Kids on the penalty kill

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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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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  • Spydyr

    I don’t think I’d supplant the top 4 guys, but there’s nothing stopping them from rotating in 1 of the kids and say Petrell (if he’s on the club) as part of the 3rd pairing.

    I know people often consider the PK to be comprised of 2 forward units, but they are really 3 forward units. For instance Lander and Petrell both saw more than 60 minutes each on the PP (some of that is due to guys missing games, being in the penalty box themselves, etc…)

    Generally speaking you want to try and aim for 4 changes on your PK (average shift of about 30 seconds). If you can do that, you are probably doing a good job of retrieving the puck and getting it back down the ice.

    That allows you to have 2 primary units, either of which can start the PK, and a 3rd unit that fills in once the 2nd PP unit gets out there (which is often the lesser of the 2 PP units).

    Getting a Hall/Petrell out there for a shift against a 2nd PP unit would be something I could get behind.

  • Spydyr

    Gretzky killed penalties. Seemed to work out pretty good as he holds the record for career SH goals. So did Lemieux and Messier, also SH goal record holders. Not saying that the kids are necessarily comparables (yet), just that having a skill forward on the PK might not be a bad idea.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    The kids are capable of pulling the puck out of their own net everybit as well as Shawn Horcoff can. There’s no need to keep sheltering these kids.

    They probably know they’re on their own already anyways, let them play in all situations.

  • Spydyr

    Your best players should get the most ice.

    Can anyone honestly say at this point in time Horcoff and Smythe would be better penalty killers than Hall and Eberele?

    Hall’s speed Eberle’s smarts.

    The only problem with playing them together is Halls shoulder.Once that it fully healed he should be able to take draws.

    It is no contest.

    • Yeah, I’ve always loved Smythe’s PK game.

      But seriously: Smyth and Horcoff have been doing this for years and *did a good job last season*. This is one of the areas of the game where being a veteran is a significant advantage.

      Secondly: I’m all for more ice-time to Hall/Eberle. Just not so much on the PK.

      Thirdly: Any evidence that Hall’s a decent faceoff guy? He went 40% last year on ~60 draws. It’s harder to win faceoffs on the PK because there’s one less guy to help win scrambles; he’s probably a 30-35% guy on the PK if he’s a 40% guy at evens.

      • Spydyr

        Not sure what Hall’s face-off percentage was when he played center in junior.

        With Hall’s eye hand coordination, quickness and strength(more so in a few years). Can’t someone teach him the tricks of the face-off trade?

        On that note the team should bring in a guest coach at camp maybe even have him part-time through the year.Working with centers on face-offs .All the centers in the organization could use it.

        • DSF

          Mike Sillinger, the Oilers’ Director of Player Development, had a faceoff winning percentage above 55%.

          Suitcase had a 58.8% winning percentage in his final full season.

          • Eric Belanger’s pretty darn good in the circle too – he’s been a top-20 in the NHL guys for three years running.

            But I very much doubt it’s as easy as getting someone good at it to teach them the tricks of the trade. If it were that easy, everybody would be doing it.

          • RexLibris

            Stoll and Horcoff, if I recall correctly, credited their time working with Adam Oates to their eventual improvement in the area of faceoffs.

            Having some of the young players work with Belanger would be a good way of maximizing his skills while he is here. I’d like to see Nugent-Hopkins, Eberle, Hall and Gagner all working overtime on their faceoff skills, personally.

            Were I a player (dream a little dream), I’d be working furiously at this and shot blocking. Improving those two skills alone can extend the playing career of even the most average of talents.

            @Spydyr and DSF

            Sillinger was a beast in the circle, but that was also a different time and some of his tricks may be verboten now.

          • Yeah. Like letting a ripper go just as the ref drops the puck…

            Opponent: “Oh man, DUDE!”

            Nuuuuge: “Gotcha! He who smelt it dealt it sucker.” *Lasers an outlet pass to Hall cheating on the blueline*

            Opponent: “You sonofa…I’M TELLING!!!”

            Or something like that.

          • Bonvie

            Yeah hopefully Sillinger is working with our centers. I know it was not a coincidence that after Oates played with the Oilers in 2003 that he had a huge impact on the other centers on the team and over the next few years it became a strength for the Oilers. Horcoff, Stoll, and Reasoner were the benefactors all young centers who really excelled at faceoffs in the years to come. Looking at skilled centers Adam Oates was one of the best at taking draws.

    • Spydyr

      Or the Nuge might hit a rut in the ice fall into the boards funny .Hurt his shoulder.

