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My annual plea for a 3 forward/1 defenseman penalty kill

I’m going to start off by admitting I know I’m fighting a losing battle here. Ultimately I hope I will win the war but I’m pretty that’s years away from happening.

Last year I took my long held beliefs about the penalty kill public with this post (most of which I will be regurgitating in this one) and despite getting a few nodding heads from some of the more progressive internet hockey minds, the post was lost time and long time reader Mike Babcock never chose to implement my ideas, not even in a preseason setting.

On the chance that he was busy the day the post went up I’ve decided to rehash a number of the ideas below and share why the time is now for a great chance in the way penalties are killed.

Other than that, why bring it up again?

Oh yeah, the penalty kill wasn’t working. With the departures of Hainsey, Brown and Zaitsev the Leafs penalty kill has the chance for a radical makeover and hopefully an aggressive one.

The Reasoning for this

Well, there are a few reasons around why I favour this more aggressive attempt at penalty killing. The first is the most simple one. By taking a penalty, you have already put your team down one player. Teams then in addition to that have decided to frequently trot out some of their least effective offensive players for the next two minutes, essentially giving up any attempt at challenging the opposition, choosing to tread water instead. A minor penalty accounts for 3% of the total game time, and assuming that teams will take around 3 or 4 penalties a game, you are committing to 10%-13% of the game when you won’t be attempting to score and will allow for sustained pressure from your opposition. That seems like an awful lot to concede.

If you don’t want to here about the virtues of penalty kill aggressiveness from me, I suggest reading what Matt Cane, now of the New Jersey Devils wrote on the subject back in 2016...

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.

So the story is one of little risk to shots against, but with increased benefit to shots and goals for. It should be noted that Matt’s work is based off of the aggressiveness of two forward and two defensemen penalty kills as the three forward system is still a unicorn to say the least.

The second reason is one of wanting more of the best players. I touched on that a bit above by saying the bottom part of the roster tends to assume penalty kill responsibilities the same way that the top half of the roster assumes the power play work, but perhaps it’s possible to infuse more skill into the penalty kill to keep the opposition honest. The Leafs definitely had success with this philosophy with both Marner and Kapanen playing on the penalty kill through most of last season, I’m just suggesting expanding on that. Two of the forward positions on defensive zone coverage are always either going to be playing higher in the zone, or high and furthest from the puck, allowing for a more defensively inclined forward to assume some of the responsibilities that would be served by the second defenseman allows the other two forwards to be increasingly aggressive while theoretically that defensively inclined forward is still an offensive upgrade over Ron Hainsey or his modern day equivalent, Cody Ceci.

One of the fundamental pieces of this approach is based on a single principle, anyone can ice the puck. You don’t need to be a PK Specialist to figure out that grabbing a rebound and flinging the puck down the ice helps. Forwards are capable of pursuing pucks just as easily as defensemen, participate in puck battles just as successfully, and when the zone is required, forwards can be just as capable of assuming a position between two players rather than a tight man to man situation. Ideally, you will have someone of size who can help with keeping the net clear, and they will possess a willingness to block shots, but in reality that will fall largely on the defenseman, who for arguments sake we’ll refer to as Jake Muzzin or Cody Ceci.

It’s not entirely about scoring

Another recommended read on penalty killing comes from the brilliant Mike Pfeil. He has probably spent more time exploring the penalty than anyone should as a hobby, but has raised a strong outline of how being aggressive is not only important to generating additional chances, but can eat away at your oppositions opportunities:

Power Kill

• Taking a proactive approach to the penalty kill by attempting to counterattack regularly and
intelligently
• It’s not always about shot generation or goal generation, but an element of time management
• Why? Why not. Finding opportunities to move up ice, with possession, or into the attacking team’s
zone give teams a competitive advantage.
• The risk-reward element of play at 4v5 is often argued to be not worth it. Just do it, cowards.
• Power Killing relies heavily on trigger points, where an opportunity can be seized.
Stuff like bouncing/bobbled pucks on passes, forcing turnovers, and counterattacking on disrupted
zone entry attempts during the power play’s breakout.

Mike’s suggestion of having players who can carry the puck out and the time associated with that over dumping the puck out is important. Marner, Hyman, and Kapanen all demonstrated some success with this, as did some of the non-Hainsey/Zaitsev defensemen. Potentially including strong possession players like William Nylander in the penalty kill would only enhance this further.

Finding trigger points is key to the aggressive 3F/1D penalty kill, and not only do you potentially have skilled players who can take advantage of the opportunity out there, but you have some of your smartest players capable of generating those trigger points. The importance of forcing turnovers and counterattacking is critical, as is potentially relying on late period ice for things like bouncing pucks and slower ice for passes to take advantage of unforced errors. Skill guys capitalize, Cody Ceci ices the puck.

