Inside Carolina’s Special teams Woes: The Penalty Kill

The other day, I went inside the numbers of the Hurricanes power play to see what the root of the problem was and determined that it wasn't nearly as bad as their 14.6% efficiency rating indicated. The power play had its issues, but they were creating chances pretty frequently and can probably rebound next year with a couple of personnel improvements and system tweaks. The penalty kill is a different story. 

Carolina's penalty kill was in the bottom-five in the league in terms of PK percentage, but their performance was much worse than that. When you look at the number of shots the Hurricanes gave up on the PK, they actually ranked at the bottom of the NHL. Most teams are going to give up shots and chances while playing with a man down because that's what the situation dictates, but the Hurricanes seemed like they were in a league of their own when it came to their ineptness on the PK.

Since 2007, there have been only two teams who were worse at preventing shots while playing 4-on-5. That alone is troubling. What's even more concerning is that this isn't the first time in recent history that the Hurricanes penalty kill has been notably awful.

Team Year PK/SA
PHX 2011 61.4
EDM 2009 59.4
CAR 2013 59.3
FLA 2009 59.1
WSH 2013 59
L.A 2008 58.9
CAR 2011 57.5
ANA 2010 57.5
FLA 2010 57.1
NYI 2010 56.7

According to Behind the Net, the Hurricanes have had two of the worst penalty kills over the last six years. That is troubling to say the very least. The Canes have made improvements in other areas, but there hasn't been a ton of progress with rebuilding the defense and their performance on the penalty kill is an testament to that. I've mentioned that the team's even strength defense improved this year in terms of territorial play (i.e. only defending 45% of the time), but that doesn't matter on the PK when you are forced to play in your own zone.  This is where special teams can really help or hurt you. 

A mediocre even strength team can be boosted by a great power play and/or a great penalty kill, especially in a shortened season. Likewise, a good even strength club can be brought down by awful special teams and the Hurricanes penalty kill was remarkably bad last season. What exactly was so bad about it, though? We'll answer those questions after the jump.

Seeing how Carolina has been through two coaches since 2010 and 2013, I'm inclined to believe that their issues on the penalty kill are more related to personnel issues rather than the system. The Canes have cycled through different players during that time, as well but much of the core has remained the same, so I think the players could be part of the problem. The only major change made from then and now was replacing Brandon Sutter with Jordan Staal as the team's primary penalty killing forward while everything else has been relatively minor. Replacing Bryan Allen with Joe Corvo and Justin Faulk is obviously a defensive downgrade, but the penalty kill was still bad when Allen was with the team, so I don't think retaining him would have solved much.

As far as last year goes, the Hurricanes did not have many shutdown options on their blue-line and that led to them getting torched on the PK. Outside of Tim Gleason & maybe Jay Harrison, the Hurricanes don't really have many true defensive defensemen in their defense corps, which made rounding out both penalty kill units a chore for the coaching staff. Justin Faulk's emergence as a shutdown defenseman last year should have helped ease the process, but they still needed additional help.

The thing with the Hurricanes last year is that they had players who could kill penalties, but not many who excelled in this area. Beyond Jordan Staal and Patrick Dwyer, they don't have a lot of terrific defensive forwards and most of their stronger defensemen struggled when they were matched up against quick forwards. That's usually a recipe for disaster for any penalty kill. Adding to that, they didn't really have a consistent second penalty kill unit to help take pressure off the likes of Staal, Dwyer, Gleason & Faulk. The coaching staff seemed to cycle through a few different players throughout the year and couldn't settle on anything until late in the year. GM Jim Rutherford stated after the season ended that he would like to add a forward "whose pride and joy is killing penalties" and I can only assume that he wants someone who can play on the first unit so that Dwyer isn't leaned on as much. 

Carolina hasn't made that much noise this off-season, but they did add some help to the penalty kill by signing Mike Komisarek and drafting Elias Lindholm in the first round and both could be an upgrade over what they had last year. Although, that isn't saying much because when you look at how many chances they were giving up on the PK last year, it's hard to imagine anyone not being an upgrade.