      You can not stop players from playing for fear of injury,

      They can happen anyway, anywhere at anytime.

      Let the kids play.

  • Spydyr

    Hey J.W…valid issue and points made today.

    I am looking at the obvious here for the Oilers with having two matched forwards per PK and two very good defence pairs as well.

    I look at Eberle’s first ever NHL goal as a prime fact to justify what I read of your issue. Two yrs ago, the Oilers had him and Horcoff together to play out up front against Calgary and not only did Vandermeer pass up the puck to EWbs for the shorthand goal, it was the goal of the year.

    Of the PK, with this year of Smid and Schultz senior with each paired with say…Whitney or Petry to block shots and then be able to shuffle or fire up that breakout type pass as a threat to a matched pair of Horcoff and Ebs is awesome to gain that chance for another SH goal.

    It’s always very noticed and acknowledged that with an elite player of skill and speed on the PK, the opposing team backs off a bit more, being thus, a little more unsteady and less confident to pinch and so on.

    Why not then another paired set of Hall and Belanger for as PK#2 or #3, along with Jones/Petrell and Gagner.

    Krueger can still have RNH, Hemsky and Yakupov, Smyth always ready to go as skilled viable lineup starts after the penalty kill ended positively for the Oilers.

    What do ya think of this or anyone else ffor that matter?

    • Though speed is hardly a cure-all – Andrew Cogliano’s demonstrated that.

      Anyway, my approach would be:

      Horcoff – Smyth
      Belanger – Jones
      Petrell – Eberle

      There’s going to be attrition over the next couple of years as the vets leave – then the team can decide it if wants to work Hall/RNH into the rotation too down the line, and Eberle can move up if he does a good job.

  • B S

    I think the other concern with putting your skill players out there is blocking shots. How many of us wince when we see Hall sprawled out in front of a slapper, his face exposed like a rookie. The thing is we know he’ll do it, so will Eberle and RNH, so it is a legitimate concern.

    If I had to pick a player for the 3rd pairing with Petrell it would have to be Eberle. He has sound defensive awareness already (he was on the PK his first season), and he murders goalies one on one, plus it’ll give him extra ice time if he’s on the soft minutes line this season (15-18 minutes most of the games last season). I suspect Hall will eat the tough minutes, and that there will be plenty of those without sticking him on the PK.

  • dessert1111

    I would advocate for Eberle being the 6th PKer, and if halfway thru the season Petrell gets sent down and Pajaarvi comes up, I think Pajaarvi should perhaps even be a top 4 PK option, or at least a top 6 option to start. I’d love to see Eberle and Jones out there killing penalties together, make the other team’s blue stay on their toes in case of a SH goal, though of course only if those two can do well covering their first responsibility in that situation, keeping the puck out of the net.

    • B S

      They resigned Petrell for goodness sakes. With that kind of depth it’s never too soon to play Reider on the PK.

      @Spydyr: Shot blocking actively puts a player in harms way though, and I don’t think any of the kids have been trained to properly block shots. You can’t constantly worry about injuries, but I don’t think you should go looking for them, especially for your skill players.

      • Spydyr

        Apparently warm up also puts players actively in harms way too. Just look at Hall’s scar.

        Guess the other teams playing their best players on the PK are all wrong.

        Players play, players get hurt.

        Now think of Hall blocking the shot and it bounces past the defenseman.Off to the races.

        Or Eberle reads a play and picks off a pass then feeds a breaking Hall.

        • B S

          That was just a freak accident (like a surprising number of Oilers injuries over the last few years). To think of it another way: the kid got injured in practice for crying out loud, now your suggesting he stop 100 mph pieces of rubber with limited padding, we’ll be lucky if he lives through it.

          And its not that I think you should keep your best players off the PK (look at the Swedish Twins in the playoffs), I just believe that you should limit the risks involved to your yong player and the team (give Hall more practice at blocking shots, build up the defensive side of the game at evens for at least another season) rather than pushing them into the PK unprepared and cost the team wins and players.

          Smid blocks shots as well as anyone in the league, but he also gets injured. Smid relies on his experience pick his times and his conditioning over several seasons to tough it out if he gets injured. The Kids in the Hall have neither of these and, as it isn’t their primary role on the team, can be eased into this with training and practice, rather that getting thrown to the wolves.

  • RexLibris

    On a more serious note, I’ll be very interested to watch Yakupov’s game to see if there are elements that may lend itself to the penalty kill. His speed and shot are obviously assets that would very valuable in countering an opposing team’s aggressiveness. However, I also wonder whether he has the ability to read and anticipate the play from a defensive standpoint.

