Sharks' Ryan Warsofsky shares what makes team's penalty killers special
Sharks' Warsofsky shares what makes team's PK so special originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea
Editor's Note: Sheng Peng will be a regular contributor to NBC Sports California’s Sharks coverage. You can read more of his coverage on San Jose Hockey Now, listen to him on the San Jose Hockey Now Podcast, and follow him on Twitter at @Sheng_Peng.
You can blame me.
On Dec. 2, the Sharks’ penalty kill was killing penalties at a historic rate. As of that Friday, they were killing at a league-leading 91.6 percent rate. Since that stat has been tracked since the 1977-78 NHL season, no PK ever had topped 90 percent by the end of the season, with the 2011-12 New Jersey Devils coming closest at 89.6.
That day, after practice in Ottawa, I spoke with first-year assistant coach Ryan Warsofsky and PK stalwarts Logan Couture and Marc-Edouard Vlasic about the Sharks’ PK success. Warsofsky runs the San Jose kill and has put his touch on the NHL’s second-best unit last season.
“For forwards, for us on top, there's a cut-off point where we pressure down in zone, and that's different," Couture explained. "Last year, we would pressure all the way down to the goal line. Now, we stop at the hash marks and pass it off to the d-men. The neutral zone changed a little bit. The stands [at the blueline] are a little different now. Teams come with a lot of speed, we kind of morphed into a 3-1 instead of the 1-3 stand.
“Everything else has kind of stayed the exact same.”
The next night, the Sharks gave up three power play goals to the Ottawa Senators in a 5-2 loss. The following game, the Sharks gave up two power play goals to the Buffalo Sabres in a 6-3 defeat. The next game, the Sharks gave up two power play goals to the Vancouver Canucks in a 6-5 OT loss.
Since then, the Sharks' PK has stabilized, though they’re not killing at a record-breaking pace anymore. But the second-ranked kill (83.9 percent) has remained a strength, perhaps the most reliable thing about this 17-29-11 squad.
Besides Kaapo Kahkonen’s play, the 7-for-7 kill was the highlight of the Sharks’ 2-1 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday night.
So it’s high time to give some shine to those penalty killers who do the “low” work. It’s a thankless job, but somebody’s got to do it, and the Sharks have many players who do it well.
Warsofsky told us then what each primary penalty killer – Nick Bonino, Matt Nieto, Logan Couture, Luke Kunin, Nico Sturm, Steven Lorentz, Mario Ferraro, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Matt Benning, Jaycob Megna, and Radim Simek – does particularly well.
Shout out in particular to Couture and Vlasic, who have been stalwarts on strong Sharks PKs going all the way back to the Todd McLellan era. Over the last decade, since 2012-13, the Sharks have the third-best penalty kill in the NHL.
“I know when he goes out there, he takes pride in shutting down the best players, and that's what I do,” Vlasic said of he and Couture.
Of course, a lot has changed on the Sharks since I spoke with Warsofsky on Dec. 2. Nieto and Megna have been traded, while Kunin has been felled by a season-ending injury.
But regardless, the blue-collar workers and their teamwork are worth celebrating.
“We want to have a thought process on what shot we're giving up. And we want to have also a thought process, make sure we're all on the same page when we do hit our pressure points. Can't just be one guy because then the other three guys are sitting there and not being able to do their job,” Warsofsky shared. “So I think the biggest thing is everyone has a job to do on it. And it takes sacrifice, and it takes the blue-collar work ethic that a lot of these guys have and have been good at it for years. Nick Bonino, Nico, Kunin, Cooch, they have high hockey sense that can pick up the finer details of the penalty kill.”
Here are Warsofsky’s thoughts about his individual PK’ers:
“I think one thing that surprised me, his hockey sense is extremely high.
“He recovers, if there is a mistake. If there's a bumper play that he needs to get a stick on it, he's got a great stick. He's really good at his flushes and down ice pressure. Reading situations within the penalty kill that come up.
“Whether it's a bounce here or there that you'd have to recover quickly to, he's in the right spot. Him and Niets have been really good for us.”
“He's smart. Really good hockey sense. Obviously, speed is really good. He knows what his job is in certain situations, and he doesn't have to think too much, he can react. Him and Cooch have been great together.”
“I think he's been great this year, especially on the penalty kill. He's blocking some more shots. I think he's getting bigger and making himself bigger coming out in those flanks, which we do a lot with our defensemen.
“Taking up more space, he's done a really good job. It's something we do a lot with our defensemen. He's been really good at that and anticipating pucks.
“He's obviously a smart player, he's been playing this game for a long time and he understands what we're doing. He's extremely coachable.”
“He's a pitbull down there. He goes, he's aggressive, he wants to jump, he's not afraid to put his body in the line of a shot. I think he's been really good.
“I think there's some finer details he needs to clean up, but again, another guy who takes pride in the penalty kill.
“When we give up a goal, they're upset about it, and that's what you want. You want that competitive nature, and Mario is really good at setting that tone.”
“Bones obviously has done it for a long time.
“He's a shot blocker, he wants to block the shot which is important, you need that. His flushes have been good. I think he's gotten better with his stick in certain situations. Obviously good on draws and helps us that way.
“He probably leads the charge in how we want to block shots, along with Luke and that second pair that comes out next.”
What Are Flushes?
“We're a big flush team, as you can see.
“You have the puck on the half wall, I want to push you down to the defensemen.
“We want to push them down. I think you need pace and speed on it. At times, that probably gets us in trouble when we don't have the pace that we need. I think our guys have done a pretty good job picking up the pace of the flush and the angle you need to take.”
“Luke's done a really good job picking [our PK] up. And again, he cares about it. He's always asking questions. Wants to see more video, wants to work on it. You need that. When guys take pride, it's kind of contagious to the whole group.”
“Benny's been great.
“He blocks that shot in Montreal [on Nov. 29], it's 1-0 on a 5-on-3. That saves the game. That's a game-changing play. He's a warrior. He does whatever you ask.”
“He's got that long reach, which I think is huge. He obviously was really good last year on the penalty kill.
“He gives us another element of a guy with a really long stick that disrupts passing lanes. He's obviously a big body that can block shots. He's good at anticipating pucks, he's good at clearing pucks.
“So I think he's been really good as that second pair to come out after, whether that's Benny or Pickles or Ferraro.”
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“Nico's been good, he's got a long stick.
“Obviously, was good in Colorado on the penalty kill. I think he was the first over the boards there at times in the playoffs.
“A little bit different system that they ran, but he's a guy that's got a good motor. Well-conditioned athlete that can go pressure down ice, got a long stick.”
“Lory's been good, another guy like Nico, he's got that long stick that you can recover quick. Good first step, and he knows what we're doing because we ran a very similar system back in Charlotte.”
“He's really good at defending the entry. His gap is good, he's got a good stick, he can recover quick, because of his skating.
“I'd love to get him killing a little bit more because I think he's got the mold for being a really good penalty killer in the NHL.
“He's been really good for us. When he gets out there, it's similar to Mario in a way with his pitbull mentality. He goes and he's aggressive, and that's what you need.”