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It’s hard to carve out a roster spot in the NHL. There are thousands upon thousands of hockey players that dream of reaching those heights. You can be the best player on your team in youth hockey and one of the best in the league in junior hockey, and still struggle to stay in the NHL.
Players that don’t become point producers need to find another niche to justify their spot in the lineup. Those at the bottom of the lineup normally don’t get a lot of ice time at even strength, so they have to provide value in other ways.
In the past, this has included enforcers, whose job was to drop the gloves to “protect” their teammates. Fourth-liners are frequently praised for being good teammates and a presence in the locker room, primarily because if they’re not good teammates, they’re easily replaceable with players that are.
Another way that players at the bottom of the lineup can find a niche is by being solid defensively. If they’re not going to score, they can at least prevent the other team from scoring when they’re on the ice.
Frequently, that means becoming a specialist on the penalty kill.
The Canucks have several of these types of players, such as Brandon Sutter and Jay Beagle, their third and fourth-line centres. While Sutter has had flashes of offence in the past, he and Beagle have made their hay in the NHL as faceoff specialists and penalty killers.
What’s interesting about the Canucks’ approach to the penalty kill, however, is that they almost exclusively use bottom-six forwards. Beagle and Sutter led the Canucks in shorthanded ice time per game last season, followed by fellow bottom-six forwards Markus Granlund, Tyler Motte, and Tim Schaller. After that is Loui Eriksson, who started last season on the top line with Elias Pettersson, but didn’t get added to the penalty kill until after he was demoted from Pettersson’s line.
The lone top-six forward that spent any significant time on the Canucks’ penalty kill last season was Bo Horvat, who finished eighth in shorthanded ice time among Canucks forwards. He only played on the kill out of necessity, because Sutter and Beagle were injured.
Travis Green suggests it’s both a matter of the personnel available and his own coaching philosophy.
“I think our best penalty for were those guys for starters,” said Green. “Sutter's an elite penalty killer. In a perfect world, I think you spread the minutes around your team a lot easier if your top guys aren't your penalty killers.
“But we're here to win. If our top guys are better penalty killers, then I'd probably try to find a way to to fit them in as well.”
While bottom-six forwards often have to specialize in defence and penalty killing, there’s no reason why skilled forwards with more offensive upside can’t also kill penalties. In fact, around the NHL, you’ll see plenty of top-tier forwards hitting the ice for both sides of special teams: power play and penalty kill.
Sean Couturier, Patrice Bergeron, Ryan O’Reilly, and Aleksander Barkov are just a few of the first-line centres around the NHL that are also among their team leaders in ice time on the penalty kill. Barkov, Brad Marchand, Mitch Marner, and Brayden Point all had over 90 points last season, but still saw significant time shorthanded.
The Canucks do have top-six forwards that could kill penalties. Horvat’s two-way game has taken huge strides over the past couple seasons. There’s a reason Elias Pettersson has been compared to Pavel Datsyuk beyond his magic hands: his defensive game is far more refined than your typical 20 year old. J.T. Miller, Micheal Ferland, Tanner Pearson — is there any reason why they can’t play on the penalty kill?
It’s not a pointless question: if you can get penalty killing out of some of your top-six forwards, that frees you up to add more skill to the bottom-six, instead of loading up on defensive forwards, as the Canucks have. It’s the reason why Sven Baertschi was cut from the Canucks and sent to the Utica Comets: after losing his spot on the power play, the Canucks reasoned that if didn’t play on the penalty kill, he had no spot on the team.
Could the Canucks get more out of their lineup if they didn’t depend entirely on their bottom-six for defence and penalty killing? That’s certainly the trend around the NHL, while the Canucks have held to a more old-school mentality.
2018 - Bo Horvat led the NHL in faceoffs taken last season, with a whopping 2018 draws. With the addition of J.T. Miller, a capable faceoff man in his own right, to his line and a healthy Brandon Sutter and Jay Beagle, that number should drop significantly this season.
179 - The forward that led the Canucks in overall shorthanded ice time last season was Markus Granlund, who played just over 179 minutes at 5-on-4. The Canucks let Granlund go to free agency, where he was signed by the Edmonton Oilers.
Stick-taps and Glove-drops
I’m dropping the gloves with Jim Hughson for casually dismissing the off-season allegations against Toronto Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews, calling it a "little problem" that he could put behind him by winning the Stanley Cup, comparing the situation to Patrick Kane's in 2012. That's cringey on multiple levels.
A tap of the stick to Tanner Pearson, who fired a whopping 11 shots on goal in the Canucks' season opener against the Edmonton Oilers. That ranks in the top-200 for most shots on goal in a game in the NHL since the league started recording that stat.