Fixing the Penguins Penalty Kill in 2014

Vincent Pugliese

After three years of solid PK work, the Pittsburgh Penguins ended up 25th in the league in 2013. We look at why that was and how they can get back to being in the top half of the league.

2013 was a lockout shortened season, and also a successful one for the Pittsburgh Penguins in the regular season as they rolled the Eastern Conference and finished with the top spot after the 48 game campaign was finished. That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement, check out the team’s penalty kill ranks in recent years

  • 2013 season 25th (79.6%)
  • 2011-12 3rd (87.8%)
  • 2010-11 1st (86.1%)
  • 2009-10 9th (84.1%)

After years of being a top 10 penalty kill team, the Penguins slumped down a lot in the shortened 2013 season. Why did this happen?


Save percentage nose-dives

While Jordan Staal was moved on, a PK forward often is described as the least important member of the unit, which usually lives or dies based on the PK save percentage of the goalie. Marc-Andre Fleury and Tomas Vokoun combined for just a .846 sv% while down a man in 2013, ranking only 26th in the league. In 2011-12, the Pens goalies (mainly Fleury but also Brent Johnson and Brad Thiessen) posted a much better .892 save % while down a man, and it was .899 % in 2010-11.


Personnel

As mentioned, Staal is gone. Further changes will take effect from 2013-14 on, with Matt Cooke (#2 in PK time on the team among forwards in 2013) also departing town. Veterans Craig Adams and Pascal Dupuis will anchor the PK up front with Tanner Glass (1:17 SH/TOI per night in 2013) and Jussi Jokinen (0:43 SH/TOI) could be getting more PK time. Sidney Crosby logged 41 seconds a night, usually for key defensive draws, and probably will perform in a similar manner again. It’s fine to let Crosby, the team’s best faceoff guy, take some draws, but given his injury history and the fact that killing penalties is a tough, dirty and risky proposition, the Pens are probably better to let guys like Glass and Adams eat pucks instead of the face of the team.

There are positive developments for the defense. 2013 saw key members of the defense in Kris Letang and Paul Martin each miss 30% of the season. Should they stay healthy, they’ll play more PK and the unit should improve. Rob Scuderi will also be slotted back in to log heavy PK time. They’ll replace Douglas Murray (2:38 a night SH time with Pens in his brief time) and Mark Eaton (1:40 a night in 23 games) and ought to give the unit a boost.


Tactics

The Pens have had similar coaching, schemes and tactics under Dan Bylsma and assistant Todd Reirden for their penalty kill units. The ideology seems to be to pressure for 7-8 seconds once the opposing team enters the blue-line, and attempt to pin pucks to the wall, muddy up timing and hopefully win a board battle or at least knock the puck out of possession from the power play team long enough to clear the zone. That failing, the team usually enters a very passive box/diamond formation and deploys defensemen down low to take away shots and passes with a stick on the ice and forwards marked fairly low off of their point-men.

New to the Pens bench this year is Jacques Martin- who hasn’t specifically been mentioned for his PK ability, so it remains to be seen what role, if any, that Martin and his strategies/ideas/methods might have for Pittsburgh on the PK. The bet here is- the typical coaching the Penguins employ under Bylsma aren’t going to be drastically altered, especially right off the bat.


Conclusion

It’s going to boil down to the goaltender, which means mostly Marc-Andre Fleury. If the Pens goalies can keep their save % around .900, the team will likely have another top-10 PK unit in the league. Of course, the goalies will need help from the players in front of them, and the Pens PK defensive unit- mainly with the addition of Scuderi- should perform better in 2013-14 than they did in 2013 when many top defensemen missed time due to injuries. When looking at forwards, the Penguins will be weaker than the past, but playing forward on the PK is a matter of effort, smarts (to keep sticks/body in passing or shooting lanes) and making clears when possible. Of all the positions it ought to be the most replaceable.

In the end, it’ll come down to execution of the formations and not making physical mistakes in clearing attempts by forwards/defensemen, and goaltenders making saves. If the Pens get that, their PK probably bounces back into the Top 10 like the past few seasons. But if they are disjointed and can’t play strong positionally in front of their goalies, then the stats will show another tough year for Pittsburgh on the PK.

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