Player SH TOI SH SCA SH SCA/2min PK GA Conversion%
Joe Corvo 29.07 11 0.757 3 27.3%
Tim Wallace 26.23 11 0.839 4 36.4%
Jiri Tlusty 47.42 23 0.97 8 34.8%
Jussi Jokinen 48.75 24 0.985 7 29.2%
Jordan Staal 99.95 52 1.041 12 23.1%
Team Average 247.1 130 1.052 36 27.7%
Bobby Sanguinetti 40.98 23 1.122 3 13.0%
Patrick Dwyer 97.93 55 1.123 14 25.5%
Tim Gleason 113 64 1.133 18 28.1%
Alex Semin 34.95 20 1.144 3 15.0%
Jamie McBain 30.13 18 1.195 8 44.4%
Joni Pitkanen 35.15 22 1.252 6 27.3%
Eric Staal 55.7 36 1.293 6 16.7%
Jay Harrison 98.28 66 1.343 16 24.2%
Justin Faulk 106.8 72 1.349 14 19.4%
Tim Brent 21.8 21 1.927 7 33.3%

The most troubling thing about this? All of the most relied on penalty killers performed well below the team average this year. I mentioned that the Hurricanes second unit had some issues this year and while that is the case with players like Eric Staal & Tim Brent, the fact that guys like Faulk & Harrison struggled so much on the PK is very concerning because those are the players who are expected to do the bulk of the work. Gleason and Dwyer also finished below the team average and were on the ice for a lot of goals against. Their high conversion rates suggest that they may have gotten a bit unlucky, but their performance on the penalty kill was sub-par to say the very least.

The only regular penalty killer who performed above the team average was Jordan Staal, which is a good sign but some of the other heavy-lifters need to pick it up. The rest of the team's stronger penalty killers were guys who were either used on the second unit (Tlusty, Jokinen) or guys who were used sparingly (Corvo, Wallace). This is why adding another penalty kill specialist could go a long way. I'm not sure if Komisarek is that guy, but he was able to log big minutes on the PK in past years so at the very least, he can take pressure off Harrison, Faulk & Gleason. That and he will be able to be used more in that role than Corvo & McBain were last season.

Another thing the team could do is use Tlusty more on the penalty kill because he did pretty good job of preventing scoring chances last season. I would expect the Hurricanes to sign another forward within the next couple of months but even if someone else is brought in, using Tlusty in a bigger role on the PK might be a chance worth taking. His numbers might be inflated by the fact that he played on the second unit, but the same can be said for Semin, E. Staal and Brent and they performed much worse. Speaking of which, I'd also look for another center to take over Staal's role on the second penalty kill unit last year. Whether that someone is Lindholm, Nash or a free agent remains to be seen, but Staal has not been a good penalty killer for years and he might benefit from being used in an offensive role. 

The personnel issues are only part of the problem, though because a recurring theme I noticed with the Hurricanes PK is the team committing brutal mental mistakes that often resulted in goals for the opposition. I don't know how much of this relates to the players and how much of it is the system, but it's something that plagued the team throughout last year. The game moves fast and some players often forget fundamental things during a high-pressure situation and it seemed to happen to the Hurricanes more than other teams. A perfect example of this came in a game against Winnipeg late in the season.

Here we see the Jets setting up their power play after the Hurricanes created a short-handed chance. The power play is in the dying seconds, so they have to act quickly, but they were able to gain the zone cleanly and forward Blake Wheeler (guy with the puck) has plenty of time to set up a quick passing play if all goes according to plan. The Hurricanes appear to have this well covered, though with Patrick Dwyer and Bobby Sanguinetti blocking two of his passing lanes and Jiri Tlusty (circled) keeping his eye on defenseman Paul Postma (also circled), who just jumped off the bench on a line change. It appears that Tlusty's job is to cut off the passing lane to Postma if he pinches, but I also want you to keep an eye on the positioning of Jay Harrison here. 

