Should Kuznetsov and other star forwards kill penalties?

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<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nhl/teams/was" data-ylk="slk:Washington Capitals">Washington Capitals</a> center <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nhl/players/4986/" data-ylk="slk:Evgeny Kuznetsov">Evgeny Kuznetsov</a> has never shown much defensive acumen, but he might be a penalty killer soon. (Nick Wass/AP)
Washington Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov has never shown much defensive acumen, but he might be a penalty killer soon. (Nick Wass/AP)

The Washington Capitals, perhaps understandably, say they aren’t going to make many changes to the way they approach the game this season.

The one big change Todd Rierden is going to make, however, seems to be on the penalty kill. Instead of being relatively passive — and giving up the 11th-most power play goals against in the league — they’re going to turn up the aggression and try to get more pressure in passing lanes.

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That, apparently, includes shuffling the PK personnel to include Evgeny Kuznetsov, who can’t win a draw to save his life and doesn’t seem to be particularly good defensively. Or at least, he’s hardly ever used in defensive roles so you can take from that whatever inferences you like. Usually if the Caps need a 200-foot center for any given situation, they will instead turn to Nick Backstrom, and for good reason.

But the Caps seem intent on at least trying Kuznetsov out this season, with the idea apparently being that using a player with his skill level, speed, and hockey sense creates the potential to generate more shorthanded scoring chances and, at least, give the other teams something to think about. After all, you hear all the time that power plays fail because teams try to make one too many passes or “get too cute,” so it stands to reason that if the threat of giving up chances and goals forces them to start having to make that kind of pass, there’s a value in deploying a higher-end guy there.

The Caps’ big PK guys last season in terms of minutes per game were Jay Beagle, Lars Eller, Tom Wilson, and Alex Chiasson, in that order. They were the only ones to get at least a minute of time on the kill per game, though both Devante Smith-Pelly and Backstrom checked in north of 55 seconds.

That last one is the interesting one, of course, because Backstrom’s most common teammate on the PK last season was TJ Oshie. That begins to approximate the theoretical idea Rierden would be bringing to the table with Kuznetsov as a regular penalty killer (after playing just 4:40 in that situation all season). While neither of those guys are driving the bus for the Caps offensively, they are both high-end skill guys who can put the puck in the net.

When Oshie and Backstrom were out there on the kill together last season, albeit in what would be a limited sample by any reasonable definition, the Caps gave up only slightly more shot attempts per 60 than when someone else was killing penalties (about two extra per hour, which isn’t a huge deal), but the number of attempts they generated was up more than 50 percent (from 12 to almost 19). They didn’t score together on the PK, and actually generated slightly fewer scoring chances than the rest of the team, but that’s not what you’d expect if they played more than 48 minutes and change together, right?

Of course, it’s not common for teams to run their very best forwards out on the PK all that often. LA does it with Anze Kopitar and Boston does it with both Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, but a quick look at the PK TOI leaders for the whole league doesn’t turn up a lot of elite talents. In fact, Bergeron and Marchand played fewer PK minutes per game last season than Riley Nash and Tim Schaller. Likewise, Vince Trocheck and Sasha Barkov were both in the top 76 in PK TOI per game this season, but behind top-20 guys Colton Sceviour and Derek MacKenzie.

We think of Connor McDavid as being the kind of guy who does more than his fair share of penalty killing, but he was actually fifth on the Oilers in PK time per game last year.

You can argue that, hey, the Oilers’ PK was horrendous last season, because it was, and you might be better off taking minutes away from Iiro Pakarinen or Zack freakin’ Kassian and giving them to a guy like McDavid. The Oilers’ best PK numbers came when McDavid and Draisaitl were on the ice; they scored a ton more than their counterparts, which you’d expect, took more shots, generated more quality looks (the Oilers had almost nine more scoring chances per hour when McDavid was on the ice for the kill), etc.

So the question becomes whether teams are right to stick with the old model of just taking your kinda-crappy forwards who specialize in this sort of defensive play, or with innovating a bit and trying to find ways to stay dangerous rather than shelling up. It’s an interesting question especially because there’s a greater risk of injury on the PK than at any other point in the game, at least anecdotally. Do you want to risk McDavid breaking his foot blocking a shot? Or, I guess, do you tell him to get the hell out of the way of any point shot the other team tries to take? Part of the reason teams run out their bottom-six forwards on the PK — and probably how those guys develop their rep for being “good defensively” — is because this is a low-scoring, higher-injury situation anyway so you might as well not risk star talents doing it.

It’s important to challenge all aspects of conventional wisdom in this (or any) sport, so the idea that forwards we think of as being primarily offense-first or even offense-only — Kuznetsovs and McDavids and Kucherovs and Gaudreaus — should get more run-out on the PK makes a bit of sense just to see where it gets you.

The underlying numbers seem to indicate the trade-off is a little more injury risk and a few more attempts against per hour in exchange for a lot more offense. On the surface, this seems like a reasonable place to think outside the box, but the number of minutes a guy can play in a given night is finite. The question, then, becomes whether the extra 30 or 40 seconds Kuznetsov would play on the kill comes on top of the somehow-less-than-19 he played last season, or in exchange for a shift or two on at full strength or on the power play.

Star players’ job is to put the puck in the net because every goal they score pushes you significantly closer to an assured win. Every extra second spent in the offensive zone, is one the other team doesn’t spend in theirs. And if you’re spending the PK either mostly in your own end or hauling ass up the ice, that’s more physically draining than when you have the puck, it’s likely those minutes could be better allocated to guys who aren’t playing as much to begin with.