    If the Oilers were to have two potential forwards in their top six, Yakupov and Eberle, one of whom could take one or two late penalty-killing shifts per game it would free up ice time for the other in the first shift following the kill.

    Having this kind of excess of talent is a luxury I can’t remember another team in the league having in a very long time.

  • B S

    I would have Smyth/Horcoff and Belanger/Jones as the top two units and the for the last 20 or so seconds if you can sneak out at least one of the kids and maybe get an opportunity against a potentiall tired group of players. If Paajarvi makes the team, then I would like to see him get some PK time.

  • B S

    Near as I can tell, Belanger has been teaching them. RNH’s faceoffs went from 18% in the first quarter of the season to 38% for the whole season (for those of you who don’t know stats, that means he was better than 38% across the rest of the season). It’s also worth noting that Lander was in the low 40%s for his rookie season as well.

  • B S

    I feel there is room for one of the kids to be on the PK. And I think Eberle is that guy. Look at his Junior record for SH Goals. The guy sees the ice at an elite level as we have all witnessed over the years. I don’t think the Nuge or Hall are ready yet for the PK. Hall needs to work on his defensive play, RNH needs to improve his first few strides to quickly be in position when the play shifts in the defensive zone.

    Eberle – Horcoff
    Belanger – Petrell

    Petrell was resigned because of his great PK work. Let him get up to speed with the North American game at EV’s. He could be a great shot blocking defensive depth player in a year or two when we ate potentially contending.

    That is all for today.

  • B S

    1st. PK Unit: Smid – N.Schultz
    Horcoff – Jones

    2nd.Unit; Sutton – Petry
    Belanger – Smyth

    3rd.Unit: Smid – Whitney
    Horcoff – Eberle/Hall.

    4th.Unit N. Schultz – Sutton
    Belanger – Jones.

  • B S

    I read a tweet last night from Don Cherry(‘s handlers) that asked if guys like Brodeur, Selanne, etc would support a lockout/strike given this is likely their last year of their careers. Got me thinking that maybe a lockout would be a good thing for the Oilers? I assume if the year is cancelled players don’t lose a year of their contracts? If so, the Oilers don’t have any star veterans losing a year of their prime where as many teams do. Would be an interesting article topic, comparing teams and which ones have most to lose from a cancelled season.

  • If getting better at face-offs was as simple as being strong or quick or having someone teach you a bunch of tricks, everyone would be good at it.

    Being good at face-offs requires the same thing that getting good at taking a one timer takes… natural ability and lots of practice. And just like other skills, no matter how much you practice there’s almost always someone better for one reason or another.

    Some guys just do certain things better than others. Some guys see the puck a fraction of a second sooner and can adjust their stick so they are in a better position. Some guys spend hours studying every player in the league and how they take draws in certain situations. Other guys focus on the timing of the various linesmen.

    I mean yeah, guys can get better at face-offs, but it depends on how much time you want to dedicate to doing it.

  • I’m not sure what the advanced stats are relating PK face-off wins with GA, but I’d like to think that having a better draw % would reflect a better PK%. I’m a big fan of puck possession. Putting the kids on the PK is a good development idea, even if they’re slowly and causciously given a few minutes to start then run with things once they get more proficient at the job, plus I think we all agree having some offense on the PK is just smart, by both keeping the opposition on thier toes, and increasing the odds of potting a SHG; which are emotional crushers for the opposition.

  • Doesnt matter who they put out there,its the system that makes a sucessfull PK.

    Average NHL skillset combined with the ability to execute a superior system is the program.

    And we need a complete overhaul of our PK,the SH goal is becoming very important and we are very weak at integrating offense into our PK.

    This year we will have a new system,hopefully it can work more offense into those minutes of the game,those are critical minutes where you can get teams to let their guards down consistantly therefore there must be goal for comeing out of those minutes shorthanded or not.

    The NHS views those minutes as offensive opportunitys,because we can estimate the average numbers of minutes we will be playing SH we can expect to be required to initiate a substantial amount of offense out of those minutes,being a man down is irrellevant.

    In the NHS you NEVER surrender the puck voluntarily,ever,so there is NO dumping the puck out ever,as soon as we have possesion we are pushing to score a goal.Its all about seconds with the puck considered over 60 mins.

    As we dont know what system Krueger will use we cannot read to much into potential lineups or tactics.

    We need to put the best system dictated men on the PK,and only the coach knows what his system will require .We await the Kings State of the Union speech.