As predicted, Postma decides to make a bee-line towards the net and Tlusty does a decent job of obstructing Wheeler's passing lane to him so that he can't make immediately make the play. That should give Dwyer enough time to either disrupt the play or for Harrison (not pictured) to get back into position to cover Postma or break up the pass.

Wheeler is patient enough to wait for Postma to get closer to the net before he makes the pass and Tlusty doesn't react to it. I can only assume that this is because the thinks Harrison will be there to cut off Postma's lane to the net or disrupt the pass.

Unfortunately for Tlusty, Harrison had his eyes glued on Wheeler the entire time and didn't get over to the other side of the net. This gives Postma an open net to shoot at and a lot of space to work with.

Predictably, Peters is unable to make the save and the Hurricanes find themselves down 2-0. The goal of a power play is to set up difficult situations for the opposing team, which the Jets did by having Postma come off the bench and make a dash towards the net, but the Hurricanes could have made this much tougher on Winnipeg if they weren't so over-aggressive. Harrison got caught watching the puck and didn't pay attention to the pinching defenseman, which was a brutal mistake that could have been prevented. The situation was made worse by Tlusty assuming that someone had that side of the ice covered instead of following Postma and leaving a man wide open in a prime scoring area.

However, as bad as this mistake was, I can see the reason for the Hurricanes allowing this to happen. The Jets power play set up put everyone on one side of the ice and the Hurricanes could have broken up the play with some stronger execution and more aggressive play on the puck. Harrison's mental error here was costly, but it wasn't nearly as bad as this mental lapse the one that happened against the Rangers a few games prior to that.

It starts off with the Rangers attempting to carry the puck in during the final stages of their power play. Carolina has it well covered, though and Clowe eventually has to settle for dumping the puck in past defenseman Jay Harrison. The Canes should be in good shape here if they can retrieve and clear it within a few seconds. That is easier said than done, of course but Harrison is in fairly good position here and the Canes have two other players back who can cover the slot area. 

Harrison makes an aggressive play on Clowe, which forces him to dump the puck in hopes that teammate Brad Richards can retrieve it. This causes Dwyer to follow Richards to the puck since Harrison is a little out of position now. Defenseman Jamie McBain (far left) is also keeping his eye on the puck to see how this play unfolds but is still in decent position in the slot to cover Derek Stepan, who is lurking about.

Thinking that Harrison & Dywer don't have this play covered enough, McBain decides to converge on Richards int he corner and this leaves Derek Stepan wide open in a prime scoring location. The only hope Carolina has to get out of this situation unscathed is for one of these three to break up the pass before it gets to Stepan. Seieng how they created an outnumbered situation, this shouldn't be hard but Richards is one of the better passers in the league, so it's a gamble that could cost them.

Neither are able to get a stick on the pass and Stepan is given a free shot at Ellis from right between the faceoff dots. Why McBain felt the need to vacat his post to make a play on the puck is beyond me, especially since there were two players already covering Richards and no one on Stepan. This is just one of the many examples of mental mistakes that plagued the Hurricanes all season. Not having enough physical defensemen is one thing, but players showing poor awareness and discipline will lead to a lot of mistakes like this and hopefully it's something we'll see less of next season.

The reconstruction of the Hurricanes defense corps is something that has been a work in progress for years now and some growing pains are expected, but it feels like there hasn't been much progress in this department over the last few years. The team has improved in a lot of areas, but the defense has remained poor and their play on the penalty kill is clear evidence of that. The tough part is that it will take more than a few personnel changes before this is all fixed because the problem seem to stretch beyond that. The mental mistakes can be corrected with practice and there is some hope that the Hurricanes can improve their PK with a few player upgrades & a full training camp, but there is still a lot of work that needs to be done.