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2009-2010 Season Preview, cont'd

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Well, here we are, one day closer to a rapidly approaching hockey season. In keeping with the format that Sam established yesterday (and I use the word "format" very loosely in this case), today's issue will be something that I addressed in the comments regarding Huet, and that is......

Will the Blackhawks improve their often problematic penalty killing?

 

For approximately the first two months of last season, the Hawks seemingly possessed at least a serviceable, if not elite penalty killing unit, unofficially right up through December's March to the Sea. From that point on, the penalty kill became a liability, one which was exacerbated by the fact that this was a young team with a propensity to take undisciplined or selfish penalties (Patrick Kane and Ben Eager, I'm looking in your directions, respectively). The Hawks finished 18th in the league, killing 80.3% of their penalties, after what appeared to be a promising start to the season in that department.

Even in the playoffs, facing two teams with mediocre power plays (Vancouver ranked 17th in the regular season at 18.8%, Calgary at 21st at 17.0%), the Hawks only killed 78.5% of their penalties, second-worst behind Scum of teams that got out of the first round. And while we know how both of those seasons ended, it's simply not good hockey sense to basically be allowing one power play goal a game at that rate. So now the question becomes- how will the Hawks improve upon those numbers this year, and give the positioning-reliant Cristobal Huet more than a fighter's chance to be his team's best penalty killer?

 

 


It is the (likely malformed) opinion of this particular blogger that yes, the Hawks can significantly improve their penalty kill not with a change in scheme or philosophy, but a change in personnel. While Quenneville and his staff were very adept at finding sometimes-odd even strength line combinations that worked (Havlat-Bolland-Ladd, Burish-Sharp-Eager in the post season, for example), his choices on the penalty kill were often curious. Coach Q favored his grunts on the penalty kill; players like Colin Fraser, Troy Brouwer, Adam Burish, and seemingly last year's lone shorthanded threat Kris Versteeg.

While I understand the thought process behind preserving your young, offensive stars for even strength and power play situations, it does not make sense when the best faceoff man on the team never sees the light of day on a penalty kill, nor does a man who led the league in short-handed goals and just barely missed being a Selke finalist the year previous. When the penalty kill was flopping around the the fish at the end of the video for Faith No More's "Epic" during the March swoon, allowing Mark Streit to fire at will from the point during that debacle against the Islanders, it was inexcusable for Jonathan Toews to not be out there killing penalties, if only to win a defensive zone faceoff, and immediately leave the ice. Had Patrick Sharp not been hurt at the time, you bet your ass he should have been out there, too.

Penalty killing comes down to hockey smarts, effort, and defensive zone faceoff wins. And while no one is doubting the effort of guys like Colin Fraser or Troy Brouwer, they simply aren't as good as Toews and Sharp when it comes to killing penalties. The addition of John Madden, provided he does what he has throughout his career with the Devils as a PK ace should help stabilize things, and I'd preferably have him paired with Andrew Ladd, arguably the team's best defensive forward. At Madden's age, he's no longer the home run threat for a shorty going the other way he was earlier in his career, but between he and Ladd, Hawks fans can be confident in their ability to win draws, and make the smart plays cutting down passing angles and clearing the zone.

Outside of having two smart, defensively sound forwards killing penalties, there is precedent elsewhere in the league that shows the best defense can be a good offense. Not to bring up the Flyers comparison again, but they regularly trot out Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, and Simon Gagne to kill penalties, the sight of which is sure to keep opposing power play quarterbacks on their toes, as one mishandle could very well lead to the puck in the net at the other end of the ice. Philly was 6th in the league during the regular season, killing 83% of their penalties, and led the league with 15 shorthanded goals. Already having an established short-handed scoring threat in Patrick Sharp, the Hawks could very easily work him, Jonathan Toews, and Marian Hossa, who, unlike Martin Havlat has killed penalties regularly throughout his career, into the penalty killing rotation. And, as was touched on earlier, Jonathan Toews is far and away the Hawks best faceoff man, it is sheer folly not to have him out there with a man down.

Having depth at forward is nice, as is having willing 3rd and fourth liners to go out there and throw themselves in front of howitzer blasts from the point on a penalty kill, but the Blackhawks have far better options for their penalty kill personnel, and the only way the unit will improve is if Quenneville and his staff recognize that fact and maximize their assets.

Sam's Take:  There isn't much I can add here.  The Hawks have enough defensively responsible, attacking forwards to make their PK something to fear.  If you add the Flyers 15 shorties to the penalties they killed off, which works because essentially they've come out of a kill at least as well off as they were before it, their % jumps to 86.7 which would have been third best.  Frankly, Colin Fraser, Brouwer, and probably even Burish shouldn't see the ice any more than they have to.  With Toews and Madden, you have two guys who can win draws and have high hockey IQ.  Though I understand wanting to limit your stars minutes, our stars are barely shaving, and can probably stand the extra minute of ice time.  Bolland is awful on the draws, and his Behind the Net Numbers suggest he's not a very good killer, but that might have to do with his skills in the circle.  Pair him with Toews and provide a real threat up top.   Then Madden and Ladd, and perhaps Hossa with Sharp, and you'll have a nails forward unit for the PK.

The back end is a little more complicated than you might think.  Only Biscuit and Barker (when he feels like it) can be counted on to clear out the crease.  Whatever you think of Matt Walker, he excelled at this last season.  It's hard to believe Hammer will bulk up enough this summer to be counted on to do so, so whoever claims the #6 spot is going to have to be able to do it.  And the crease will need clearing, as we know there will be some Huet pitch-backs lying around.