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Eric Staal and the penalty kill

I've already gone over a few ways that the Hurricanes can improve their awful penalty kill and one thing I suggested is taking Eric Staal off the second unit. Staal is generally regarded as a solid two-way center and someone who can handle defensive minutes, but I have never thought that. While I don't think Staal is a liability in his own end, his defensive play has never stood out to me and he is usually one of the team's worst forwards in terms of chances against, both at even strength and on the penalty kill.

Staal's primary strength has always been his offense and his ability to dominate play along the boards, so I've always been in favor of taking him off the penalty kill in favor of a more defensive-minded center. The only problem is that the Hurricanes never had another center to anchor their second penalty kill unit and usually alternated between guys like Staal, Jokinen & Brent when the first unit needed a breather. You can argue that the latter two are better defensively and should have been killing penalties more often than Staal, but the Hurricanes captain does bring a lot of positives to the PK.

There are teams who exclusively use grinders on their PK, but a lot of coaches are going to use their best players in all situations regardless of how good or bad their defensive game is. For example, the Devils regularly used Ilya Kovalchuk on their penalty kill and teams like the Kings, Sharks, Blackhawks, Red Wings and Flyers also use their stars to kill penalties. The Caps even tried this with Alex Ovechkin last season. Great players should be able to perform in every area of the game, so it wouldn't surprise if me if players like Jeff Carter, Zach Parise, Patrick Marleau and Claude Giroux are among the best penalty killers on their respective teams. 

Is this the case with Staal, though? Going from strictly a defensive standpoint, no but there is more to penalty killing than just that. Since you're playing a man down it is very, very difficult to get any sort of territorial game going and most teams will play a collapsing defense on the PK because of it. However, those who can create offense while playing shorthanded are extremely valuable and this is something that Staal has been very good at over his career.

The Hurricanes PK can be a little Jekyl/Hyde depending on which unit is out there and they play a very aggressive/high-risk style with the Eric Staal/Alexander Semin duo on the ice. Instead of collapsing and going down to block shots, these two are always on the puck and will try to go the other way when they get a chance to do so. This style of penalty killing doesn't suit well with a lot of coaches, but it can be very effective when it works. The New Jersey Devils in particular had a lot of success with this the last two years, as they usually lead the league in shorthanded goals and are very good at preventing shots while shorthanded.

Unfortunately, the same can't be said for the Hurricanes, who have been among one of the worst teams in the league at preventing shots on the PK, but Staal & Semin aren't part of the problem going by the stats. They gave up fewer 4v5 shots on goal when these two were on the ice than almost every other regular penalty killing forward on the team. These two have also posted positive Corsi Rel. rates on the penalty kill in most recent seasons, showing that their respective teams have been doing a better job of controlling the play with them on the ice than the rest compared to their teammates.

The idea of controlling the play and creating chances on the PK might sound ridiculous because the primary focus should be to defend, but sometimes the best offense is more effective than the best defense. Rather than blocking shots and allowing the other team to have the puck for the entire time, I would rather have a penalty kill that constantly makes the opponents chase the puck or, even better, forces them to defend. Granted, this is hard to do while playing down a man, but making teams play in their own zone is what wins you more games than not so teams who can pull it off are some of the best.

The Hurricanes aren't nearly at that point yet, but the rest of the penalty killers can learn something from the Staal & Semin duo because they do a lot of things to wear opponents down on the PK. It all starts from being aggressive on the PK and not allowing teams to enter the zone, much like Staal did against Washington here.

Here we see Washington forward Nicklas Backstrom attempt to carry the puck in and the Hurricanes appear to be giving him the blue-line so that he can enter the zone clearly. Or are they?

Just as Backstrom enters the zone, Staal steps up on Backstrom with a solid check and tries to knock the puck away from him. The Canes have good support here with two defensemen and another forward all in the vicinity, so they have plenty of guys who can retrieve the puck if needed.

Staal is successful in preventing Backstrom from entering the zone cleanly and all he has to do now is retrieve the puck and clear it to make the Caps set up another play. He has other things in mind, though.

Instead of clearing the puck, Staal sends it back to defenseman, Joe Corvo. One might think it's because Corvo has a better chance of successfully clearing the puck, but by doing this, Staal also draws the attention of three Washington players while Semin is ready to start a break the other way.

With the Washington point-man (Mike Green) watching the puck and the rest of the forwards caught deep, both Semin and Staal are free to start a shorthanded breakaway and all Corvo has to do is hit one of them with a stretch pass to make it happen.

It ends up being successful and the Canes get a shorthanded 2-on-0 chance. It didn't result in a goal, but they effectively drained about 20-30 seconds of power play time off the clock and created a chance while they were at it. This all started with Staal being aggressive at the blue-line and not allowing Backstrom to enter the zone. Staal does this a lot on the PK and when you couple that with Semin's speed and play-making skills, it makes them a pretty dangerous unit while playing shorthanded. The only problem is that they were on the ice for a lot of high-quality chances against and that sort of comes with the territory with their high-risk style.

This shorthanded goal against Toronto provides another good example of that.

We see a different situation here, as the Leafs have already gained the zone and have had enough time to set up a potential scoring chance. Fortunately for the Hurricanes, Cody Franson's (#4) shot went off the post despite Staal's best attempt to block it.

The rebound drifts to the corner and the first guy to jump on it is Carolina's Alexander Semin. This should set up a potential clear, which is probably the best move after almost giving up a goal, but Semin has other things in mind.

If you look on the far left side of the picture, you'll see that Staal is already in the neutral zone and has a potential breakaway because he managed to slip by Franson unnoticed. Semin recognizes this and tries to hit him with a stretch pass. Does it work? There are three Leaf players in the picture, but they are too far away to do anything so the worst case scenario here is that he misses the pass and kills time off the Toronto power play.

Semin waits a little before delivering the pass and is able to hit Staal onside for a breakaway chance.

Staal scores and the Hurricanes are right back in a game that could have been 3-0 a few seconds ago. This play was risky by Staal, but he showed good awareness by noticing that Semin was the only player close to getting to the rebound on Franson's shot. So if he was going to create a shorthanded chance, this was as good of an opportunity as any. However if Semin turned the puck over or made a poor pass, then this could have been a disaster because Staal was too far out of the picture by then. It's high-risk but the reward the Hurricanes got out of it was worth it. 

There is a time and a place for being aggressive on the penalty kill and I think Staal is still learning that because he has played this type of game for his entire career. He usually tries to make an outlet pass on the penalty kill or try to start a shorthanded break instead of making the safe play and clear the puck. This didn't work out as much in the past, but he has never played with someone like Semin before either, which should make huge difference in future seasons.

With this in mind, it's probably fair to say that Semin is underutilized on the PK and the rest of the team could really benefit from taking a page out of Staal's book. There are going to be a few breakdowns & they WILL give up chances, but it could end up being a net gain if they can decrease the amount of total time they spend in their own zone. Plus, it wouldn't be a bad idea to try something new with how bad the Hurricanes PK has been in recent years.

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