Applying it to the Leafs

The Traditional Defensive Role

The backbone of any penalty kill is a defensive defenseman who you can trust. This is pretty much Jake Muzzin defined, and the fact that he’s got a head on his shoulders that allows the Leafs to start out of their zone is a benefit that might not be afforded to the next two players I’m mentioning in this section. I should mention in my world there would potentially be three penalty killing units, two that map to my preferred 3F/1D approach, and one 2F/2D which would include a more aggressive defenseman instead of the additional forward. Where Jake Muzzin is an ideal option A, the secondary options of Cody Ceci and Martin Marincin (or Kevin Gravel depending on how training camp plays out) would be the defensemen for the next two units. They are shot blockers, guys who know how to clear the front of the net, have generally been trusted with tough defensive zone duties, and yes, they are all capable of icing the puck.

The Penalty Kill Specialist Forward

Last year this is where I chose to sing the praises of Zach Hyman, that beautiful forechecker who can skate and isn’t afraid to challenge the puck carrier. He’s an important part of my vision coming to life, and if it does I will send him an edible bouquet that is 100% free of honeydew melon.

In his absence these specialists forwards probably take the shape of Kasperi Kapanen (given his resume to date) and Trevor Moore (his game being remarkably similar to Hyman’s.) If I’m promoting the idea of this being a three unit system, I’d suggest that Nick Shore or Freddie Gauthier be the cannon fodder for the third unit. At the very least they introduce a strong defensive faceoff zone element and a likely fresh pair of legs since they’re going to be playing only eight minutes a night.

The Forwards

This is as close as it comes to an easy part in this process as the Leafs aren’t short on skill forwards. Mitch Marner, assuming he ever returns, is the favourite to resume this role, but arguably a possession monster like William Nylander will excel even beyond Mitch. Alex Kerfoot is certainly an option, as is Andreas Johnsson. I’d argue that Tavares and Matthews aren’t my first two choices because despite my own words, the idea of having your two stars rested coming out of a penalty kill still has some appeal to me. Players like Mikheyev and Spezza would be serviceable in this role as well, and the case can be made for them having fresher legs than the top six guys, though Spezza may lack the speed you’d want to pressure attackers and burn defenders. In short, the Leafs have options and it would come down to who can execute.

Hypothetically, here’s some penalty killing units:

Johnsson-Nylander-Kapanen
Muzzin

Mikheyev-Kerfoot-Moore
Ceci

Rielly-Shore-Spezza
Marincin

*all of these assume Marner and Hyman aren’t available to start

As you can see that first unit almost doubles as a solid powerplay unit, but the third unit is far more traditional with Rielly playing much more in a defensive role, since he is in fact a defenseman. I know most of you looking at these immediately hate them, so I’ll show you a first until with Hyman and Marner returned to make it look marginally more appealing

Mikheyev-Hyman-Marner
Muzzin

See, that doesn’t look so bad. That’s three well established penalty killers with a Russian wildcard. That’s much more tolerable.

Final Thoughts…

Somehow sharing line combinations always make things seem more ridiculous and I’m immediately regretting doing it, despite the fact I think a lot of these players would make for exciting 4v5 players. I’d also say that 3v5 the need for an extra forward becomes even more important assuming they got the speed, stamina, and hockey IQ to sustain pressure while a defenseman addresses the primary high danger threat.

Last year’s post had a solitary comment at the bottom, but I think it raised some interesting points…

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.

See, that’s the comment all comments should strive to be.

The first point is a big one, and that comes with identifying the pseudo defenseman on each unit. In my line examples that would probably be Kapanen, Moore, and Rielly. I’d hope the idea of having extra units would also mean in the event that one of the penalty killers is in the box, or out do to injury, there would be a chance to rely on two units very familiar with their responsibilities on the ice.

The second point is also fair. If you are trotting out forwards as potential shot blocking defensemen, are they going to need to start playing with skate guards, have they developed the skillset to effectively tie up a player without taking an additional holding or interference penalty, or are these more traditional tactics something that we will be sacrificing in favour of one defenseman executing those well, and the forwards making up for it through sustained pressure on the puck carrier and his pass outlets? I’m clearly arguing for the latter, but acknowledge the risk and learning curves involved in this approach.

Finally, the idea of testing it in the AHL makes a world of sense and hopefully Sheldon Keefe is giving this a read. I’ve always believe the AHL is a place where you should be willing to get weird with things, and it would frankly make the league a whole lot more interesting.

For now my only hope is that someday, somewhere, someone gives this a serious look.