013 (48 games) 25th (79.6%)
If you believe the power play makes a difference you have to believe the penalty kill matters as much or more. Positional penalty killing is based on conventional numerical systems such as the 1-2-1(diamond), 2-2 (box), or unconventional systems such as the 1-1-2. To be successful at the penalty kill set-up you need players who are willing to block shots, a strong defenseman in front of the net and a quick, agile goalie.
Tony Granato has managed the PK under Bylsma. He was the skipper when the PK was on top and at the helm when it fell short. His penalty killers have drank his ‘first eight seconds’ Kool-Aid . Their philosophy is that after the initial dump they have eight seconds to force a turnover and clear the puck down the ice. Granato’s system relies on intense video analysis, even in between periods on team iPads to scout tendencies and strategy. In short, he tailors the PK to the team they are playing rather than having a more global plan. The 8 second plan works until it doesn’t.
What’s missing from the PK?
The fact that the Pens’ PK began to suffer when Max Talbot left is no coincidence. Talbot may not be a prolific goal scorer but he is an aggressive, effective penalty killer. He brought an almost palpable energy to the PK. That energy often transferred to his teammates, who picked up their level and made something happen while short-handed. The Philadelphia Flyers’ PK was fourth best last year (85.9) with Talbot playing a key role.
Another missing link to PK success this year is Matt Cooke who was #2 in PK time on the team among forwards in 2013 and has moved on to the Minnesota Wild. A big part of the skill set that made him very desirable for the Wild is his reputation as one of the league’s best penalty-killing forwards. Known for his toughness, Cooke also brought a smart aggressive presence to the PK that is sorely missed.
Rob Scuderi, a proven PK defenseman was counted on to fill the hole left by Cooke but went down with a broken ankle after only 11 games with the Pens this season. Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin, Kris Letang and newbie Olli Maatta are solid defensive regulars on the Kill but you have to believe that Scuderi is the missing piece to the PK defensive component.
Let’s look on the bright side for the Pens’ PK unit.
Pascal Dupuis continues to be a solid short-handed scoring threat for the Penguins. He scored three goals while killing penalties in 2011-12. Dupuis is great at getting rid of the puck quickly once he receives it. His shot often shocks opposing goalies because he gets it away so quickly. Dupuis has the mentality and vision necessary to kill penalties; he reads his opponent well and gets himself in the right position to break up the play. He is a maximum effort player who excels at getting in the passing lanes while killing penalties.
Craig Adams is one of the hardest working and most intense players in the NHL. This serves him well in short-handed situations. Adams is quick to jump on loose pucks, take possession and clear the puck up ice. He’s good at breaking up the power play and ruining the opponent's momentum. He is an all in player unafraid to sacrifice his body to stop the puck.
Brandon Sutter was the Pens top penalty killer in the abbreviated 2013 season. He was an above average penalty killer with the Hurricanes but upped his game considerably last season. Speaking of the Canes, Jussi Jokinen was the second best killer for them his last season there. Not widely regarded as a top penalty killer, Jokinen was second only to Eric Staal. That pair seems to have a chemistry that, given the chance, could be deadly on the kill.
Tanner Glass is having what may prove to be a career season. One of the areas he’s making himself useful in is the PK. He has been one of the team’s most consistent players when placed in penalty killing situations.
The old adage is that a goaltender is your most important penalty killer. While the Pens may be missing Vokoun in other ways, the PK is not one of them. His .781 shorthanded save percentage was instrumental in the Pens’ lackluster performance. Marc Andre Fleury may have ridden the pine in the 2013 playoffs but this season, for all intents and purposes, is all we have. So far, he has been performing like the Fleury of past seasons. His PK numbers so far:
In order for the Pens to return to their top 10 PK performance, Fleury needs to be stalwart in the net. He needs to the Fleury of game 5 against the Flyers in 2012 when he made 9 saves during a third period PK. Fleury stopped shots by Kimmo Timonen, Jakub Voracek, Claude Giroux, Brayden Schenn, Jaromir Jagr, two from Danny Briere, Braydon Coburn and Hartnell. He has such greatness within him.
The goal of a penalty kill is to prevent as many shots and chances against as possible; Seems simple until you counter that with the fact that the other team has a 1 or 2 man advantage. The Penguins' ability to capitalize on power plays has waxed and wained but so too has their PK success. The talent is without question. Dupuis and Adams are among the best in the league at short-handed play. Sutter is a smart and capable penalty killer who, along with Jokinen can make all the difference as they did in Carolina. Tanner Glass has the potential to fill the Max Talbot role on the PK with his strength and tenacity. The PK defensemen are solid but one can’t help but wonder if Scuderi’s return (hopefully by the end of the year) might not be the difference maker.
Everyone has a role to play and playing on the PK unit is emerging as a specialty role. Penalty killing might be the most thankless of those roles. When your team wins, it’s easy to forget the PK effort in the second period that may have been the turning point in the game. There is a narrow margin for error in PK rankings; 20% failure is unacceptable yet 10% is elite. When the Penguin’s PK numbers have faltered, so has the Pens’ playoff success. The Penguins' PK has been exceptional lately, 20-for-21 over last 8 games played. (95.2%). Success in the playoff might just depend on how well they can sustain those numbers.