Being a coach is, at the end of the day, about wringing as much value as possible from every player on the roster. For the most talented players, it’s probably easier to add value by scoring goals than by preventing them. The number of theoretical goals you get by having Kuznetsov on your first PK unit is not outweighed by the decline in scoring if he’s playing fewer power play minutes.

Now, I’m of the opinion that star players could probably stand to get more minutes than they currently do but if that’s a condition that isn’t going to change, I think the current setup — many star players tend to play second-unit minutes — works just fine. It gets them out there against lower-end talent (especially when coaches have the option of line-matching at home) without significantly affecting their minutes in times when they have a higher chance of scoring overall.

So I’m all for Kuznetsov getting more PK time if it’s added to the 18:49 he got last year, but if you’re taking a point-a-game guy off the ice at 5-on-5 or, god forbid, the power play, that’s a straight-up bad idea.

What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: Veteran core” is one way to put having an entire roster of guys who are 34 years old.

Arizona Coyotes: Interesting fact: This is the 100,000th September in a row this exact headline was written about Coyotes

Boston Bruins: Brad Marchand on being booed during the shootout in Shenzen: “Ah, that’s OK. I scored.” My man is back!

Buffalo Sabres: Fun to remember Jason Pominville is somehow still in the NHL. Dude’s gotta be pushing 50. *looks it up* *sees he’s two months older than me* Ah cool I can still make this joke. He’s old, folks!!!

Calgary Flames: Derek Ryan got a lot of praise in that Shenzen game and it felt an awful lot like everyone gearing up to overrate him all season.

Carolina Hurricanes: This is a big reason why I think it’s weird for the team to be named the Hurricanes because hurricanes literally kill people in North Carolina not-infrequently.

Chicago: Man, it’s Sept. 17. Come on.

Colorado Avalanche: The jersey itself stinks but the Rockies logo should just be the Avs’ primary logo.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Well if Joonas Korpisalo “isn’t the future in goal” then you might wanna sign Bobrovsky ASAP, huh?

Dallas Stars: New coach Jim Montgomery on Miro Heiskanen’s skating: “Oh, Heiskanen, Jesus. Can he ever skate? I mean, the one time he got the puck on the pass from Spezza on the two-on-one and I actually thought he was actually supposed to be the defenseman defending it he was so far up the ice.” Hell yeah dude let’s goooo.

Detroit Red Wings: Well kid, great news, a forward spot just opened up for you to get more minutes.

Edmonton Oilers: Spoiler alert: They’re gonna waste another year of Connor McDavid.

Florida Panthers: Barkov might be one of those few, real “the sky’s the limit” players. Vince Trocheck says he’s in the same category as Crosby and McDavid and that’s absurd, but he’s an elite center the likes of which you rarely see in this league.

Los Angeles Kings: Oh my god am I gonna have to hear about this nonsense all year?

Minnesota Wild: It sucks but I really can’t see this going well for them. This is an aggressively slightly-better-than-mediocre team and has been since the Suter/Parise signings. It’s what you sign up for when you spend big money on guys who were never elite at their positions. (And before you all yell at me, was Suter ever in his career a top-five defenseman? I’d say no. Thanks.)

Montreal Canadiens: Man, imagine being Karl Alzner and realizing you signed up for this? Woof.

Nashville Predators: Well, that’s it for me with these guys. See you in hell, dirtbags.

New Jersey Devils: I gotta say: Don’t hold your breath on this one.

New York Islanders: Another insanely old guy to guide the franchise? This’ll fix everything.

New York Rangers: Henrik Lundqvist is just saying really smart things about rebuilding under a new coach here. His approach is the only reasonable one.

Ottawa Senators: The Senators are selling hope? What planet is the Citizen Editorial Board living on? Everyone hates this team.

Philadelphia Flyers: Not sure how you think Chris Therien being off TV makes the broadcast better but also keep Keith Jones. Insane to me.

Pittsburgh Penguins: And that’s why you don’t have full-contact scrimmages.

San Jose Sharks: Another great upside to Karlsson being a Shark is that no one is ever allowed to say when they accurately point out that he is the best defenseman alive. He’s in the same timezone as the Kings! Owned.

St. Louis Blue: If Vladimir Tarasenko on a mission to score more goals than he did last year, he’s gonna take about six shots a night. Look out.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Man what’s up with Jake Dotchin? Unconditional waivers for material breach of contract,” maybe for being insanely out of shape. Strange situation, but the NHLPA basically has to file like 40 grievances for this.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Patrick Marleau turned 39 this weekend and somehow seems to be getting faster. That’s what it takes to succeed in the league today, so good for him.

Vancouver Canucks: Thatcher Demko likes doing homework. What a nerd.

Vegas Golden Knights: Brandon Pirri as “fringe NHLer” sounds just about right, no?

Washington Capitals: A true shot across the Hurricanes’ bow.

Winnipeg Jets: Tyler Myers never really worked out as a particularly good NHLer, eh? Well that’s life.

Gold Star Award

Hockey is back, hugs and kisses to hockey, I love it.

Minus of the Weekend

Too bad no one is allowed to root for the Predators anymore this season. Was gonna be a fun team but now I hope they go 0-82 and don’t score a single goal all year.

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Week

User “Neutrinos” is looking for a reaction (and that’s a phenomenal joke).

Oilers get: Duchene, Stone (Wideman and/or Borowieki could also be added)

Sens get: Puljujarvi, Nurse, Bouchard, Lucic

Signoff

Get out. What do they call it?

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

(All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.)

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