Skilled Penalty Kill Forwards?

Gus Katsaros
The penalty kill as an offensive opportunity? Skilled players are being used on the penalty kill, and there's been an impact. Let's explore

Skilled Penalty Kill Forwards?

The penalty kill as an offensive opportunity? Skilled players are being used on the penalty kill, and there's been an impact. Let's explore

Finnish World Junior Champion golden goal scorer, Kasperi Kapanen hit the NHL scene in 2017-18, draped in blue and white silks of the Toronto Maple Leafs, applying his speed and first step acceleration to create turnovers with dogged determination. The result was a few scoring situations as a penalty killing forward, while emerging as a lethal offensive weapon. Suddenly, there was an offensive threat coming from the penalty kill.

The Arizona Coyotes scored more goals while a man down early in the season than even strength markers, and have the leading goal scorer over the last three seasons in Michael Grabner, courtesy of four markers already this season.

Brad Marchand, an agitating and aggravating character scored 10 goals over three seasons and has been a staple on the Bruins penalty kill ever since the last NHL lockout, and likely will be until the next lockout – but that’s another story.

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This isn’t strictly just a trend, skilled players as are becoming a vital component of a penalty killing unit. The offensive-oriented NHL has circumvented the requirement of ‘role players’ or implementing a philosophy of lower roster, rested players to kill off penalties. Maximizing asset value – and adding offensive elements strategically adds layers with a high reward (a potential goal) overriding a small risk of taking the chance to score that goal. Being dangerous in virtually every situation has led to teams using star talent to kill penalties.

Penalty killing systems are fairly universal, and properly strategized units should be able to drop any player into any situation. Slots should be interchangeable and allow for players to be randomly dropped into any slot, which brings forth the idea of using skilled players up front on the penalty kill. Skilled, speedy players are the kryptonite for explosive power plays because of the threat they pose upon a breakdown.

Teams killing penalties are likely to play more ‘defensive’, measured by low shot attempts and hallmark effectiveness, blocking shots. Modern defense encompasses steps and the process of retrieving pucks when not in possession, a good penalty kill should incorporate more than just getting into formation (actually the best PK Units don’t allow powerplay teams to set up in the defensive zone), passively blocking shots, protecting the house and relying on stellar goaltending.

Teams are using the powerplay drop pass through the neutral zone and that in itself contains points in which good penalty killing teams can expose. Turnovers and transition are key, and most powerplays now employ the four forward, one defenseman setup. Penalty killers that isolate forwards on forced turnovers high in the defensive zone, offer offensive opportunities while killing penalties. Suddenly, the edge goes to the penalty killer who can exploit their natural offensive skills, against an undeveloped forward’s skills as a defenseman.

The skill level of today’s NHL makes almost any name capable of creating scoring chances. Even lower roster players, can exploit forwards playing defense to find an advantage.

Power play units will have to become more mindful of the propensity of a skilled forward pouncing on a loose puck and going the other way. The NHL even shows some of the advancement of the penalty kill scoring and shot metrics.


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The TOI (time on ice), GF (goals for) and CF (Corsi For or shot attempts for) columns are summed values, while the remaining metrics are averages for each season. In the current season, players are creating 3.72 shot attempts from high danger scoring areas per 60 minutes, a season high since the last lockout. There’s a corresponding dip in MDCF/60 (mid-range) that can explain the increase in HD chances. More players are going harder to the net (or higher danger scoring areas if given the opportunity) instead of the traditional jump over the blue line and firing a low percentage shot.

More offensive chances from high danger scoring areas is also complimented by an increase in CF/60, at 15.47, also a league season high.

Not including games played last night (Tuesday January 8, 2019), the NHL leading goal scorer at 5v4 is Calgary’s Mark Jankowski on the Flames leading penalty killing, scoring 11 goals. Among defensemen, Calgary has four listed among the top 25, while providing five of the 11 shorthanded markers. No other NHL team has a defenseman with more than one goal.

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Four of the top 20 point leaders at 5v4 among forwards didn’t play any 4v5 minutes last season. The noticeable names are Carolina’s Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen, getting their feet wet killing penalties under new coach Rod Brindamour. The Rangers Vladislav Namestnikov and Mathieu Joseph round out the other two players, and aside from Joseph with all due respect, the other three were skilled players.

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The Toronto Maple Leafs have really exploited the skilled components on the penalty kill with scoring sensation, Mitch Marner seeing a considerate amount of ice time, after not seeing any last season.

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This trend will continue. The NHL is a copycat league, and if teams find some semblance of a strategical advantages, other coaches adopt and alter the ideas. It’s how we got the 1-3-1 as a power play formation and the neutral zone drop pass.

Using skilled forwards as penalty killers is an extension of this idea.

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