A lot of things have gone wrong during the Canucks’ current losing skid, but their shorthanded struggles have to be one of the biggest concerns. They have lost 12 of their last 13 games and a major reason why is the penalty kill.
The Canucks have given up at least one power play goal in 10 of their last 13 games and it’s part of a larger trend that goes back to October 29th. Since that date, the Canucks have given up 21 power play goals on 64 opportunities, an execrable 67.1% kill rate. That slide has brought the Canucks down to 27th in the NHL in penalty kill percentage and they’ve allowed the most power play goals against in the league.
It likely isn’t a coincidence that October 29th was the game in which Brandon Sutter got injured. The shutdown centre is one of their key penalty killers and the penalty kill has suffered in his absence.
Even with Sutter’s injury in mind, the Canucks’ penalty killing woes have been extreme. The capstone came Tuesday night against the Minnesota Wild, when they gave the Wild three opportunities on the power play and gave up three power play goals, leading to a 3-2 loss. The penalty kill literally cost them the game.
“We’ve gotta find a way to kill a penalty,” said head coach Travis Green after the game. “We’ve gotta find a way to get a puck out, I don’t think our clears have been strong enough. At the beginning of the year when we were having success, you saw a lot of 200-foot clears and you saw it off faceoff wins.
“Penalty killing, you’re not going to narrow it down to one thing. We’re well aware that we’ve gotta tighten it up.”
Green is right: there’s rarely one thing going wrong when a penalty kill struggles. That means there are no easy fixes, but instead there needs to be a series of adjustments, both big and small.
One area where you can make adjustments is systems. Beagle and Tim Schaller, since they both played significant roles on the penalty kill for other teams before signing with the Canucks in free agency, don’t see any significant differences in their systems compared to their previous teams.
“It’s virtually the same thing,” said Schaller. “Our forecheck, when they’re breaking out, is a little different, but I think we’re still doing a good job with that. All the in-zone stuff is still the same, we’ve just gotta tidy up.”
“I think almost everyone has very similar systems,” said Beagle. “There’s always little differences from team to team, but nothing major where you would say, ‘That’s the difference.’ Me and [Nolan Baumgartner] have gone over it quite a bit, what the Caps did...There’s no major differences though. Almost everyone has a similar PK.”
If systems aren’t the issue, that leaves two other areas: personnel and execution. Those two areas are tied together: better defensive players that can make better reads should execute better at those reads.
“We have very good penalty killers,” said Schaller. “We’ve shown that we’ve been able to be really good this year, but we just gotta make sure we don’t take half a second off, because that’s when teams capitalize.”
The Canucks’ system, even if it differs little from that of other teams, involves an active forward at the top of zone, with a wedge formed by the two defencemen and other forward behind him. In reaction to puck and player movement from the power play, the forwards frequently shift roles. That requires good reads and mobility, but to Schaller another element is equally important.
“I think body positioning is vital,” said Schaller. “You’ve gotta try to read what they’re doing, gotta know where to have your stick, obviously the first two steps are crucial when trying to block a shot or deflect a pass, but end of the day, I think body position is more vital.”
Schaller was one of the Bruins’ better penalty killers last season but has struggled so far this year, along with the rest of the team. So, what has changed for Schaller and what’s going wrong with the penalty kill?
Looking at all of the power play goals scored against the Canucks, a few patterns emerge. Eight of the 28 power play goals given up by the Canucks came on Royal Road passes, ie. cross-ice passes through the slot. Research has shown that is one of the most dangerous pre-shot passes that you can allow and it’s something every penalty kill wants to avoid.
“We would prefer the outside shot versus the cross-ice pass,” said Schaller, “because obviously guys are good enough to one-timer those passes and beat the goalie. We have our D go down, block half the net, the goalie has the other half of the net, so we encourage the outside shot versus the cross-seam one-timer.”
We’ve seen the Canucks’ goaltenders get beaten on those outside shots this season, but it’s still a lower-percentage play. One of the key advantages to the wedge+1 formation on the penalty kill is having that forward in the slot at the top of the wedge to take away the Royal Road.
Taking away those passes means making the right reads, recognizing where the opposing power play is trying to go, and keeping a strong and active stick in passing lanes. Unfortunately, one of the players that has struggled the most in that area is also the Canucks’ most-used forward on the penalty kill: Markus Granlund.
