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Systems Analyst: What’s Killing the Carolina Hurricanes’ Penalty Kill

One of Carolina’s biggest strengths over the past few seasons has been anything but in 2017-18.

Carolina Hurricanes v San Jose Sharks Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

After owning a top-three ranked penalty-killing unit for the vast majority of 2016-17, the Carolina Hurricanes are in a pickle. Their special teams units were extremely lackluster at the start of the year before starting to find their footing, but they remain the League’s third-worst team in both shorthanded and man-advantage situations.

Our own Brett Finger already dissected the Canes’ PP struggles in a three-part series here, here and here (and it’s quite good), so I’ll take a brief glimpse into the PK woes.

The Canes’ special teams had been worrying before, but hadn’t exactly cost them a game directly until Thursday night. Carolina outscored San Jose 4-0 at 5v5 during regulation and managed to lose in OT, thanks to two PPGs and two SHGs against.

Part of that may have been an anomaly, but the penalty kill has gotten away from its identity this season, and that’s a problem. Let me explain.

The success of a special teams unit hinges on chemistry and awareness between each player on the ice. The unit plays with fluidity because every man knows his job and how to play off of the puck-carrier, but if one player deviates, the whole thing could fail. The Canes’ PK on Thursday night never had all four players on the same page.

For example, Joe Thornton’s tally. Elias Lindholm does well to pressure Dylan DeMelo at the blue line, making sure to keep his stick in the passing lane to Brent Burns. Demelo finds Thornton low.

This is an example of the aggressive style Carolina has succeeded with in the past. You take away opponents’ time and space with the puck and therefore take away their options, forcing mistakes and turnovers. It’s an exhausting style of play, but a highly effective one WHEN done correctly.

Also, notice Justin Faulk keeping a bit more distance from Thornton then Lindholm did with DeMelo. Playing a bit conservative on the PK isn’t a bad thing, but when half the players are aggressive and the other two sit back and wait, that takes away from the chemistry and reliability of the unit.

Thornton finds Burns, who finds Kevin Lebanc.

Brock McGinn, like Faulk, stays a bit passive in his defending, giving Burns plenty of room to find Lebanc. Again, it’s not a bad way to play a PK, but the Hurricanes have thrived before on an aggressive style. If all four players perform the same way, they can choke opponents with every pass.

Lebanc fires a shot that deflects back to DeMelo.

Deja vu. Lindholm races out to pressure DeMelo. Simple play, nothing really out of the ordinary going on—the rest of the PKers are back in base positions. Klas Dahlbeck could stand to get closer to Lebanc and hopefully deflect/block the shot, however.

Here’s where the lack of consistency in style comes back to bite the Canes. DeMelo finds Thornton again, who takes the space Faulk gives him to shoot this time.

Tripp Tracy noted on the broadcast that Faulk likely expected a passer like Thornton to, well, pass. Here’s the thing—when you give an NHL player, especially a highly-skilled one like Thornton, room on the power play to take a look and pick a corner, he’s going to do it. Every time.

And as for the PK, it doesn’t matter whether you think he’s going to pass or not. IF the Canes are still playing the aggressive style that has worked wonders for them in the past, it has to be consistent—regardless of what the player does with the puck.