The Real Penalty Killing Problems


Photo: AFP

These might not be the same old Leafs, but it is looking like the same old Leaf penalty kill.

At this stage of the season, I maintain a couple of things as I write this: it’s still very, very early, and the Leafs are adjusting to a new penalty killing scheme which is bound to cause mix-ups and missed assignments early in the season. So I don’t think this penalty kill is completely doomed, but I do think there is a lot of work to be done.

First let’s look at penalty killing in it’s most basic form. At the youngest of ages you are taught how to form a box on the penalty kill. You make a box because you can keep the play to the outside and it allows you to have two guys down low to protect the net, and two guys up high to keep the defensemen honest and to take away point shots.

It usually takes a couple of years until you are introduced to what a diamond is. The main sticking points being that, as players get better, they want to take shots from the middle of the ice and set up an umbrella powerplay. So you put one forward in the middle up high, one defenseman in front of the net to cover the forward and the other two players on the sides protecting the faceoff dots and taking away those one-timers from the umbrella formation.

These are two pretty simple things, but obviously, at the NHL level, it’s not this basic. That said, simplifying things is always the best way to win games. How many times do we all hear things like players need to shoot more, go to the net consistently, get the puck out hard off the boards and so on. You are taught these things at age eight.

There are wrinkles to these basics as you move through higher competitions in hockey, but these basics are still the key to everything you do on the ice.

When you are the on ice with the caliber of players that are in the NHL, penalty killing is all about rotating between a box and diamond formation properly while staying aggressive at the same time, yet through all of this maintaining either your diamond or box formation depending on what is appropriate. The main sticking point being that you always maintain that foundation stance.

Yes, shot-blocking is important on a penalty kill, but the Penguins had the best penalty kill in the entire league last season and they blocked 511 shots on the season, which was 29th in the league.

The best penalty kills are the ones that suffocate you. They don’t let powerplay players set up, move it around and get comfortable. You can’t allow NHL players time to find seams and crank one-timers all night. You’ll never get anywhere doing that, and the Leafs penalty kill is exhibit A.

So let’s look at some examples of penalty kills and what’s been going wrong in Toronto, and what needs to happen to correct it.

The first goal we’ll look at is the Chris Neil tip in from the Sunday, October 30th game. Watch the goal here to properly follow along (skip to 2:10):

Really, Mike Brown not getting the puck out is irrelevant to this penalty killing structure. That’s a really tough play to get it out there with those guys on him, it should have been considered gravy if he did.

When the puck finally comes out and goes to Karlsson, he does what all good offensive defensemen do, he walks the blueline, and what do the Leaf penalty killing forwards do in this case it’s Brown and Lombardi)? They both gravitate towards one man at the top of circle in the middle of the ice.

This isn’t to pick on these two guys in particular, but you’re already down one man, and now two guys are focusing on one. When Karlsson moves the puck over to Gonchar, Lombardi scrambles over to cover for all the space now lost from him and Brown coming together in the middle of the ice.

Meanwhile Mike Komisarek moves up to form a diamond – as he should – but, since Lombardi is scrambling towards Gonchar as well, it proves to be a complete mix-up and miss-communication so once again we’re looking at one powerplay man sucking in two penalty killers. All Gonchar has to do is slide it back to Karlsson, who is wide open because Brown went to the net to try and cover one of the three Senators down there, and it’s an easy goal.

What should have happened here is that Mike Brown should never have skated across the ice with Karlsson in the first place, and Lombardi should have challenged from the center of the ice. Then, even if the puck was moved down to the hashmark where Gonchar was, Komisarek could step up and Brown could cheat down low a little bit, while Lombardi then stays up high to take away the Karlsson option. This way, they would have kept a diamond in tact to cut off lanes and open shots.

When we talk about discipline in hockey, it’s not only about not retaliating or taking a hit to make a play. It’s about playing within a system and not blowing assignments. It’s about playing within the team.

On this penalty kill we continually see players scrambling around the zone, totally lacking cohesiveness as a unit. They are attempting to pressure players aimlessly and without direction. Everything needs to always come back to a diamond or a box in order to keep the play to the outside. Here, the Leafs were never in any sort of formation even remotely resembling a box or diamond. And Gonchar and Karlsson never appeared to be pressured to the point of panic because they always had easy outlet passes available to them.

Let’s look at another goal.

Here’s Chris Kunitz’s powerplay goal against the Penguins (skip to 3:10):

This goal is all about the lack of connection between Mike Komisarek and Mikhail Grabovski. Fronting the puck, John Michael Liles and Nikolai Kulemin actually do a very good job. Liles takes away any legitimate shooting option or pass in front, and Kulemin blocks off the back pass to Steve Sullivan. Generally speaking, you can’t complain with what those two are doing.

On the other side of things, you have both Mike Komisarek and Mikhail Grabovski worrying about James Neal in the high slot instead of the man in front or Malkin on the far side. While Grabovski does realize that Malkin is behind him, there’s a split second where he gets sucked into going towards Neal instead of Malkin. That opens the passing lane for Kris Letang to exploit and that makes all the difference at the NHL level.

What happens when the pass goes across to Malkin? Komisarek and Grabovski – who were both worried about Neal – are caught out of position and try to compensate by diving in front of a Malkin slap shot. Being the elite player he is, he fakes the shot, then shoots, and Kunitz puts it home with ease.

