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Will AHL penalty killer Drew O’Connor impact Penguins’ PK?

He’s become a cog in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s penalty kill. Will O’Connor slot into Pittsburgh’s as well?

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Boston Bruins
Drew O’Connor takes a shot during warmups on Jan. 26, 2021.
Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into Dec. 4, a contest in which forward Drew O’Connor returned to the Penguins roster after a five-game stint killing penalties in the AHL, Pittsburgh’s penalty kill led the NHL at 91.4% on the season.

Although the host Canucks scored just seconds after the expiration of a Vancouver power play on Saturday, there’s no question this Penguins penalty kill has been stellar through 24 games. The best penalty kill result in Pittsburgh franchise history was an 87.8% mark in 2011-12; in fact, no NHL team has ever maintained a penalty-kill rate of over 90% for an entire season.

Will O’Connor get to take a swing at keeping that success rate above 90?

Pittsburgh Penguins v Ottawa Senators
Ottawa’s Logan Shaw fights off Kris Letang during a shorthanded scoring attempt on Nov. 13.
Photo by André Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images

The Penguins didn’t get the penalty kill this good without some trial and error. In January and February of the 2020-21 bubble season, their penalty kill was their Achilles heel. Pittsburgh finished the campaign at ranked 27th in the league at 77.4%.

So far, this season’s penalty kill has succeeded on the backs of John Marino, Teddy Blueger and Brock McGinn, who heading into Saturday led the team with an average of over two 4v5 shorthanded minutes per game.

That’s nothing new for McGinn, who has topped that rate in each of his previous seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes and was signed to the Penguins in an effort to revitalize their penalty kill.

But unlike McGinn, Marino isn’t used to this big of a role on the penalty kill. This season is Marino’s first time leading Penguins defenseman in shorthanded ice time.

That’s one example of how the Penguins have been tinkering with their shorthanded setup ever since a porous first few months of the 2020-21 campaign. If they choose to make another adjustment, they have a new option thanks to O’Connor’s call-up in the wake of Bryan Rust’s lower-body injury.

During his latest stint in the AHL, O’Connor skated five games in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. He spent time on the penalty kill as he worked to make his case for a position as the Penguins’ fourth-line center by displaying his shorthanded game— an area in which he got regular practice at Dartmouth during the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons.

O’Connor recorded a 33% success rate on the dot on Saturday and didn’t test out his skills on the penalty kill, which iced the usual roundup. It will be interesting to see how O’Connor impacts the best penalty kill in the NHL, if he makes his 2021-22 shorthanded debut in Rust’s absence.