Now that we’ve looked at the changes on the power play, let’s take a look at the penalty kill as well. First, what did we lose? Taking a look at our top 12 in shorthanded ice time, the biggest loss in minutes is Troy Brouwer followed by Joel Ward, Tim Gleason and Eric Fehr. Obviously the shakeup on the PK is going to be more significant than in any other area. Brouwer and Ward in particular played a lot of minutes and were top 6 in possession stats on the PK.
Now for a little good news, the top 4 PK minute guys; Carlson, Orpik, Niskanen and Alzner, all return. In addition, there’s no reason to think Orlov and Schmidt won’t eat more PK minutes in the coming season than the various 3rd pairings from last year. So with defensemen we’re in pretty good shape. Plenty of experience and a shot of youth. I like that combination.
Obviously we have about 3 spots to fill in the forward group. What are the options? Looking at the projected 3rd and 4th lines I see a few. I’m excluding Beagle, Laich and Chimera because they all saw PK time last season and should this season as well. Tom Wilson and Michael Latta could be options. Of the two, I like the Latta option better. Wilson will have a lot on his plate just moving up to the 3rd line. I’m not sure how much extra they’ll want to throw at him. He’s also particularly poor in the face off dot at 18.2%. Latta, playing center, has more experience with face offs though his 47.8% rate could still be improved. Neither is a great option to both eat minutes and take draws without some improvement. Johansson on the other hand just seems like a bad fit all the way around and wasn’t used on the PK last season.
Of those returning Jay Beagle and Jason Chimera sport the best face off percentages at 56.5% and 56.6% respectively. We seem to be at least 1 good to very good face off guy short. It’s possible Kuznetsov and Burakovsky could be options. Both need to continue to work on their face offs, but are good enough at 44.6% and 44.3% that getting to 50% this season seems within reach. Justin Williams sports a win percentage of exactly 50%. Backstrom is of course also an option but Trotz has been understandably careful with his PK minutes given all of the other minutes he plays.
All of the possibilities mentioned either are defensively responsible or look like they could be given more exposure. Add to that list T.J. Oshie who has a history scoring shorties but is a poor face off option. This one is a bit of a puzzle. There aren’t enough holdovers to not add a few to the mix and each possibility has some negatives. The best options I see are on the first two lines but based on PK usage last season, Trotz prefers to feed the extra minutes heavily to the 3rd and 4th liners.
Early in the season I expect to see the 3rd and 4th liners getting a lot of opportunities to lock down those PK spots. Using the top 6 while an option, isn’t the first choice. We might even see Marcus Johansson given a shot if he’s not traded before the season starts. Only if that group isn’t getting it done do I see more top 6 guys being used. It’s worth noting that Justin Williams hasn’t averaged anything near 20 minutes a night since 2006-07. It seems doubtful they’d want to add to his minutes using him on the PK.
We saw a poor start for the PK group this last season but after getting some focus in practice as the season went on, we finished strong as one of the best PK’s in the playoffs. Holtby’s play in net was a big part of that turnaround. We can expect, as odd as it seems to say this, a more consistent year from Holtby. Mitch Korn isn’t a new coach bringing new techniques this year so I expect an even better Holtby. Grubauer should also be a solid upgrade over Peters and help the numbers as well.
While we’ll be moving in some new pieces the core group remains. That should give a jump-start to the PK. The style we settled on wasn’t a high pressure running around system, but a controlled system that keeps the puck to the outside and keeps sight lines open for the goalie. That should work in our favor. It’s not especially taxing the way a pressure style can be. It also doesn’t involve a lot of gambling. It’s gap control and not getting out of position. I think the system can cover up some weaknesses that might be exposed in another style of PK.
The face off problem is a bit concerning. The saving grace is; while we were a pretty good face off team in our own zone last season, we didn’t really do a lot with those wins statistically. We tended to win but not clear the puck as well as you would expect. That’s something we need to improve on, but it also shows it wasn’t face offs that made the PK work at the end of the season. While you’d like to see the face offs improve and the clears after face off wins improve, neither one looks like a critical weakness.
Even with some new pieces to identify and fit in I think it’s reasonable to expect an improved penalty kill over the course of the full season. Maybe not as good as we saw in the playoffs, but considerably better than the overall 14th place finish of last year. We should expect at least top 10, and with some work top 5 isn’t out of the question. Combined with the #1 power play unit, special teams look to be even more of a strength for 2015-2016.
By Ernie Mudd