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  • Could A Rule Change Fix Minnesota's Dreadful Penalty Kill?

    Joe Bouley

    Scoring in the NHL is way up. The NHL has made rule changes since the 2004-05 lockout to add goals to the game. Now it's closer, not because goaltenders have suddenly gone back to pad-stacking and the stand-up styles, either. Goalies are bigger, more athletic, and more refined in their games than ever. Even paring down goalie pad size can’t be blamed for the explosion of goal scoring.


    It's more likely that it's the use of analytics in hockey, which has crept into the game since 2007-08. Teams no longer waste roster spots on big, lumbering enforcers. Instead, they focus on skill and speed. Defensive systems attempt to cut down dangerous scoring chances rather than apply a neutral zone trap. Skilled players get placed into more favorable positions to maximize scoring. That combination is finally paying dividends for the league that has wanted more goals without sacrificing the improvements defense and goalies have made since the 80s. 


    But there's one rule change being proposed that would increase scoring further. And even better, it might hold the key to fixing the Wild's brutal power play.


    As it stands now, a minor penalty gets negated by the team on the power play scoring a goal or the full two minutes expires. What if a shorthanded goal also ended a power play? You gave up a goal; why do you deserve more time on the man advantage? A team on the penalty kill could make a two-minute minor and essentially cut the total time shorthanded in half (or more) by scoring.


    The Toronto Maple Leafs’ 13 shorties had the potential to take 13 extra minutes of what would have been power play time off the clock, assuming they scored one minute into a two-minute minor. That’s 13 fewer minutes of being a man short and 13 fewer minutes where their goalie faced dangerous shots and scoring chances.


    Teams already employing the power kill are already uniquely set up to take advantage of this proposed rule change. They are already forcing the play into the other end while down a man. If the NHL were to make this small change, other teams that are unsure of the benefits of the power kill might begin taking more chances to score shorthanded.


    No longer would the penalty kill deploy specialists. Top scoring players would now find extra minutes. That means more Nathan MacKinnon, Auston Matthews, or Sebastian Aho. More minutes for the best players on the team to make impact plays. Plus, the incentive to kill the penalty in full increases the reward for pressuring offensively.


    Even without a rules change, the Wild might want to change things up, anyway. Minnesota’s 25th-ranked penalty kill surrendered 63 goals in 264 shorthanded opportunities last season. The 76.1% success rate was their worst mark in franchise history. Needless to say, the Wild’s PK must improve for the team to make a repeat trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2022-23. 


    At least that’s what GM Bill Guerin has tasked Dean Evason and the rest of the coaching staff with this offseason. “We’re going to switch some stuff up because we have to,” Evason said during the season wrap-up. “Is it just the players not clearing the puck? No. We clearly have to do stuff to switch it up.”


    One suggestion to change things up is to apply pressure and be more aggressive in 4-on-5 situations. The Wild had a floundering penalty kill and needed a huge change. A power kill strategy would certainly be that. It would not only take the pressure off Minnesota's goalies, but it can also turn a decidedly disadvantaged point of the game into opportunities for more offense.


    [caption id=attachment_130469" align="aligncenter" width="999]Neutral-Zone.png Courtesy of AllThreeZones.com[/caption]


    Minnesota wouldn’t have to change much to start a power kill next season. Last season, they were among the best teams in denying scoring chances off zone entries. According to Corey Sznajder’s All Three Zones tracking project, the Wild had a little more than 1.2 scoring chances allowed per hour off zone entries. Conversely, they were among the six best teams creating offense off zone entries. Their transition play in the neutral zone is already solid, so the greater systematic mechanics are there.


    The Wild scored only two shorthanded goals all season; the fewest in the league. Imagine what they could do if they could join the Leafs at the top of the league?


    If the NHL changed the rule last season, the Wild would have shortened only two power plays against. Minnesota gave up 63 goals in 264 shorthanded tries. Say the two shorties they scored effectively remove two of those goals off the board. Their 76.1 PK% would move up to 76.9%. Maybe not enough to move the needle for many, but still, not nothing.


    And if the Wild were closer to their five-year high of seven shorthanded goals, that moves in the right direction toward competence with a PK rate as high as 78.8%. Toronto’s 13 shorthanded goals could have pushed their Net PK% 5.5 points higher than what they accomplished. Translate that to the Wild, and they’d suddenly have a Net PK on par with what they’ve been doing the last five seasons. 


    That’s just if shorthanded goals could kill a minor in full. That’s not taking into account the PK changing strategies to reduce chances against and pressuring the whole way down the ice. The Carolina Hurricanes already had the league’s best penalty kill by utilizing the power kill. Add in their shorties, and their Net PK% would jump to almost 90%.


    Imagine if the Wild killed nearly 90% of the penalties against them? The St. Louis Blues would have scored three power-play goals rather than eight. The whole series shifts in Minnesota's favor by neutralizing St. Louis’ best weapon.


    The NHL could benefit from this rule change. Creating higher stakes in the special teams battle might be what the league needs for a league looking to bring in more fun and excitement. And for Minnesota, it could be exactly the kick in the pants they need to get their penalty kill figured out, too.


    Stats courtesy of NHL.com, Evolving Hockey, and AllThreeZones

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