The Montreal Canadiens’ Road to Redemption: Deciphering the penalty kill

The first part of an analysis of what was a disastrous penalty kill for the Habs in 2017-18.

Heading into their first full campaign (the second time around) with Claude Julien at the helm, most expected that the Montreal Canadiens would be, at the very least, fundamentally sound on the penalty kill. After all, Julien’s reputation as a defensive coach was well-founded; his Boston Bruins teams had ranked fourth, eighth, 12th, 11th, and first, respectively, in the league in penalty-kill percentage since the lockout, and the Habs showed a notable uptick in efficiency in that area when he assumed command last season.

So it was certainly surprising that the Canadiens’ penalty-killing this season was nothing short of atrocious. It’s important to note that the Habs were not merely the 29th-ranked penalty-killing team in the NHL, but that their defensive metrics while short-handed were considerably worse than league average, let alone the top teams in the NHL. For Corsi against per 60 minutes (CA/60), goals against per 60 (GA/60), and high-danger chances against per 60 (HDCA/60), the gap from the Habs to the league average was greater than the gap from the league average to the number-one ranked team in that category.

How and why did this happen? This is where things get more complicated. Looking at the short-handed shot chart, it’s abundantly clear that the Canadiens were woefully deficient in terms of defending the net front.

We will focus our attention on the defence pairings of the penalty-killing units. Many people will key in on the prolonged absence of Shea Weber, but Weber was not the glue holding together the house of cards that was the Canadiens’ penalty kill.

Looking at the five-game rolling average for PK% over the last two seasons, we can see that this season’s woes essentially started from day one. In fact, while the PK dipped slightly immediately following Weber’s departure from the lineup, it stabilized itself for another 15-20 games before the wheels fell off to finish the season.

If the issue pre-dated Weber’s injury, could the problem have been Marc Bergevin’s off-season adjustments to his defence corps? To some degree, perhaps, but we must keep in mind that Bergevin’s moves had a relatively smaller effect on the penalty kill personnel.

The 2016-17 Canadiens chiefly relied on a combination of Weber, Alexei Emelin, Jeff Petry, and Andrei Markov, with Jordie Benn taking most of Emelin’s minutes down the stretch with Julien behind the bench. The 2017-18 Canadiens also relied on Weber, Petry, and Benn, with Karl Alzner replacing Emelin. Post-injury, Weber’s minutes were largely allotted to a combination of David Schlemko, Joe Morrow, and, later, Noah Juulsen.

Comparing the two corps, it becomes clear that whatever tactical adjustments were made in the off-season prior to the 2017-18 season affected the Canadiens blue-liners in a systemic fashion (something that we will examine in more detail in the next article in this series).

Almost every member of the 2017-18 team showed the same level of statistical inferiority relative to their 2016-17 performance. To drive this point home, the gap between the 2017-18 versions of Weber and Petry and their 2016-17 incarnations was roughly the same as the gap between first-year professional Juulsen and grizzled Gagarin Cup champion Markov.

The one exception to this trend is Benn, who saw smaller impacts to his shot and chance suppression stats. However, this is not actually to Benn’s credit — his 2016-17 numbers were simply already bad. The reverse is true for Petry, who saw the biggest decline because his 2016-17 numbers were superb.

While off-season tactical changes rather than personnel changes were at the heart of the Canadiens’ penalty-killing issues, we cannot completely dismiss individual player performances, nor forget to give credit where it is due.

The silver lining to the Weber injury was that it forced the union of the much-maligned Alzner and Petry. That combination played formidably, performing well above team averages in every metric. Both Alzner and Petry were also worse on the penalty kill when apart from each other, which serves as a warning to any member of the coaching staff thinking that Alzner-Weber should be the default first pairing on the penalty kill going into 2018-19.

In contrast to the success of the Alzner-Petry pairing, Benn struggled throughout, even by the already low standards of the Canadiens’ penalty-killing corps. The acquisition from Dallas recorded substandard numbers when paired with either Alzner or Petry, and while Benn enjoyed some success next to Weber in terms of goals and chances allowed, the extremely high CA/60 number surrendered by that duo, combined with the small sample size (which affects low-event statistics more than high-event ones), does not fill me with confidence regarding the feasibility of that duo going forward.

In hindsight, Benn’s struggles were probably to be expected. The Canadiens being RD-heavy means that Benn would have been forced onto his nonpreferred left side to play with either Weber or Petry. The only opportunity for Benn to play his regular position on the penalty kill would have come when he was paired with Karl Alzner, and those two are a) too similar, and b) not skilled enough to compensate for each other’s weaknesses.

Benn’s struggles present a significant issue because, as the Canadiens roster currently stands, keeping the Alzner-Petry pairing together would force Benn alongside Weber in what are likely to be very difficult minutes.

In conclusion, despite the off-season turnover, the Canadiens entered 2017-18 with the majority of their penalty-kill corps intact. That the same personnel would yield such different results speaks to a failure in tactics and strategy rather than roster construction. At the same time, it means that Weber’s return will not be the panacea that saves a broken element of the special teams.

Apart from coaching adjustments, the Canadiens top priority from a penalty-killing perspective should be to find a suitable partner for Weber, because with Alzner and Petry already spoken for, the default option becomes Benn, and that is simply insufficient.

In the second part of our analysis of the penalty kill, we’ll delve deeper into the system to explore why it failed and how it can be fixed.

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