‘It could become our Achilles heel’: Once again, Canucks penalty kill a cause of concern

In today's Sportsnet Canucks Roundup presented by PlayNow Sports, Satiar Shah recaps the highlights from a lopsided loss to the Devils, and a bounce back win featuring a Kuzmenko first career hat trick and a Kevin Bieksa celebration at Rogers Arena.

VANCOUVER — Through their first four games this season, the Colorado Avalanche was killing penalties at a 50-per-cent success rate, having allowed the same number of power-play goals as they had achieved successful kills — seven.

But this didn’t matter much because the Nathan MacKinnon-Cale Makar power play was humming along at 53.8 per cent. The Avalanche also had that shiny, new Stanley Cup champion hall pass to show any critics.

The Vancouver Canucks don’t have one of those. But they do have a penalty kill that through 11 games is once again the worst in the National Hockey League at 57.6 per cent. And although the Canuck power play is on fire at 30.8 per cent, Vancouver’s special teams aggregate of 88.4 is still far below the 100 threshold for being average.

To put their current shorthanded problems into context, at the start of last season, the Canucks’ last-ranked penalty killing was so bad through 25 games (64.6 per cent) that it was a factor in the regime change that cost head coach Travis Green and top assistant Nolan Baumgartner their jobs. 

On Nov. 17 last season, after the Avalanche power play went 3-for-5 in a 4-2 victory in Vancouver, Canuck penalty killing bottomed out at 60.3 per cent.

It is worse now, statistically, than it ever was last season.

In Thursday’s 8-5 pond-hockey win against the Anaheim Ducks, Canuck penalty-killers yielded a goal 36 seconds into their first disadvantage, and another 56 seconds into their second.

On Friday, in a practice heavily devoted to shorthanded play, sleep-deprived PK coach Mike Yeo changed his personnel, removing veteran stalwarts J.T. Miller and Bo Horvat from the penalty kill groups. The 3-6-2 Canucks play the Nashville Predators Saturday at Rogers Arena.

Yeo wasn’t made available to speak to the media on Friday, but head coach Bruce Boudreau did.

“We all have pride, from coaches down,” Boudreau said of the penalty-kill ranking. “We hate to see it; we want to see our numbers up at the top, everywhere, all the time. Mike works on this eight hours a day. And sometimes you have to build him up because he takes so much pride in doing this and talking to players and everything, and when it’s not working, he blames himself and that’s not the right thing to do.

“One hundred per cent it’s eating away at the guys because they know they’re better at it than what it has shown.”

All six defencemen practised the penalty kill on Friday behind forward pairings of Ilya Mikheyev-Elias Pettersson, Tanner Pearson-Nils Aman, and Dakota Joshua-Jack Studnicka.

Miller led Canuck forwards, and was second on the team behind defenceman Tyler Myers, in shorthanded minutes last season. Horvat leads forwards in PK time this year, partly because he has been the only Vancouver centre capable of winning faceoffs. The rest of the lineup is 4-for-21 on shorthanded draws, although Pettersson has won two of his three.

“We’re just not doing the job,” Miller said. “We can make excuses all we want, but there’s been too many breakdowns and too many easy ones for (opposition power plays). So, yes, we’ve got to find guys that can do the job. It’s a frustrating feeling after last year, for how far our PK came. It’s a crappy feeling.”

After Boudreau replaced Green as head coach last Dec. 5, the Canucks had the league’s 11th-best penalty kill at 80.5 per cent. After signing summer free-agent forwards Mikheyev and Curtis Lazar, who is currently injured, to help the shorthanded units, no one figured the Canuck penalty kill could actually be worse than it was last fall.

But after Thursday, Vancouver had six of the nine worst penalty killers in the NHL in terms of power-play goals against, per 60 minutes. Among players who have logged at least five shorthanded minutes, Lazar is last in the league at 43.7 PPGA/60. Miller is second last at 32.4.

“It’s a confidence-related thing,” Miller said. “When you believe you’re going to do it, you just do it. It takes a pretty mentally tough person to go out on the PK right now. We have a job to do but, I mean, it’s eating away at us right now. It could become our Achilles heel. It kind of was our Achilles heel in the first 25 games last year.”

Veteran defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, fifth-worst on the PPGA/60 list, said: “It reminds us a little bit of last year where. . . it seemed like everything was going in. You’re trying to look for options to kill penalties and how to get it done. 

“I think it’s paying the price: getting the blocks, getting the rebounds around our goalies, putting pressure on at the right time — those kinds of things. But when you don’t have the confidence on your kill, you kind of play on your heels a little bit more. I feel like we haven’t got the reads that we want and we need on the penalty kill.”

Studnicka and Ethan Bear, acquired last week in trades with Boston and Carolina, are new to the Canucks’ penalty kill.

“The biggest thing I can say is, honestly, just sticking with it,” Bear said Friday. “Power plays are going to score goals. When breakdowns happen, it’s just about going over video and. . . learning how to prevent those scenarios again. I think it’s just about being hard, physical. When you get a chance to clear the puck, making sure it goes down. When you get the chance to make a block, selling out for your teammates. Just do the little things.”

• Injured winger Brock Boeser practised Friday but is still not ready to play after the entry wound left over from pre-season hand surgery re-opened, creating infection risks. . . Boudreau said defenceman Travis Dermott, out since suffering a concussion during a Sept. 27 practice, continues to improve and may be able to travel on the five-game road trip that opens Tuesday in Ottawa.

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