Smaller penalty killers may be the wave of the future
The Bruins were in a jam.
On Feb. 1, during the third period, they held a 2-0 lead over St. Louis. But Zdeno Chara, their best penalty killer, had slashed Vladimir Tarasenko with 5:40 remaining in regulation.
Kevan Miller, who averages 2:02 of shorthanded ice time per game, had departed a period earlier because of an upper-body injury. Charlie McAvoy was in suit and tie, still 10 days out from an ablation to correct an abnormal heart rhythm. The Blues roll Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz, and Brayden Schenn on their No. 1 power-play unit.
The Bruins didn’t just kill the penalty. They did something no team has pulled off in at least the last two decades. Brandon Carlo and Adam McQuaid, both shorthanded regulars, started the kill. When Carlo and McQuaid finished their assignments, approximately three-quarters into Chara’s penalty, Torey Krug and Matt Grzelcyk replaced the right-shot stay-at-homers as the defensive pairing.
Krug was on the ice for 32 seconds of the kill. Grzelcyk was credited with 15 seconds of man-down time. Both are listed at 5 feet 9 inches.
Twenty years ago, the NHL started tracking ice time. Since 1997-98, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, no team has ever paired two defensemen 5-9 or shorter on a penalty kill. The 1995-96 Sharks were the last team to dress two such blue liners: Tom Pederson and Vlastimil Kroupa, both 5-9. It is unknown if they killed together because ice time was not recorded.
Krug and Grzelcyk, both short, offensive-minded defensemen, are untraditional options as penalty killers. But pairing two defensemen with their skill sets on the kill may not be just a worst-case scenario.
“It just changes the dynamic,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “We should be more aggressive, because you don’t want those guys battling in front. It can work in your favor. Z and Adam are more positionally big sticks, long sticks. Once they come in to you, look out, because they’re big bodies. Whereas the other guys are jumping you. I know it happens to our power play sometimes.”
Coaches have traditionally favored blue-line strongmen for shorthanded shifts. Chara (6-9, 250 pounds), Shea Weber (6-4, 230), and Ryan Suter (6-2, 202) are usually among the league’s leaders in man-down minutes.
They get to pucks that shorter defensemen cannot pursue because of their reach. In close quarters, they front shots and shove aside net-front screeners simply by flexing their muscles. When they’re at full health, the Bruins will always roll Chara, Carlo (6-5, 208), McQuaid (6-4, 212), and Miller (6-2, 210) because of their size and defense-first approaches.
But as the game continues evolving toward speed, skill, and sharp thinking, more teams will consider asking their smaller, quicker, and more offensive-minded defensemen to raise their sticks for PK duty. The net-front house remains the most critical area to defend. But penalty killers are shifting their formations further up the ice to keep the most dangerous situations from developing in the first place.
This plays to the strengths of defensemen like Krug, Grzelcyk, and their smaller counterparts around the league, such as Jared Spurgeon, Shayne Gostisbehere, and Will Butcher. Their quick sticks and ability to accelerate advance them to areas faster than their bigger teammates. And if they get to pucks first, they can trigger shorthanded rushes more effectively than defense-first blue liners.
For the Bruins, relentless three-point pressure is critical for their smaller penalty killers to succeed.
If a power-play man controls the puck on the wall at the hash marks, three of the four killers have the green light to swarm to that side. One defenseman attacks the puck carrier. His partner goes into the corner to deny the pass down the wall. The strong-side forward goes high to take away outlets up the boards or at the point. The second forward stays at home in front.
“You’re taking away both his plays up and down the wall,” said Cassidy. “It can happen at the goal line too, when they go behind the net or up to the half-wall. So you’ve got three guys going. The fourth guy should always be near the front of the net if there’s a breakdown and the puck squirts out.”
The Bruins applied three-point pressure against Pittsburgh on Jan. 7. Miller, Chara, and Brad Marchand charged into the corner to apply heat on Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist, and Sidney Crosby.
The Bruins were in good shape to nullify the three-on-three situation. But instead of staying in front of the net, Patrice Bergeron was caught leaning toward the scrum. It was a momentary lapse by the league’s best defensive forward. It was all Crosby needed to retrieve the puck and whip a blind backhander out front to an unmarked Evgeni Malkin. Tuukka Rask had no shot at stopping Malkin’s one-timer, which brought the Penguins to within one goal with 3.6 ticks remaining in the second period.
