I’ve intently observed Toronto winger, Mitch Marner, emerging as a competent penalty killer this season with great interest. Skills attained by killing penalties have been subtly applied in other areas – a sign of the intelligence to adapt skills – notably at 5v5, while his offensive skills can be deadly when down a man.
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In 2017-18, Kasperi Kapanen emerged as a vital part of the penalty killing unit, laying an example of what explosive speed and breakaway acceleration, coupled with skilled hands contributes to a shorthanded situation. The Leafs are no strangers to using their scoring skills in defensive situations and more teams have adopted this mentality recently.
Generally, penalty killing units are being transformed with a greater allotment of skilled players evolving as capable penalty killers. Offering an element of skill and offensive threat while killing a penalty puts the power play team on edge. There’s more danger of being scored upon.
The Leafs and Boston Bruins are set to lock horns in the playoffs once again and any advantage a team can find to generate scoring should be fully embraced. For the Leafs, that opportunity could subsist in the Bruins penchant of allowing shorthanded goals when up a man.
Considering the skillset, Marner hasn’t produced to potential at 4v5, and it doesn’t take much, simply an opportunity to ignite scoring. Besides, it’s not about quantity as much as timing. A timely shorthanded marker can become a difference maker.
Last spring, the Bruins fired seven power play goals in the first round against the Leafs. Toronto scored once on three scoring chances while shorthanded, while the Tampa Bay Lightning couldn’t score at all over six games.
The chart below contains two independent tables with data from MoneyPuck.com, outlining goals and rebounds and is available in an Excel file here for you, dear readers, to take back on your own and play with the data.
The left table has teams scoring while killing a penalty (4v5). The table on the right is team shorthanded goals at 5v4. Both tables are sorted descending by TOI.
As of this past weekend, at 5v4 Boston has allowed 13 shorthanded goals, while allowing a league high 106 shots against and ranking low in time on ice on the man advantage. Florida, for contrast, has allowed the same amount, 13, with over 60 minutes of ice time played on the power play.
Toronto has been a middling team producing shorthanded with only five goals on 70 shots. If Boston is going to be that generous allowing shorthanded opportunities, however, Toronto should endeavor to exploit having Marner on the ice for a majority of time.
SKILLED PLAYERS ON THE PENALTY KILL
League wide, skilled players are deployed to kill penalties. This is more evident among forwards, using talented players with the change of dynamic of the construction of fourth lines and the decline of enforcers, or non-hockey skilled players with a roster spot.
Desirable forwards transition quick, or exploit breakaway speed and first-two stride acceleration. Turnovers can become deadly going back the other way. Skilled players that produce scoring chances under densely pressured situations is more of a blanket statement.
With more 4F/1D formations, it makes sense to utilize skilled forwards, in hopes of catching the rotation in the offensive zone that forces a forward to scurry back to play defense. Even thwarting zone entries has a positive effect going back the other way. Most NHL forwards, even with the most exceptional defensive ability will struggle to play proper defense, and even average NHL forwards can exploit that if given ample enough opportunities.
The NHL is a results-based league. Marner’s impact on the penalty kill may not have produced as many points as desired, but in the end, tactically, it’s less about scoring – although that would be ideal – but the benefits of having control of the puck even in short spurts while shorthanded.
Normally wide use goals and points, or shots and shot attempts to justify impact, but while shorthanded shot generation and scoring is ideal, keeping the puck out of your own net is the key on the penalty kill.
The most effective way of killing a penalty is thwarting the opposition to set up in the offensive zone. Take away the setup option and teams will retreat and attempt another zone entry killing off valuable time.
Now, Marner doesn’t really lack in statistics determined to have a positive effect, as we shall see shortly, but sometimes, just disrupting the power play set up in the zone, or trying to create with the puck and induce chaos in the power play team’s zone to eats up valuable power play minutes. This simulates the effect of dumping pucks out of the zone and waiting for the team to come back with another zone entry attempt, which I find as an opportunity of tactical adjustment.
When a team that allows plenty of shorthanded scoring chances, like the Bruins, Marner can be an x-factor keeping pucks out of the defensive zone, while applying the skill set to be dangerous on the penalty kill.
Marner doesn’t have to look far to see that impact either.
Using data from Natural Stat Trick, Mitch Marner – for his first season as a penalty killer – has represented himself with some impressive individual shot metrics at 4v5, despite the lack of production.
The same data, sorted by category consistently finds Marner at the top of the listings. Fortunately Natural Stat Trick records individual shooting events, like shot attempts (iCF), scoring chances (iSCF) and high danger attempts (iHDCF).
Sorting by individual Corsi For events – shot attempts – per 60 minutes Marner ranks 16th overall among forwards with a minimum of 55 minutes played at 4v5. He joins an impressive list of talented players too.
Resorting the same data set for scoring chances (iSCF) per 60 minutes, he sits sixth. Getting deeper into the zone with possession makes him more of an offensive threat.
For high danger scoring chances, he is listed 9th overall. A little deeper into the zone, but the ability to gain the zone an attack the goal makes him more dangerous as he approaches high danger scoring areas.
I’d offer another statistic that I would caution against its relevance and accuracy, Marner ranks fifth overall among penalty killing forwards with 7.19 takeaways per 60. He also has the third most time on ice among the players listed as leaders in this metric.
Tactics and skills are evolving in the NHL with the influx of younger, more skilled players and the deterioration of conventional roster building. Don’t sleep on the effect a skilled player like Marner can have on the penalty kill and watch for more teams to readily adopt using more skilled forwards.