It might be lost amongst all the other storylines of late, but the Canucks’ penalty kill is on a roll. Over the last five games, the Canucks have only allowed just one power play goal.
It helps that the Canucks have been more disciplined recently, only taking 13 penalties in the last five games, but killing 12 of 13 penalties is still very good.
They’ve notably managed to do this while missing a defenceman who was meant to be a key penalty killer: Erik Gudbranson. He’s been out of the lineup for the last six games, but even adding that extra game only means one more power play goal against.
It’s a pretty small sample size, so I’m certainly not suggesting that Gudbranson being out of the lineup is the cause of the improved penalty kill. In fact, their other best 5-game stretches on the penalty kill have come with Gudbranson in the lineup. They killed 17-of-19 in the first five games of the season, 15-of-16 during a stretch in October, and 14-of-15 in mid-November.
I am suggesting, however, that the Canucks’ other defencemen have ably filled the gaps in the penalty kill left by injuries this season. One of the defencemen that has done best filling in might come as a surprise: Ben Hutton. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that he has been the Canucks’ best penalty killer this season.
Before the start of the season, I made the argument that Ben Hutton could and perhaps should play a larger role, including time on the penalty kill. He wasn’t one of their go-to options to start the season, however. Instead, Alex Edler, Chris Tanev, Erik Gudbranson, and Michael Del Zotto led the Canucks in shorthanded ice time early on.
But Hutton was forced into shorthanded action before too long, however, with Edler, Tanev, and now Gudbranson all missing time due to injuries.
Hutton doesn’t immediately strike most Canucks fans as someone who would be good on the penalty kill. He has some defensive deficiencies at even-strength, generally when he gets caught flat-footed and tries to use his stick to defend instead of taking the body.
But defending at even-strength and defending on the penalty kill are two entirely different things. On the penalty kill, Hutton’s active and aggressive stick is a plus, disrupting passing lanes and creating opportunities for turnovers. When you look at the statistics, Hutton isn’t just good; he’s remarkable.
Here are the five Canucks defencemen who have played at least 30 minutes on the penalty kill this season and the rate of shot attempts (corsi), unblocked shot attempts (fenwick), shots on goal, scoring chances, and goals that the Canucks give up when they are on the ice. All data comes from Natural Stat Trick.
I also highlighted the best player in each statistic, but there’s almost no point in doing so: Hutton leads the way in almost every category. The only statistic he doesn’t lead all Canucks defencemen in on the penalty kill is goals against, and he’s second behind Chris Tanev.
That means that the Canucks give up fewer shot attempts, unblocked shot attempts, shots on goal, and scoring chances when Hutton is on the penalty kill than any other defenceman. That comes as somewhat of a surprise.
At the bottom of the chart, meanwhile, is Michael Del Zotto, but I’ve covered his penalty kill struggles already http://www.vancourier.com/pass-it-to-bulis/pk-problems-michael-del-zotto-and-bo-horvat-should-probably-get-less-shorthanded-ice-time-1.23096975. What’s troubling is that Gudbranson is not far ahead of him in any category and has been on the ice for the highest rate of goals against on the penalty kill.
But let’s focus on the positive: Hutton hasn’t just been good among Canucks defencemen; he’s among the league leaders among defencemen on the penalty kill.
These are the top-20 defencemen in the NHL in shot attempts against per hour. Leading the way: Ben Hutton. He’s also first when it comes to shots on goal and is sixth in unblocked shot attempts.
Hutton is further down the list when it comes to scoring chances at 22nd and drops a little further when it comes to goals against, but with those two statistics the small sample size comes into play, particularly when it comes to goals. I am inclined to weigh the shot statistics a little more heavily and in those Hutton is literally one of the best in the NHL.
It’s not just these shot and goal statistics where Hutton looks good on the penalty kill. He also ranks highly in several micro stats. According to Jeremy Davis over at Canucks Army, Hutton is also the best Canucks defenceman at gaining control of the puck on the penalty kill and has a solid rate of clearing the puck when he does gain possession.
At the time of Davis’s article, the Canucks were clearing the puck 87.5% of the time when Hutton gained possession on the penalty kill. That led all Canucks defencemen. Gudbranson was not far behind at 85.7%, but there’s a distinct difference: Hutton gained possession of the puck at a vastly superior rate to Gudbranson.
Davis found that Hutton gained the puck 76.5 times per hour, the best rate on the team, while Gudbranson did the same 19.9 times per hour, the worst rate on the team. That is a huge difference and it means the Canucks were far more likely to clear the puck with Hutton on the penalty kill than Gudbranson, despite their similar team clearance percentages.
There’s one caveat with these micro stats: they come in a very small sample size, as Davis’s article was written at the end of October. Still, they support what the macro stats — shot attempts, shots on goal, etc. — have to say about Hutton’s effectiveness on the penalty kill.
So what does this mean? Primarily, it means that when Erik Gudbranson returns, Hutton should not be the one taken out of the penalty kill rotation; instead, Michael Del Zotto should likely be the one to take a step back.
But it also means that Hutton is far better in shorthanded situations than most would expect.