Two of the Canucks’ most-used penalty killers last season are no longer on the roster.
Markus Granlund led the Canucks’ in shorthanded ice time in 2018-19, playing over 183 minutes on the penalty kill, while Ben Hutton was third, with over 158 minutes. Neither one was given a qualifying offer by the Canucks, so both went to free agency, where Granlund got signed by the Edmonton Oilers and Hutton remains on the market.
The Canucks had a decent penalty kill last season, successfully killing off 81.1% of their penalties, good for 11th in the NHL. Some of that comes down to goaltending, but Jacob Markstrom was only slightly above average while shorthanded: his .877 save percentage is 20th among the 48 goaltenders that played at least 30 games.
That the Canucks ended up above average while shorthanded is a bit of a surprise given the way they started the season. 30 games into the 2018-19 season, the Canucks were near the bottom of the NHL on the penalty kill, with a 74.8% success rate. Combined with taking the most penalties in the NHL, that meant the Canucks had allowed the most power play goals in the league.
The Canucks had an 8-game stretch where they gave up a power play goal every single game, and their struggles were capped off by a game against the Minnesota Wild where they gave up three power play goals on three opportunities to lose 3-2.
After that start, however, the Canucks’ penalty kill was aces for the rest of the season. They killed 86.0% of their penalties for the remaining 52 games, third in the NHL behind the Columbus Blue Jackets and Tampa Bay Lightning. A big reason why was a change in personnel.
For instance, Michael Del Zotto stopped playing two-and-a-half minutes per game on the penalty kill and was instead made a healthy scratch and eventually traded to the Anaheim Ducks for Luke Schenn and a 7th-round pick.
Tim Schaller was likewise taken off the penalty kill entirely, while Tyler Motte and Erik Gudbranson started averaging over a minute less per game shorthanded.
The biggest addition to the penalty kill after those 30 games? Loui Eriksson.
To start the season, Eriksson wasn’t on the penalty kill, which is odd given how effective a penalty killer he was in the previous season. While Eriksson’s offensive contributions have dissipated, he’s still very effective shorthanded, and he proved it throughout the rest of the season.
In fact, Eriksson was one of the best penalty killers in the entire NHL last season by multiple metrics, including scoring chances against and goals against.
It’s not that Eriksson single-handedly saved the Canucks’ penalty kill, but playing him in that role and diminishing the shorthanded ice time of Motte and Schaller certainly helped. The issue is that a contingent of Canucks fans (very understandably) want Eriksson gone, whether via trade or some vindictive relegation to the Utica Comets. If Eriksson does somehow get moved, someone would need to pick up the slack on the penalty kill.
Do the Canucks have the personnel to make up for the loss of Granlund and Hutton, not to mention the potential loss of Eriksson? Let’s take a closer look.
The chart below includes the Canucks’ penalty killers that played at least 50 minutes last season, along with Bo Horvat, who was used sparingly shorthanded. The penalty killers are ranked by rate of fenwick (unblocked shot attempts) against, as I’ve found it to be a useful starting point when evaluating penalty killers.
The players highlighted in red are no longer on the Canucks, while new arrivals are highlighted in gold.
Among the new acquisitions, J.T. Miller and Micheal Ferland flat-out did not play on the penalty kill last season and are not included in the chart. In fact, Ferland has never really played on the penalty kill at the NHL level and Miller has only had brief stints in past seasons, with pretty poor results.
Tanner Pearson, on the other hand, has played on the penalty kill in the past. For whatever reason, neither the Los Angeles Kings nor Pittsburgh Penguins used him on the penalty kill last season, but he was good on the Canucks’ kill late in the season and he should be considered an option.
The biggest new addition to the penalty kill will likely be Jordie Benn, who led the Montreal Canadiens in shorthanded ice time last season. His statistical profile while shorthanded looks very similar to that of Hutton, who has been surprisingly effective on the penalty kill in his career. Benn should be able to fill that gap on the kill, though it should be noted that last season was Benn’s best as a penalty killer and he could regress next season.
The other new addition on defence, Tyler Myers, is on the other end of the penalty killing spectrum, however. Among Jets’ penalty-killing defencemen, Myers was on the ice for the highest rate of unblocked shot attempts, shot attempts, and goals against.
If we expand beyond just last season and look at the rest of the NHL, we see that Myers really doesn’t look like a fit on the penalty kill. Among the 143 NHL defencemen that have played at least 200 minutes while shorthanded over the last three seasons, Myers has been on the ice for the fourth highest rate of unblocked shot attempts against.
Myers will almost certainly play on the penalty kill for the Canucks, whether because he’s given a chance ahead of Troy Stecher or because of injuries. We’ll have to wait and see how that turns out.
Up front, the absence of Granlund is perhaps not as big a concern as it might seem. He has struggled on the penalty kill for multiple seasons, but kept getting put on the ice seemingly because there was no one else available. With him gone, the Canucks will have to hope for both health and better performances out of Beagle and Sutter.
It’s hard to see where else the Canucks can turn, particularly with Roussel out to start the season. Horvat may have to play a larger role on the penalty kill, even though he's struggled in that area in the past. The team may also have to turn to players with less penalty killing experience, like Jake Virtanen, Josh Leivo, and Adam Gaudette.
Alternatively, the Canucks could do what many other teams do: use their best player on the penalty kill.
Elias Pettersson certainly has the defensive instincts to play shorthanded, though I’m sure every fan would wince when he went to block a shot. But stars like Jonathan Toews, Aleksander Barkov, Claude Giroux, Patrice Bergeron, Sebastian Aho, Mitchell Marner, Anze Kopitar, and Leon Draisaitl all play significant minutes on the penalty kill. At the very least, it’s something to consider.