The Bruins didn’t commit a similar mistake against St. Louis. Carlo and McQuaid killed 75 percent of Chara’s infraction. Krug and Grzelcyk took care of the rest.
“I thought we played it pretty well,” Grzelcyk said. “We didn’t allow them entry into the zone and allow them to set up. If we both get out there again, that’s what we have to do. We have to try to use our sticks, create good gaps, and not let them in.”
Penalty kills have traditionally favored tight formations. Long sticks and big men are favored to eliminate seam passes and shove offensive players out of the way.
But like everything else about the NHL, speed is the game’s most desired element. Size is no longer the deciding factor in how coaches hand out their assignments.
“It’s not ideal,” Cassidy acknowledged of pairing Krug and Grzelcyk. “But the forward’s going to have to know that we’ll have to apply pressure. We’re going to have to jump everywhere. Guys are going to have to work in synch. [Sean] Kuraly would probably be good with that group, because he’s quick and wants to go. You’re going to have to all be together. Because I’ve always found that if only one guy goes or two guys go, it’s easier to beat. But if three guys go, then they’re shutting off two of their options right away. Then they’ve got to find that third option, which is not always that easy.”
CHANGES IN THE AIR
Rangers’ rebuild is about to begin
From one perspective, the Rangers look like a team getting healthier at the right time. Jimmy Vesey is skating while recovering from a concussion. Ditto for Pavel Buchnevich, also sidelined with a concussion. Chris Kreider is back on his skates following his scare with a blood clot. Following surgery, Kevin Shattenkirk’s torn meniscus in his left knee is healing well enough for the defenseman to ditch his crutches.
Reality dictates it will be too little, too late. The Rangers dropped their fourth straight on Feb. 7 when the Bruins rolled over them by a 6-1 score. The shorthanded Blueshirts fell apart in every area of the ice — even in the crease, which Henrik Lundqvist vacated for good after Tim Schaller gave the Bruins a 4-1 lead. Lundqvist let in a softie when Patrice Bergeron slipped one through his pads earlier. But the ace had zero assistance after the first period.
“We stopped doing our jobs on the ice,” said coach Alain Vigneault, “and there’s no doubt they made us look very bad tonight.”
Lundqvist is good enough to steal points the Rangers do not deserve and backstop his team into the playoffs. By the time the trade deadline expires, Lundqvist will not have some of the horses he’s used for support.
From 2013-16, the Rangers did not pick in the first round. The organization had classified those four first-rounders as worthy capital to wheel for immediate help: Keith Yandle, Martin St. Louis, and Rick Nash. The closest the Rangers came to the Stanley Cup was in 2014, when they lost to Los Angeles in the Final.
Now Nash, acquired from Columbus in a package that included the Rangers’ 2013 first-rounder, will be general manager Jeff Gorton’s most valuable piece in reversing the outflow of high-end selections.
Nash is 33 years old. He is in the final season of a deal worth $7.8 million. The right wing is no longer the rampaging offensive force he was in 2014-15, when he pumped in a career-best 42 goals in 79 games.
But when he’s interested, as he was in the first period against the Bruins, Nash can still be a solid No. 2 right wing or a very good third-line option. Nash scored his team’s only goal by taking advantage of a Zdeno Chara turnover, turning on the turbos, and accelerating into the offensive zone before snapping a well-placed shot low blocker on Anton Khudobin. Nash was robbed of a second first-period tuck when Khudobin kicked out his point-blank rebound with his left pad.
Gorton may not receive his current ask, according to TSN, of a first-round pick, young player, and prospect for Nash. But the auction for the best available two-way wing indicates how badly the Rangers want director of player personnel Gordie Clark to have better odds when draft time comes around.
Streaky and speedy wing Michael Grabner, who is also on an expiring contract, should also net the Rangers a pick-or-prospect return. Nick Holden, averaging 19:03 of ice time per game, could be a valuable left-shot depth defenseman worthy of bringing back futures.
The biggest question is whether the Rangers receive enough interest in Ryan McDonagh to consider trading their captain, who is signed through 2019. McDonagh (2-24—26; 23:54 average ice time per appearance through 49 games) is a dependable all-situations defenseman. But with Shattenkirk and Marc Staal (neck) unavailable against the Bruins, McDonagh had to assume more responsibility. He did not do well with it. McDonagh was on the ice for both of Bergeron’s goals while failing to put a single puck on Khudobin.
“It’s probably one of the worst games of my career and one of the worst games I’ve ever been a part of in my Rangers career,” McDonagh said. “So that pretty much sums it up.”
