Looking into the Flames’ new penalty kill

Updated: January 11, 2018 at 1:34 am by Mike FAIL

One of the few positives to exist in the first game of the regular season was the improved special teams, specifically the Calgary Flames’ penalty kill. This season is significant, with hopes of the team finding success after last season’s fraudulent excuse for a PK.

On Wednesday night we caught a glimpse into what Paul Jerrard was preaching throughout training camp and the preseason: an aggressive, intelligent penalty kill that is opportunistic in every sense of the word.

Defensive Zone Play 

When it comes to breaking up set plays and passing sequences, this was one area I wanted to highlight especially. Sean Monahan struggled last season in terms of defensive impacts both at even strength and on the PK. It’s no secret that there is hope that the defensive elements of his game round out to match his offensive instincts but in particular his work with Troy Brouwer here was fascinating to watch:

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Reading the play extremely well, Brouwer pinches on Oscar Klefbom to force the pass while Monahan poke-checks the puck away from Milan Lucic to force the puck out of the zone. The situation – though incredibly minor in the grand scheme of events – is a positive sign along with a few other sequences involving Monahan and Brouwer together.

Let’s hope it continues for a prolonged period.

The final sequence in the defensive zone that I want to draw attention to happens shortly after the sequence above. It highlights a couple important areas I hope to get more insight on: repeatability of breaking up zone entries and whether or not there is more value that can be squeezed out of Lance Bouma and Matt Stajan this year.

I bring this up because at this point both of them eat up a decent portion of the salary cap and with this team having cap problems as well as youth chomping at the bit the team needs to maximize whatever results they can out of them.

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Oilers rookie Jesse Puljujarvi’s zone entry is funnelled into another forward and T.J. Brodie while Stajan forces the puck out of the zone. In some limited tracking that I had completed from last season, I did find Stajan breaking up entries more often than other Flames forwards.

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Another quick entry with seconds left and Bouma works to obstruct any play from forming completely which then forces a pass and a shot that is forced to the boards. 

Finally, let’s take a look at the Michael Frolik shorthanded goal which was the result of quick recovery in the defensive zone after some strong neutral zone play:

After forcing the play out of the defensive zone, the Oilers make for another play with half a minute left. The continuous theme of forwards exerting pressure to push the puck carrier into a defenseman to separate the player from puck is key here. With the puck separated, Dennis Wideman has time to recover the puck and 13 seconds later the Flames have another shorthanded goal.

Suffice it to say, communication and efficient decision making are critical components that contributed on the play.

Neutral Zone Play

We’re going to highlight a couple of areas of work in the neutral zone, the first of which is an emphasis on suppressing and preventing the controlled entry. The Flames – anecdotally, at least until I can finish tracking last season’s penalty kill – suffered from issues of suppressing controlled entries under Bob Hartley.

Finding some sort of remedy by change in systems, play, and habits could go a long way to improving this aspect of the team. One zone entry I want to draw attention to was from the Flames’ first penalty kill:

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Lance Bouma and Matt Stajan cut in to limit room in the neutral zone, forcing the pass which inevitably leads to a chip in and a race to the puck. All of this leads to a puck battle which eats time, a very weird bounce, and the puck being cleared again.

Again – this time in the second period – we see the same similar tendencies: an appropriate amount of pressure on the Oilers’ powerplay that closes in on the gap.

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Frolik’s positioning and location in the neutral zone gives him the flexibility to move depending on where the puck carrier goes. His partner in crime, Mikael Backlund, then pursues Jordan Eberle funnelling him and Oscar Klefbom into Mark Giordano’s lane, which breaks up the entry and play.

The next aspect we’ll look at specific to the neutral zone is pressure, specific to suppressing the play from breaking through the neutral zone. The Flames did a fantastic job on a couple penalties they killed but it was front and center during the second period with both shorthanded goals.

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After a puck was shot out of play into the net, the Flames win yet another faceoff, and clear the puck down the ice. Again, we see forwards applying pressure waiting for the Oilers’ breakout. Monahan and Brouwer read the play perfectly with Monahan forcing the turnover which leads to the Brouwer goal:

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After that, the rest is history on the play. Brouwer dangles around the defender to put the Flames within one at this point. This may be one goal that specifically stems from aggressive play – and at times rather claustrophobic defending in the neutral zone  – but it does indicate that Jerrard is finding a way to imprint his style of play on the team already.

Looking Ahead Through the Next 81 Games

(This penalty kill embodies a lot of what was covered above.)

A lot of this may look incredibly promising – and I feel like it is – after the last couple seasons. The most obvious point is the team having consistency through the remaining 81 games (or anything after that). The problem with last season’s penalty kill specifically was the passive nature. Jerrard had mentioned his reluctance this preseason about wanting to sit back, block shots, and allow entries against.

The Flames, even with all their penalty troubles, found a way to make it work up until the soft goal that Brian Elliott let in. Outside of that and a few minor hiccups at times at the hands of Connor McDavid primarily, the units seemingly worked cohesively with the defense, communicating, and finding avenues to create moments of offensive zone pressure.

To that end, it’s still important to keep in mind that the penalty kill still has a massive time management factor to it. The teams – both the penalty kill and the opponent’s powerplay – are managing elements like fatigue, shift length, time left on the clock, time left on the penalty, matchups, formation/time in formation, and so on.

 Some other valuable things to keep in mind when observing a penalty kill include:

  • Being aware that shots against and goals will happen. This is the nature of the game in itself. The point is to limit these from happening as much as possible.
  • The balance of shifts that are started vs on-the-fly (OTF) shifts. This has been a developing point of research and analysis by Prashanth Iyer of Winging It In Motown. The tl;dr is: it appears to be important.
  • The penalty kill isn’t inherently about survival anymore and Jerrard’s message is drenched in it. Two goals in six penalty kills should hopefully be a taste of what’s to come.
One final note on something that will come up lots: faceoffs. The main point I’ll emphasize here about faceoffs is how critical it is to avoid confirmation bias on them. For example, if the Flames lose a crucial faceoff late in the penalty kill then everything shifts to “Why didn’t the player win the draw? They’re so important.” If they win it and clear it down the ice then the narrative stands that they’re the key to success.

A faceoff is a set puck battle that is a path to a desired outcome. You want it so you can clear the zone, for example, or to try to score a goal in the offensive zone. Whats may be more important is the 20 seconds after a faceoff win or loss.

    Coming up in the next few days I hope to have some tracked data as well as some more detailed work specific to what formations (both forecheck/pressure based in the neutral zone and the defensive zone) are employed.