Grabovski should have been focusing much more on Malkin, while being cognizant of the rest of the play, and Komisarek should have had an active stick going between Neal and Kunitz to avoid easy passes. The time to tie up sticks is as soon as the shot is taken, not before. You’re already down a man, you can’t be physically engaging guys for no reason.

If you watch the replay of the goal, when they show the camera angle from behind the net, stare at James Neal, who barely moves the entire clip. Focusing on him cost two players to move out of position.

Much like the Ottawa goal, we see two players being sucked in by one, and this time the guy didn’t even have the puck.

You know what this is? It’s a lack of trust on the penalty kill, it’s a lack of confidence that the other guy on your team will make the right play, and it’s youth. The Leafs are still a very young team and it shines through on their penalty killing unit. There’s no cohesion, there’s no togetherness.

You’re down a man in the NHL. These guys can move the puck beyond belief and shoot it even better. In order to stop them from scoring you need four guys who are really on the same page, working together, and who can feed off of each other. We talk about the chemistry between the Grabovski line and whether or not Connolly will have chemistry with Kessel and Lupul, but what about the chemistry on the penalty killing unit? It’s simply not there.

The final goal we will discuss is the powerplay marker from New Jersey’s Patrick Elias. There are some positives to take from this kill, but still slow transitions and breakdowns.

The goal (skip to 2:01):

First off, I want to start by noting this one, very fundamental fact. When Zach Parise broke his stick and went off, and nobody applied pressure to a stagnant Ilya Kovalchuk, that is not the fault of the coaching staff. Ron Wilson, Greg Cronin, Brian Burke, whoever, are not on the ice with them. They do not call the shots once the players step off the bench. That’s a lack of confidence right there plain and simple. If the four players on the ice can’t recognize that there is a four-on-four in progress, that’s on them. It really shows how fragile of a unit they are. Blame Wilson – or whoever – all you want, but this problem clearly exceeds simply saying it’s the coaches fault.

Anyways, back to this specific penalty kill.

We actually see signs of improvement here, even though the Devils did score.

First off, Mike Brown did a great job applying pressure to Ilya Kovalchuk. I know TSN called out Brown for coming out too far and that that panel has accomplished far more than I probably ever will, but there are a handful of guys in this league that can shoot and score from anywhere and Kovalchuk is one of them. You simply can’t give him time and space, and Brown didn’t.

Kovalchuk then is forced to pass the puck to Adam Larsson and Tim Connolly is there and in the shooting lane. At this point, Mike Brown is rushing back to form some sort of a diamond (this is why you do stops and starts in practice!). The only flaw here on this kill, which ultimately cost the Leafs a goal, was Phaneuf rotating out on the far side to complete the diamond and force Elias off to a different angle.

This isn’t to pick on Phaneuf, either. It’s really a microcosm of this unit. They are unsure of what to do and when to step up because they are scared of making mistakes. It’s been pointed out by broadcasters frequently, but how many times a game do you see Dave Steckel pointing and yelling at guys what to do? That’s a veteran with confidence.

So when the pass comes across to Elias, Phaneuf is on his way but he already should have been there. Elias gets off a one-timer from the faceoff dot and even though that puck seemed to have went off Phaneuf, a good player like that will usually score from there. I’d also like to point out that Gustavsson was a little deep in his net.

This penalty kill was actually a good sign though. The Leafs are beginning to go back to basics and starting to form proper formations and rotations. The test now will be whether they can gel as a unit and start growing some confidence together.

Look at the top five penalty killing teams last season, in order they were: Pittsburgh, Washington, Vancouver, LA, Nashville. Those are five teams chalk full of veterans who were led by guys like Brooks Orpiks, Scott Hannan, Ryan Kesler, Willie Mitchell and Shea Weber. Literally not one of these teams were in the top five the year prior, and only Pittsburgh – at nine – even cracked the top 10 for penalty killing. These things take time and they are painful.

So enough about shot blocking, tying up forwards and all that. Those are details to a penalty kill. What’s really important is the structure of the kill, how the four men work together to negate space and time, and how cohesive they are.

It’s no coincidence that the best penalty killers in this league are usually fast and/or big, it’s because they can cover the most space.

Once the Leafs start to figure out how to transition formations within their own zone and are able to build structure and confidence in them, they can then begin to expand the details and work on aggression, shooting lanes and so on. There is no quick fix to this penalty killing problem.

Right now the Leafs penalty kill is about gaining moral victories. Can they shutout an opponent for a game, a period, a specific penalty kill, etc. It’s an achilles heel currently and everyone knows it – the team included – but it’s still very early in the season. There are enough pieces to get this unit going and Greg Cronin did coach the best NCAA penalty kill ever, so there is pedigree. It’s hard to say give it time after so many consecutive seasons of the same leaky penalty killing, but it’s a process.

When you start to see the things discussed actually coming to fruition with the Leafs penalty kill, that’s when they will start to become successful. Until then, they might as well keep the run-and-gun hockey going.

*Also wanted to quickly note that I will be out of the country this weekend due to a family wedding so Leafs Notebook will be delayed. I will tape the games and get it up as soon as I possibly can when I am back. I’m aiming for Wednesday, maybe Thursday.