Penalty killing is a vital part of any team. As disciplined as you can try to be, penalties will happen, and it is imperative to minimize the damage that they do on the scoreboard. Over the last few years, this has been considered an area of strength for the Canadiens.
The losses of P.K. Subban and Lars Eller definitely make things a little more difficult in these situations. The latter more so than the former, but they both saw time on the kill, and were big parts of those units when not serving time themselves. So, without them, what could those units end up looking like this year?
The first unit
It should go without saying that Tomas Plekanec will anchor this unit. He is arguably the most effective penalty killer that remains on the roster, and has been a staple for his team there. His ability on the PK is definitely elite, and he's the guy they go to for key faceoffs, so I'd definitely put him on that top unit.
For who plays on his wing, that is a bit more of a conversation. Personally, I like Max Pacioretty to play there, as he often has. Those two together are not only a solid unit for defending against a power play, but they can be very dangerous as well. It's a perfect match, and pretty fun to watch at times.
Now, if the Canadiens want to separate them in order to let Pacioretty bolster the second unit, Paul Byron would be a great candidate. It is well known that he can be extremely dangerous when counter-attacking, and with Plekanec looking for him on those breakaway passes, things could get interesting. I prefer Pacioretty, but Byron is a solid option too.
On the back end, I think it safe to pencil in Shea Weber on the right side. Weber offers the physicality to keep the crease clear, and a big body to get in the shooting lanes. His reach also helps him to clog up the passing lanes, making it difficult to execute plays that get things going east to west. Safe bet for the top unit.
Though I'd be tempted to put Andrei Markov with Weber on the first unit, I still think that some extra speed is needed to recover loose pucks and get them out of the zone quickly. For that reason, I'd pencil in Nathan Beaulieu on the left, much like I would at even strength.
My first unit would therefore look something like this, as long as none of these players are actually in the box.
Tomas Plekanec - Paul Byron/Max Pacioretty
Nathan Beaulieu - Shea Weber
The second unit
Who plays centre on this unit is a tough cookie to crack. This is where I would definitely have put Lars Eller, were he still a member of the Canadiens. Alas, he is not, so there needs to be someone else who can step up and take those duties.
Alex Galchenyuk probably could, but he'll be eating up a lot of even strength and power play minutes. He can't always be on the ice, so I think it really hinges on who takes fourth line centre duties. It seems at this point that one of Phillip Danault or Torrey Mitchell will be playing there, so my money is on one of them.
Alongside him is again a tough decision, as there are numerous options. Again, I think that the two best penalty killing wingers on the team are Pacioretty and Byron, so for planning purposes either of them can be penciled in as options there.
Of course, planning can only go so far on the penalty kill, because one of your chosen forwards may be in the box when their unit is on the ice. As backup options, I see all of the following as options to fill in on an interim basis at their respective positions: Andrew Shaw, Alex Galchenyuk, David Desharnais, and
On the back end of the second unit, I think that this is where you use the Alexei Emelin and Jeff Petry combination. Petry offers the calm, puck moving presence with better foot speed, while Emelin gives the more physical aspect that is sometimes needed when on the kill.
I do worry a little about Emelin's positioning, but if they work with him to make sure he's not running around in his zone, he can be effective. As a backup, I would definitely go with Greg Pateryn, so I figure it best to slot him in as a potential option to skate alongside Petry.
My desired second unit looks a little like this:
Phillip Danault/Torrey Mitchell - Max Pacioretty/Paul Byron
Greg Pateryn/Alexei Emelin - Jeff Petry
Again, everything here must be taken with the caveat that at any time you're killing a penalty, someone is in the box. Andrew Shaw, for example, is a player I'm told is pretty good on the kill. The problem is he is in the box rather often. Last year he took 69 penalty minutes. Conversely, Max Pacioretty, who plays more minutes, took only 34.
So, Shaw can play the kill, but you don't want to expect him to always be out there. He's a backup plan, whereas you can generally count on Pacioretty to be available more often than not. It is important to plan accordingly, but to have guys ready that can jump in when someone else has to take a seat.
I think that the loss of Eller will really sting them here next year. I do think that they still have the pieces to ice two effective units, but the Plekanec/Eller one-two punch is what I feel made them so effective in the past. But now that power play expert Kirk Muller is back on the coaching staff, perhaps he can lend a hand in strategizing the defensive side of things as well.
And there is always the old adage that your best penalty killer must often be your goaltender. Well, the Habs have Carey Price, who is literally as good as it gets in that regard. Still, it will be important to ice units that can make his life a little easier.
In any case, it should be interesting to see what the Canadiens can do. If they can improve the power play while maintaining solid penalty killing, they'll be a much more dangerous team next year.