The Montreal Canadiens Road to Redemption - Penalty Kill Structure? What Structure?
The issue with the penalty kill comes down to the system
In the first part of this look at the penalty kill, I looked at the penalty kill’s deficiencies from a personnel perspective, and found that although some pairings and players were more effective than others. On the whole, the Montreal Canadiens PK was significantly more hampered by systemic and coaching insufficiencies than the talent levels of the players they could ice.
Having reached that conclusion, the next logical step would be to try to identify the Habs PK scheme and analyze it’s strengths and weaknesses. However, the more penalty kill footage I watched, the more randomness I observed. In the end, while there were a few strategic elements that the coaching staff appeared to impose upon the players, the only constant was a complete lack of consistency and structure.
The Canadiens allowed 68 power play goals last season, and I don’t have the resources to tackle all of them. Instead, I randomly selected six games interspersed throughout the year where the Habs allowed multiple power play goals (14 in total) for more in-depth analysis.
Behold, the gallery of futility.
Looking through this gallery, there are a few things of note. First, there is no singular structural defect that teams are systematically exploiting. All of these goals are different in some way, caused by a unique breakdown in structure, positioning, or just lack of effort. That having been said, there were some observable trends.
The Canadiens like to play their defencemen higher, roughly just below the hashmarks. My guess is that this positioning is meant to allow the D a better chance of fronting side-board players in an attempt to nullify the one-timer. This hypothesis is supported by how the Canadiens rarely stagger their D, always playing them parallel to each other. The problem is that this positioning also means that any man either at the top of the crease or in the high slot is completely undefended.
Case in point, this goal allowed against the New Jersey Devils on March 6, 2018.
Taylor Hall enters the zone unimpeded. The Canadiens set up in their box.
Nicolas Deslauriers does a good job of pressuring Hall, forcing the Devils star to give up the puck. However, Phillip Danault doesn’t support Deslauriers in pressuring Hall’s only outlet, Sami Vatanen, and Vatanen is easily able to flip the ice with a touch-pass.
Jeff Petry comes out to front Kyle Palmieri, but Danault is covering a non-existent passing lane and Deslauriers is on the wrong side of Travis Zajac in the slot. Patrick Maroon is completely untouched, as Jordie Benn is theoretically guarding against a low-percentage back door feed to Hall.
Palmieri actually holds the puck for a second, giving the Canadiens some time. Benn moves slightly forward, while Deslauriers stops up behind Zajac. Neither Hab is taking away Zajac’s stick, his space, or his tip-lane. Petry is caught in no-man’s land, trying to block a pass at the same time as a shot.
Charlie Lindgren’s view is nothing but Patrick Maroon’s rear. To see something of the action, Lindgren is forced to peer to Maroon’s left. However, this means while he can see Zajac, he can’t really see the puck come off Palmieri’s stick.
Palmieri fires a hard pass right onto Zajac’s tape, and Zajac tips it right between Maroon’s legs for the goal. Lindgren manages to see the tip, but it would take superhuman reflexes to stop that shot from that point, given the positioning that the Canadiens’ netminder had to employ.
The second thing of note is that the Canadiens players do not coordinate their movements with each other. To illustrate this, we turn to October 30, 2017, the night of what might have been the Canadiens best game of the season.
Dion Phaneuf takes the puck and the Canadiens set up in their box. Max Pacioretty pressures Phaneuf, forcing a pass to Mike Hoffman.
Pacioretty’s motion takes him into Phillip Danault’s side of the ice, but Danault only half reacts, meaning Hoffman has two passing options - Ryan Dzingel in the slot and Chris DiDomenico on the other side.
Hoffman chooses to take neither option, giving Danault the chance to recover. Pacioretty takes away DiDomenico and Karl Alzner steps up to defend Dzingel. Crisis averted. Hoffman, left with no options, passes back to Phaneuf.
Phaneuf lets a low-percentage shot go from the blue line and Al Montoya blockers it into the corner. Both Shea Weber and Pacioretty decide to pursue the puck, but DiDomenico clearly reaches it first. Once DiDomenico takes possession on the half wall, Pacioretty moves to seal off the pass back to the blue line, but Weber takes an extremely circuitous route that takes him out of the play entirely. Alzner covers Zach Smith in Weber’s absence, but Danault neither closes off on Dzingel or takes away the passing lane to Hoffman to cover for Pacioretty.
The puck goes to Hoffman. Now Pacioretty is behind DiDomenico, Weber is behind Dzingel, and Danault is fronting for a shot - i.e. passive stick - despite being nowhere close to Hoffman’s actual shooting lane. Hoffman zips it right through Danault’s legs onto Dzingel’s tape and into the back of the net.
You can argue that it’s hard to fault Danault for staying in his position, and to some degree, I concur. However, ideally, Danault would be able to recognize the situation and eliminate one of the two threats. If he takes away Dzingel, it leaves Hoffman one-on-one with a sighted Montoya from distance and gives Alzner time to rotate off Smith into the shooting lane. If he takes away Hoffman, the puck would have to go to Dzingel with his back turned to the net, giving Weber some time to react, Montoya some time to set, and Alzner some time to charge the shooter. Either outcome would have been much more favourable than the slap-pass-tip that wound up in the back of the net.
Finally, the absence of regimented structure on the penalty kill means that whenever the Canadiens are aggressively challenged, all hell breaks loose.
Welcome to Nashville, November 22, 2017.
P.K. Subban takes the puck with about 10 seconds left in the period. Building up a head of steam through the neutral zone, he blows past Max Pacioretty, but Jordie Benn reacts to force him wide and behind the net.
Subban throws a soft backhander through the skates of both Benn and Brandon Davidson, somehow landing on Ryan Johansen’s stick. At this point, the situation is still not horrible. Johansen has a great scoring chance, but Antti Niemi is poised to push back into position. Davidson has twisted himself into a pretzel trying to figure out where the puck went, but Danault and Pacioretty have good positions on Craig Smith and Filip Forsberg, respectively.
Johansen receiving the puck throws everyone into puck watching mode. Benn - who should have never followed Subban behind the net in the first place - and Pacioretty both stop, and Forsberg slips behind Pacioretty into open space. Forsberg actually whiffs on the first attempt, but because Pacioretty has no momentum and is facing the wrong direction, all he can do is blindly swipe behind him at the puck. Forsberg easily picks out the puck from the tangled mess that is the Canadiens captain on the ice and pots the tying goal with 1.4 seconds on the clock.
With 3.6 seconds to go, there were three Habs to two Predators in the slot area. When the puck went in, it was just Forsberg and Pacioretty - Davidson, Danault, Benn, and Niemi all finding themselves out of the play.
The fortunate thing is that the penalty kill, lacking any regimentation or instruction, should theoretically be easy to fix. The replacement for Jean-Jacques Daigneault simply has to construct an edifice - any edifice - atop the smouldering ruins left by his predecessor.
In part three of this series, we’ll explore how the Habs were a league average penalty killing team at home, yet historically bad on the road.