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Good Idea/Bad Idea: One Defenseman On the Penalty Kill

Sorry folks (folk’s), the lack of hockey means every idea that comes into my pretty little head about the sport will end up on this site, and today we’re going to look at one that I hold near and dear to my heart. That idea is reducing the number of defensemen on penalty to one, not none mind you, we’re still grounded in some reality, but I’m hoping to challenge the belief that has gone on for far too long that defensemen are vital to the penalty kill.

My Reasoning (or lack thereof)

The Roman Polak Factor

Roman Polak wasn’t a particularly good player last year, if you are looking at either his offensive or defensive abilities, but he managed the 6th highest amount of icetime on the penalty kill for the Leafs last season, 3rd most among defensemen. He was essentially a staple of the second unit without having the ability to skate. Similarly you could look at Ron Hainsey or Nikita Zaitsev, and identify that neither of these players had strong seasons last year either, but they were 1st and 4th on the Leafs for penalty kill ice time, and were the 1st and 2nd defensemen for icetime on the PK.

Interestingly, but not surprisingly these three defensemen accounted for being 1st (Zaitsev), 2nd (Hainsey), and 4th (Polak) in blocked shots when killing penalties (Zach Hyman was third.) When you look at the Leafs as a whole, Hainsey and Zaitsev are first and second in blocked shots on the Leafs, followed by Gardiner, Rielly, and then Polak.

When it comes to defensemen, Babcock was already purposely trotting out Polak on the PK over more skilled defensemen because they needed a rest, and at a time when your team is most desperate keep another team from scoring, there is a downgrade in talent being accepted, and in a way you are being penalized three times. First with the initial penalty putting you down a man, and secondly by the allowing the other team’s best scorers to go up against your worst player for part of that advantage, and finally the opposition didn’t have to face the Leafs talented defensemen, or forwards for that matter since Patrick Marleau was the only one of the Leafs 20+ goal scorers to see more than 30 minutes of total PK time throughout the season.

In short, if you want to have a bad defenseman on your penalty kill, the best option for a bad defenseman is a better forward. From the scouting reports I’ve seen, Par Lindholm is just as capable of icing a puck as Mark Fraser was.

I will say this again because it is pretty critical to this post…

Any player can ice the puck. Use players who can do other things too.

The Zach Hyman Factor

This could just as well be called the Connor Brown factor, but between Hyman and Brown, they represent the specialized penalty kill role in the forward group, and can be merrily trotted out with Hainsey and Zaitsev as staples of the penalty kill unit. The specialist role can help quarterback the penalty kill either by joining the defenseman as another lower zone option or by taking a centering type role in between the other forwards helping the defenseman control the middle of zone.

The Nazem Kadri Factor

With the departure of Dominic Moore, Tomas Plekanec, and Leo Komarov, it seems like the Leafs might be short of defensively capable forwards to step into this role, but the reality is, the Leafs have an even greater opportunity to bring skill into the fold on the penalty kill.

At center, the obvious potential addition is Nazem Kadri, who will be looking for more special teams time now that he’s been moved behind John Tavares in the center depth chart. Kadri has often been the center who draws the top line when Babcock line matches, and with that faith already in him to prevent offence, an increased penalty kill presence is a given at this point. Kadri also means adding a potential offensive threat to the mix, which Matt Cane of Hockey-Graphs.com found to be quite beneficial…

“PK aggressiveness shows a strong positive relationship with both shot generation and goal scoring on the penalty kill. On the other hand, the relationship with goals allowed is basically non-existent, while the correlation with CA60 is actually negative (meaning being more aggressive actually results in fewer shots against). Regardless of which metric you look at, the results seem to be pretty clear: playing more aggressively on the penalty kill will generally result in better outcomes for teams.”

I encourage everyone to read that full study, as it is largely the basis for what I’m asking for here.

In addition to Kadri, there is option to include Auston Matthews into the mix, although, I’d probably trot Kadri out more than Matthews in this situation. In the Roman Polak Factor I mentioned how a Leafs penalty not only brought Roman Polak onto the ice when the Leafs were down a man, but it took their best players off the ice when they needed them most, well it’s hard to imagine a better Leaf than Auston Matthews, and perhaps keeping him tethered to Zach Hyman, at least on the penalty kill, isn’t a bad thing.

The Kasperi Kapanen Factor


Kadri and Matthews are just the start of what could be added to penalty kill in the way of aggressiveness. Two-way minded speedsters like Kasperi Kapanen, Patrick Marleau, and possibly Andreas Johnsson could add a high speed scoring threat when teams are attempting to be aggressive, could get them playing a bit more reserved. Forcing a more conservative power play, and deterring cross ice passes out of fear of breakaway is helpful, some may even say its more helpful than whatever it is that people think Frederik Gauthier does.

What It Would Look Like

By design, it seems like the three forward approach would be best suited to a diamond penalty kill formation, and that’s probably the biggest argument against this for me, because Randy Carlyle has trained me to hate the diamond, but I think this idea is most likely to succeed using a wedge format, and using the built in aggressive of that approach with a few more offensive weapons that can burn the team with the man advantage.

In reality, I don’t see why this couldn’t be embraced in any format. Those of you who disagree with me on this think it will fail in any execution of it as well.

Let’s See Some Line Combos

PK Unit #1

Kapanen – Kadri – Brown
Hainsey

PK Unit #2

Marleau – Matthews – Hyman
Marincin

PK Unit #2 (More Conservative)
Hyman – Matthews
Gardiner – Marincin
(since most of our readers think Gardiner’s forward anyway)

I don’t think any of these are half bad.

Closing Thoughts

Look, I get it. I’m largely talking out of my ass here and think that this would be an exciting thing to implement and would help get the Leafs best players on the ice a lot more often, and they’ve got a lot of good players looking for ice time (note that Marner, Nylander, Tavares, and Rielly are still fresh and ready to go as soon as the PK is killed).

Along with supporting Matt Cane’s idea supporting aggressive penalty kills, I think the three forward model also embraces the important time management factor that Penalty Kill guru, Mike Fail highlighted in his early work on the Flames penalty kill…

To that end, it’s still important to keep in mind that the penalty kill still has a massive time management factor to it. The teams – both the penalty kill and the opponent’s powerplay – are managing elements like fatigue, shift length, time left on the clock, time left on the penalty, matchups, formation/time in formation, and so on.

Increased use of forwards allows for readily available or fourth options on the PK. Heck, you can have a more traditional Par Lindholm, Andreas Johnsson, Morgan Rielly, Nikita Zaitsev unit ready to go without reusing the guys I put in my earlier line combinations.

At the end of the day this idea is based in two fundamental philosophies

  1. “Sometimes the best defense is a good offence”
  2. When the opposition is in the best position to score, why are you not putting your best players on the ice?

For the Leafs their defensemen are not their best players, and this idea has merit. (At least in August.)

And yes, two forwards and one defenseman in 5 on 3 situations should be a given.

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  • Leefer16

    I have always liked the idea of 3 forwards on the PK but always get hung up on 2 points:
    a) if the PP gets the puck down low, how quickly can a forward get back there to help the Dman, if it takes more than 1 second, that will be too much time for the PP to find a hole and score.
    b) what skill set, equipment and abilities do Dmen have for handling players when the PP does get the puck down low? I’m thinking the ability to tie up sticks, upper body strength to physically move bodies out of the way, equipment to aid shot blocking, the desire to block a shot, skating backwards at high speed, etc.

    Would like to see this tested in the AHL.