Granlund has been on the ice for more power play goals against than any other player in the NHL. 18 of the 28 goals given up by the Canucks’ penalty kill have come with Granlund on the ice. According to Harman Dayal, who has been tracking microstats for the Canucks’ special teams, it’s more than that.
“It's not just the goal totals,” said Dayal. “No other forward allows as many on-ice shots preceded by danger passes than Granlund.”
The Canucks’ most recent game against the Wild illustrates some of Granlund’s struggles, as he was on the ice for both of the Wild’s goals at 5-on-4.
The first goal comes at the 45-second mark in the above video. Granlund is at the top of the wedge in the slot, but when the Wild move the puck across the top of the zone for a one-timer, Granlund makes a desperation move, holding out his stick in a vain attempt to pick off the pass. His stick doesn’t get within six feet of the puck.
While he’s not solely to blame for the goal against — the Canucks needed to do a better job in the puck battles along the boards — Granlund would have been better served by getting into the shooting lane instead of fruitlessly trying to take away the pass. Bo Horvat would have been able to slide into the slot at the top of the wedge to take Granlund’s place.
The goal that comes at the two-minute mark features another troubling read from Granlund. The angle that he takes on his older brother, Mikael Granlund, seems designed to take away the pass to the point, which is the least dangerous pass available and is entirely unnecessary, as Tyler Motte is still up high in the zone after pressuring the point.
Granlund’s angle and stick position leaves the cross-ice, Royal Road passing lane wide open. The elder Granlund takes advantage, sending the puck to Jason Zucker in the right faceoff circle for the one-timer.
Again, Granlund isn’t solely to blame — Motte likely pursued the puck too hard to the point and Ben Hutton could have identified the situation and stayed closer to Zucker — but it’s emblematic of the issues Granlund has had all season.
That makes it all the more troubling that Granlund leads all Canucks’ forwards in short-handed ice time. Green has leaned on Granlund and it just isn’t working. He isn’t the only player that’s struggling and we can see that by looking at the rate of unblocked shot attempts (Fenwick) given up with each penalty killer on the ice.
Granlund was the worst Canucks’ penalty killer last season by this metric, but there are a few that have been worse than him this season. It’s not a perfect metric — Sutter isn’t much better than Granlund, but has given up fewer dangerous passes when on the ice — but it can still give us a bit more of the picture.
The only Canucks forwards that have been on the ice for a higher rate of unblocked shot attempts are Schaller and Roussel. The Canucks have also given up a high rate of goals with Roussel on the ice, but he has a strong track record when it comes to penalty killing and the Canucks have to hope that with a larger sample size, those numbers will come down.
Schaller, however, is an interesting case. He’s spent around 35 minutes on the penalty kill alongside Granlund and a little over 24 minutes without Granlund. His numbers without Granlund are, let’s say, slightly better than those with Granlund.
The implication appears to be that not only is Granlund struggling, but he’s also dragging down his fellow penalty killers.
Going back to the table that showed the Canucks’ penalty killers, you might notice one name missing: Loui Eriksson. The table only includes players that have spent at least 20 minutes on the ice shorthanded.
Loui Eriksson has spent just 5:30 in ice time on the penalty kill.
That may be hard to believe: Eriksson was one of the Canucks’ key penalty killers last season, finishing third in short-handed ice time among Canucks forwards. He was also one of the Canucks’ best penalty killers, leading the team with the lowest rate of unblocked shot attempts against and one of the lowest rates of goals against.
It’s baffling that Eriksson hasn’t been used on the penalty kill this year. He’s not contributing much offensively, though he’s been a reasonable complementary player to those that have. If you want to get the most out of Eriksson, why not use him in a role that plays to his strengths?
“We started putting Loui in last game, tonight we went back with Beagle,” said Green after the game against the Wild. “In the third period, we were gonna go with Roussel and Loui and try different pairings. So we’re looking at everything, I can tell you that.”
It’s positive that Green is planning on getting Eriksson back on the penalty kill, but it’s strange that it’s taken this long. The penalty kill has been struggling for over a month and Eriksson is a very good penalty killer — why not turn to him sooner?
The Canucks will need to make a lot of adjustments to their penalty kill to get it back on track, but there’s one big adjustment they can make that could have a major impact: take Granlund off the penalty kill and replace him with Eriksson.
At the very least, it’s worth trying. When the penalty kill is this bad, almost anything is worth trying.