In their last 13 road games, the Vancouver Canucks are 66% on the penalty kill. Yes, you read that correctly. Since giving up a power play goal to the Sabres in Buffalo to kick off a seven-game odyssey in early November, the Canucks have managed to successfully kill just 33 of the last 50 penalties they’ve taken.
Now, a 76% kill rate is abysmal at any level of organized hockey and is going to lead to losses. Knocking another 10 percent off that benchmark is unheard of. But that’s what it has come to for the Canucks these days after they surrendered three more goals and a whopping 13 shots on five Minnesota power plays last night. The Canucks might want to review some game film ahead of their next meeting with the Wild since Minny has run wild going 4/8 and generating 23 shots on goal on the power play the last two times the teams have met.
Starting with that game in Buffalo on November 7th, the Canucks have allowed 17 power plays in their past 13 road games. Incredibly, they’ve given up at least one power play marker in 12 of those 13 with the November 16th game in Montreal standing alone as the only time in the past six weeks the Canucks have emerged from a road game unscathed on the penalty kill. And when you’re a team struggling to generate offense as the Canucks are these days, you simply can’t be spotting your opponents at least a goal a game with the man-advantage. Everything tracks back to that Buffalo game right now and since that contest, the Canucks have just two wins in their past 13 road games (2-7-4).
For the season, the Canucks penalty kill has now dropped to 77.9% and sits 24th in the NHL. Remember this was the team with the second-best PK a year ago. But overall, the road penalty kill is at 72.6% and is 26th in the league ahead of only Nashville, Calgary, Buffalo and Carolina.
The crazy thing is that in five road games in October, the Canucks were a perfect 12 for 12 on the penalty kill. In related news, they were also 4-0-1 in their first five road games this season. Then Luca Sbisa got injured. Then Brandon Sutter went down and more recently it was Dan Hamhuis sidelined. So sure, the Canucks are missing some key pieces on the penalty kill, but the absence of those three — the first two in particular — shouldn’t lead to a complete collapse of the systems the team has used successfully in the past.
Now most nights a penalty killing unit gets torched the common refrain is that a team needed a save or two. And usually that’s an accurate statement. But I’m not sure it applied last night when the Wild had uncontested look after uncontested look against Ryan Miller who was the only reason the game didn’t turn into a repeat of the 9-1 drubbing the Canucks suffered in Anaheim two years ago.
So I’m giving the goalie a pass last night and I did a little digging to push the story a little further. I wanted to see who has been on the ice for all of these power play goals against on the road lately. Here are the results:
Alex Edler 10…Chris Tanev 8…Bo Horvat 7…Jannik Hansen 5 and then a group of players at 4: Alex Burrows, Chris Higgins, Adam Cracknell, Matt Bartkowski and Dan Hamhuis. Alex Biega has been on the ice for 3 PPGA, Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Derek Dorsett, Yannick Weber and Luca Sbisa are all at 2, with Ben Hutton, Brandon Prust and Brandon Sutter on for one each.
It’s no surprise that Edler and Tanev lead the way. They log more short-handed ice-time than any one else on the team and usually start the penalty kill against the other team’s top power play unit. Goals are going to be scored in those situations. Now that doesn’t let Edler and Tanev off the hook. Clearly the Canucks have to figure out ways to get them to do their jobs more effectively in those situations. And really without Sbisa and Hamhuis, the Canucks simply don’t have many options on defense beyond that top pairing.
But the team does have options up front. And it’s probably time to reduce Bo Horvat’s role in all of this. Last night in Minnesota, he simply looked lost on the penalty kill standing in no man’s land in front of the net, puck watching and doing little more than waving his stick as Wild players pumped in a pair of power play goals while he was on the ice . It’s obvious he’s struggling with his game and his confidence right now. And I understand the Canucks belief that he’s one of their best face-off options and thinking goes: win the draw, clear the puck and that’s half the battle. But last night, Horvat lost all three of the face-offs he took while short-handed and as a team the Canucks were just 33% (3/9) on penalty kill draws.
So this isn’t all on Bo Horvat. I wrote about him the other day and don’t want to look like I’m singling him out because he has plenty of company. But since this is a piece on a penalty kill that is getting torched right now, Horvat is certainly a big part of the mess the Canucks have created on the road of late. Among the team’s forwards, Horvat has played 71:07 this season short-handed. Jannik Hansen is a distant second at 53:31. The time has come to scale that back. Look at the list above and find a way to utilize others and ease the burden on Horvat. It’s just not working right now.
And that brings us to coaching and some of the decisions that are being made — or not being made. Special teams play is about systems and execution. The players have to get the job done on the ice, but they need a framework to operate and that’s on the coaches. And if the players being asked to do certain jobs aren’t getting those jobs done, then that falls on the coaching staff to make necessary adjustments. And when you’re killing penalties at 66% — I’d say it’s time for some of those adjustments.
And I’ll leave you with some good news — because that’s just the kind of guy I am — the final four opponents on the Canucks road trip all have power plays in the bottom half of the league. So this penalty killing thing ought to be a piece of cake.