In 2011-12, for the first time in four seasons, the Edmonton Oilers had a relatively successful penalty kill. After being marooned in the league basement while down a man in 2008-09, 2009-10 and 2010-11, the Oilers managed to finish above league average, killing 82.4 percent of penalties against.
Naturally, the only logical question to ask is ‘why aren’t the kids killing penalties?’
Last Year’s Group
Only four forwards in 2011-12 played more than 100 minutes while the Oilers were shorthanded. The list was Shawn Horcoff, Ryan Jones, Eric Belanger and Ryan Smyth. This compares to the group in 2010-11: Andrew Cogliano, Colin Fraser, Ryan Jones and Liam Reddox (Horcoff was injured and played just 73 minutes).
The wholesale change worked. The Oilers dumped three guys, and replaced them with three well-established two-way forwards. Surprise, surprise, the penalty kill was worlds better.
Note: That’s not the whole picture, of course – goaltending on the PK also improved. However, the units shots against improved dramatically year over year, likely as a result of the upgrade in talent.
The Case For The Kids
Wuyuyuan/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0
That’s not to say there aren’t good and valid reasons to include the skill guys – people like Eberle, Hall and Nugent-Hopkins – on the kill. Other teams do it: Tomas Plekanec, Anze Kopitar, Jason Pominville, Claude Giroux, Zach Parise, Ryan Kesler, Mike Richards, David Backes, Patrice Bergeron, Loui Eriksson, Marian Hossa, Patrik Elias, Dustin Brown, Joe Pavelski, Andrew Ladd, Saku Koivu, Tim Connolly, Milan Michalek, Jonathan Toews and Corey Perry all met the 100 minute mark last season, and depending on the exact lighting all could be considered primarily skill players.
One of the things skill players do is add a bit of counterpunch to the unit. Edmonton was league-average last year in short-handed goals, and having that scoring threat forces teams to be a little more conservative (plus the fact that a goal for is a goal for).
Another point is that none of Eberle, Hall or Nugent-Hopkins are exactly known for their defence at this stage of their careers – time on the penalty kill can be used as a development tool for defensive zone play and might help those players round out their games. With the playoffs still definitely a question mark for 2012-13, it might not be a bad time to round out the game of the younger players.
Finally, though it’s rare, there are sometimes strings of penalties. When the kids aren’t part of the unit, and a five minute major or a double minor or just a handful of penalties in a row occur, they sit out of the game. Putting those kids on the penalty kill not only keeps them involved, but it ensures dynamic talent isn’t just sitting on the bench.
The Case Against
David Iliff/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0
There are a few problems with sticking the Halls and Eberles of the world on the penalty kill.
The biggest one might be opportunity cost. Opportunity cost is a fancy term for a simple concept. Imagine winning your choice of two vacations: a tropical holiday at a resort in the Caribbean or a trip to Italy. Picking one means forgoing the other; in this case the opportunity cost of going to the Caribbean is no trip to Italy, and the opportunity cost of going to Italy is no trip to the Caribbean (incidentally, this is a no-brainer: go to Italy).
Depending on when they’re used on the kill, having Hall and Eberle out while down a man might mean they don’t get to come out for the first shift after the penalty kill. That first shift after a PK is prized by coaches because the other team’s best players are tired and it’s a chance to get a good matchup against their depth.
It also might mean that Hall/Eberle get one fewer even-strength shift. Last year, that wasn’t a problem as Renney was carefully managing the player’s ice-time – they could have done more, but he wanted them out in specific situations. As they’re fed more responsibility, though, it will be a problem: a shift on the PK will be one less shift at evens. Does it make sense to pass that penalty-killing work to the offensive stars and the even-strength work to the guys they’re replacing – people like Belanger and Jones?
If It Ain’t Broke…
Still, in some cases it does make sense to hand penalty-killing time to a star. This is especially true if the star is a fantastically good penalty-killer.
To me, the bottom line is this: the Oilers penalty kill was pretty good last year, and it would be nice if it stayed there or got better. If adding a Hall or Nugent-Hopkins or Eberle or whoever to the rotation makes for a stronger penalty-kill, the coaching staff should do it. If it does not, they should not – no matter how galling it is to see Hall on the bench for five minutes when the Oilers kill of a major penalty.
At this stage, I’m not convinced those players would improve the unit. The four forwards the Oilers used last year did good work. The third pairing – Anton Lander and Lennart Petrell – got smoked at even-strength but were surprisingly competent with the team down a man. Maybe – particularly if Lander starts the year in the minors – there’s a spot on that third group of forwards for one of the young guns; it would keep them in the game during those long penalties while not risking lost ice-time in other situations.
But a more integral role to the unit this year only makes sense to me if Ralph Krueger thinks Hall or Eberle can do a better job short-handed than Ryan Smyth or Ryan Jones. I’m betting he doesn’t think that.
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