One day after the smackdown, the Rangers placed Brendan Smith on waivers. Just seven months earlier, they signed the defenseman to a four-year, $17.4 million extension. It will be hard for Gorton to move the three remaining years on Smith’s contract unless the Rangers eat some of his dough. But waiving Smith was a clear signal: the Rangers are under construction.
“As we approach the trade deadline later this month and into the summer, we will be focused on adding young, competitive players that combine speed, skill, and character,” Gorton and former GM Glen Sather wrote in a letter to Rangers fans. “This may mean we lose some familiar faces, guys we all care about and respect.”
High-end talent needed in Detroit
Henrik Zetterberg is 37 years old. He has nearly 1,500 regular-season and playoff games on his odometer. The Detroit captain remains the Red Wings’ best player.
This does not signal good things for the franchise.
By this segment of Zetterberg’s career, the Red Wings had hoped the transition would be well under way to the next generation of Winged Wheelers. It had been this way for the last few cycles: Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, Brendan Shanahan, and Nicklas Lidstrom leading the charge while Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Tomas Holmstrom, and Niklas Kronwall prepared for their days as game-changers.
The next phase is not as promising. Dylan Larkin, Detroit’s first-round pick in 2014, is a good player. He is an excellent skater with soft hands. It is difficult, however, to project the 21-year-old as a game-breaking talent like his captain. The Red Wings need stars. It doesn’t look like they have any coming.
Andreas Athanasiou can motor like few other players in the league. But the 23-year-old goes missing too regularly for coach Jeff Blashill to trust him with big minutes. Anthony Mantha, the 6-5, 225-pound widebody, does not play at a high pace consistently enough to put his size to good use. Too much of Detroit’s roster is lukewarm: Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, and Danny DeKeyser, all delivering meh performances in what should be productive late-20s windows.
Draft picks, both in terms of quality and quantity, are the best route for GM Ken Holland to restock the organization and convince the Detroit faithful to fill Little Caesars Arena, their 19,515-seat new rink. Trading Mike Green — Tampa Bay appears to be a good fit — will bring back some selections. Holland would be best served finding a taker for Nyquist’s remaining season beyond this one. But the Wings are committed to costly long-term deals for Zetterberg, DeKeyser, Justin Abdelkader, and Darren Helm. It’s made for an inflexible roster when Holland desperately needs options.
The Devils are fighting to stay within the Metropolitan Division’s top three without their starting goalie. Cory Schneider has not played since injuring his groin against the Bruins on Jan. 23, the same game Marcus Johansson went down with a concussion, courtesy of Brad Marchand’s flying elbow. Eddie Lack, who flamed out in Calgary and Carolina, was recalled on Feb. 4 to join Keith Kinkaid in the crease. Neither is as dependable as Schneider, who is recovering and should be cleared for action soon.
Movement possible in Toronto
Because of how dreadful the bottom four Atlantic Division teams have been, the Maple Leafs can already begin planning for the playoffs. Such clubs usually add to their rosters instead of selling off pieces. But Toronto’s previous bottoming-out has produced an accelerated recovery because of their entry-level stars: Auston Matthews, William Nylander, and Mitch Marner. Nylander will be restricted after this season. Matthews and Marner have one more entry-level season, but are eligible to sign raises on July 1. This does not indicate returns for James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Leo Komarov, Roman Polak, and ex-Bruin Dominic Moore, all unrestricted at year’s end. Of the UFAs-to-be, Komarov would be the player the Leafs could most afford to trade for a good return. Nobody likes playing against the abrasive wing. But Komarov has also recently been playing on Toronto’s fourth line. A playoff team might consider Komarov as a valuable third-liner rental and pay an according price.
Old friend Chris Kelly was a slam-dunk selection to serve as Team Canada’s captain for the Olympics. Kelly’s former teammates in Boston regularly noted how the versatile forward was a critical voice in the dressing room. They missed Kelly’s presence for most of 2015-16 after the ex-Senator broke his leg . . . Ottawa could be without Bobby Ryan until March because of ligament damage in his hand. It is the fourth time he’s had to miss time this season because of a hand ailment. The right wing has only seven goals and 13 assists in 39 games. Ryan has a $7.25 million annual cap hit through 2022, part of the reason the Senators may have to trade Erik Karlsson . . . The Philadelphia Eagles held their Super Bowl parade on Feb. 8. The Flyers were one of the two wild-card teams at the time. But just for safe measure, coach Dave Hakstol turned his phone off that morning.