Last season, the Blackhawks’ penalty kill was the worst in the league. Their game against the Flyers last Friday didn’t help to inspire confidence in the direction of the shorthanded units, but it’s not enough sample size to make a judgement yet. But there are lessons the Blackhawks can learn from the best penalty kills in the league last season, which included the Lightning, Coyotes and Blue Jackets.
Here are the biggest three.
1. Step up the defense
The most important thing about the penalty kill is defense. Against the Flyers, that defense wasn’t great. It wasn’t great throughout the 2018-19 campaign either. While shorthanded, the Blackhawks allowed 400 shots against, 50.9 expected goals against, and 169 high-danger chances against. The only team above 400 shots with an excellent penalty kill was the Lightning, who spent almost 100 more minutes shorthanded than Chicago.
In fact, none of the best penalty kills come close to the Blackhawks. Chicago had 63.9 shots against, 8.1 expected goals against, 27 high-danger chances and 4.5 high-danger goals against per 60-mins shorthanded. None of the best penalty kills came close to 7 expected goals — Dallas allowed 6.8 and was the highest. Calgary was the highest in high-danger chances allowed, with 22.3 per 60. Buffalo was close to the Blackhawks with 4.3 high-danger goals allowed per 60, but played much better in other categories.
A defensive overhaul, as the Blackhawks will see when healthy, will optimize their penalty killing units. Connor Murphy and Calvin de Haan are nursing groin injuries, but are expected to be back in the near future. They’ll likely join Olli Maatta and Brent Seabrook as the other shorthanded pairing, which could be a significant boost to penalty killing success.
Bonus: Shorthanded goaltending
The 16 penalty kills also have another thing in common - the Lightning, the best penalty kill in the league last season, got a .901 save percentage from their goaltenders while shorthanded. Arizona, second place, had a second-place .891 save percentage. In fact, the worst save percentage of these 16 was Calgary with a .836 save percentage, 30th in the league. Their 79.7 percent kill rate reflects that, and they’re on the best list for other reasons.
The Blackhawks were 26th with an .843 save percentage. If Corey Crawford remains healthy and with the addition of Robin Lehner — who helped the Islanders post a top-10 mark in their .874 save percentage — that mark will be exponentially better. Still, the defense in front of them needs to be better this season if they are going to rise in the pack.
2. Be aggressive, b-e aggressive
While watching the Charlotte Checkers winning the AHL’s Calder Cup, one thing stuck out throughout their playoff run. Their shorthanded philosophy wasn’t the conservative slop the Blackhawks have seen the last few years, instead they trusted their goaltender and took advantage of missteps opposing power plays would make. In other words, they were aggressive, and tried to drive the puck back into the offensive zone, where they would generate their own chances. Charlotte had an 88.6 percent kill rate, the best of any AHL playoff team with more than one series.
That’s something reflected by the best NHL penalty kills. Of the 16 penalty kills mentioned here, 10 were near the top in possession. The best shorthanded Corsi team was the Blue Jackets, and second was the Golden Knights. The Blue Jackets were in the top five across all possession stats and finished tied for the league’s best kill percentage with 85 percent. Vegas’ 80.9 percent could likely be placed more on their 13th-ranked save percentage than their fourth-best expected goal share.
The Blackhawks were 24th in Corsi, 25th in shot share, and 22nd in high-danger share. Chicago, if it wants to install an aggressive “power kill,” as Charlotte’s then-coach Mike Vellucci called it, have the skaters to do so. Dominik Kubalik has impressive footwork, and has shown an ability to transition well with the puck. Andrew Shaw has played minutes on a good penalty kill with Montreal and Brandon Saad can skate just as well.
Let’s look at some of the shorthanded goals from this season to see how the power kill works.
Reilly Smith, one of Vegas’ best forwards, is extremely disruptive in the play, again a show of aggressiveness on the penalty kill, and he succeeds in not only clearing the puck back out but grabbing it and running with it. As Vegas has three shorthanded goals this season, let’s continue down this rabbit hole.
Again, the Golden Knights put out aggressive forwards in Tomas Nosek and Mark Stone, and while neither are the league’s greatest skater, they cause a mistake from the Sharks, a ridiculously overpowered power play with two great defensemen, and drive a 2-on-1 chance against Erik Karlsson that ends with a goal. Nosek’s play to bat the puck out of the air is what causes this, and neither Nosek nor Stone would be in the greatest position if the puck got past them, but they trust their defense and Marc-Andre Fleury on the attempted zone entry by the Sharks.
Finally, watch the aggression of Vegas’ power kill in the opposing offensive zone during that same game:
You think David Kampf and Ryan Carpenter, as good as they may be, are forcing a power play back into the defensive zone and then making that play? Saad and Jonathan Toews could, but the strategy for their usage would have to change. The Blackhawks have guys who are excellent along the wall — Drake Caggiula has a high compete level, and Alex Nylander has already shown a knack for collecting turnovers - but they would never be used on the penalty kill we’ve seen the last few years.
That should change.
3. Use the best possession driving skaters
One of the Blackhawks’ main problems last season was they didn’t match up with one of the biggest trends — the best penalty kills still ice units that can score. The teams talked about throughout this article averaged 349 points at all strengths from their penalty killers. They averaged 16 shorthanded points. The Blackhawks had 307 points at all strengths from their main 12 and just nine shorthanded points. Outside of the Saad, Toews, Keith, Seabrook unit, which had 196 points and six shorthanded, the Blackhawks had the lowest amount of points from their penalty killers.
The Blackhawks need much more skill and scoring capacity on their shorthanded unit, and a mentality shift. Many teams, including Tampa Bay, Columbus, Dallas, Nashville, Minnesota, Carolina and St. Louis (seven of the top eight in terms of kill percentage) gave some of their best scorers time on the penalty kill (including Steven Stamkos and Cam Atkinson). The Blackhawks could do the same with Patrick Kane, especially with a well-rounded center like Toews, but the Blackhawks are more than likely not to try it. Instead, the best secondary scorers not on the first power play like Nylander, Saad, and Shaw.
One of the reasons the Blackhawks have struggled is their mentality toward the penalty kill has always been conservative, instead of a power kill. They get stuck in their own zone and because they’re using several of their less possession-driving forwards, they can’t get the puck out long term. Instead, use duos who can drive the puck well and keep it within the opposing zone. While keeping defensemen able to get back to their zone and get the puck back out is important, it’s equally important having players who can hold the puck in the opposing zone, as shown by the success rate of that strategy.
So what should the penalty kill look like?
Toews — Kubalik
Maatta — De Haan
Shaw — Caggiula
Keith — Murphy
Saad — Nylander
This means a complete mindset overhaul that’s persisted since the Joel Quenneville era needs to be done, especially after last season’s performance on the penalty kill. There are more trustworthy defensive defensemen than ever that can also get the puck up the ice for forwards to generate pressure the other way even while down a man.