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Ten Things We Want To See this Season #2: A Resurgence on the Penalty Kill

After two seasons with a troublesome penalty kill, the Lightning are hoping different coaching can right the ship.

Washington Capitals v Tampa Bay Lightning - Game Seven Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Ten Things We Want to See is a series of articles we’re running on Raw Charge that look at ten things that we, the staff, would like to see happen during the 2018-19 season. It represents our hopes, our fears, and our wildest dreams for this coming season. We hope to be able to look back next summer and check off that each one happened.

Aside from winning the Stanley Cup, the biggest thing I want to see from the Tampa Bay Lightning is rectifying a poor penalty kill. It was a sour topic for the coaching staff and players to discuss at times last season, but the numbers don’t lie—the Lightning penalty kill finished the regular season 28th out of 31 teams at 76.1%. In the postseason, the Lightning penalty kill ranked 11th out of 16 teams at 75%. It wasn’t pretty when the opposing team went on the man advantage.

Before I dive into last season, let’s take a look at the Lightning’s penalty killing prowess under Jon Cooper.

(Statistics used for this section are from NHL.com and hockey-reference.com)

2012-2013 - We aren’t counting his 16 games from this season. The sample size is too small to be meaningful.

2013-2014 - 80.7% over 82 games. Ranked 23rd out of 30 teams. Below average unit on a team that was swept in the first round of the playoffs. Tampa Bay was shorthanded 270 times this season, an average of 3.29 power-plays against per game. The average amount of power-plays allowed that season was 269. The best team that season was the New Jersey Devils at 86.4%, and the worst was the Florida Panthers at 75.9%

2014-2015 - 83.7% over 82 games. Ranked 7th out of 30 teams. They were actually in a three-way tie with the St. Louis Blues and the Montreal Canadiens. A big improvement on the penalty kill helped the Lightning earn a berth in the Stanley Cup Final. Tampa Bay was shorthanded 257 times that season, an average of 3.13 power-plays against per game. The average amount of power-plays allowed that season was 251. The best team that season was the Minnesota Wild at 86.3%, and the worst was the Buffalo Sabres at 75.1%

2015-2016 - 84% over 82 games. Ranked 7th out of 30 teams. Two consecutive years boasting a top ten penalty killing unit. That’s pretty good consistency if you ask me. Again, with a strong a penalty kill, the Lightning made another deep run into the postseason only to be thwarted by the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins. Tampa Bay was shorthanded 257 times that season (yes, the exact amount from the previous year), an average of 3.13 power-plays against per game. The average amount of power-plays allowed that season was 255. The best team that season was the Anaheim Ducks at 87.2%, and the worst was the Calgary Flames at 75.5%.

2016-2017 - 81.4% over 82 games. Ranked 13th out of 30 teams. They definitely regressed a bit. However, they were just outside the top 10 in efficiency (thanks largely to a second half surge that saw them miss the playoffs by a single point). Could it have been better? Absolutely, but in a season that was marred with injuries and sub-par play, the fact that the penalty kill was respectable was a win in and of itself. Tampa Bay was shorthanded 258 times that season, an average of 3.14 power-plays against per game. The average amount of power-plays allowed that season was 245. The best team that season was the Boston Bruins at 85.7%, and the worst was the Dallas Stars at 73.9%.

So, two mediocre years on the penalty kill, and two strong ones. This makes the plummet in 2017-2018 even more head-scratching.

Next, let’s break down how last year’s regular season went, month by month, in regards to Tampa Bay’s penalty killing efficiency.

(Statistics used for this month to month breakdown are from hockey-reference.com)

October

Tampa Bay was 41 for 51 on the penalty kill in October, which was good for 80.3%. Not a spectacular way to start the season, but not the end of the world. The Lightning allowed a power-play goal in seven of their first 13 games and allowed multiple power-play goals in three of those seven games. This was just the first sign of the struggles Tampa Bay would have on the penalty kill.

November

November saw the penalty kill perform much more admirably by shutting down 29 out of 34 power-play opportunities in 12 games, good for 85.2%. The Lightning had a six game (seven when you take into account the October 30th game) streak this month where they did not allow a power-play goal. They had one game where they allowed multiple power-plays. Unfortunately, they allowed three goals on five opportunities in that outing. Aside from that single ugly showing, it seemed as though the first month of rust was off and the Lightning were back to being a strong penalty killing team.

December

Alright, here is where the ugliness begins. Tampa Bay was 32 for 44 on the penalty kill in 13 games this month, good for 72.7%. This month only saw the Lightning shut out a power-play three times (all in the beginning of the month). In the other 10 games, they allowed 12 power-play goals. The worst of it was on December 19th when the Vegas Golden Knights scored on four of their five power-plays to come back and defeat the Lightning. In one aspect, you could look at the Vegas game as the tipping point for the penalty kill. When averaging Tampa Bay’s penalty killing from the start of the season to the day prior to the Vegas match-up, the penalty kill was operating at 81.3%. From the Vegas game to the end of the season—72.7%. It doesn’t get much better from here.

January

The new year brought a slight improvement to the penalty kill—slight being the operative word. Tampa Bay went 30 for 38 on the penalty kill in 12 games this month, good for 78.9%. On the positive side, they had six games where they did not allow a power-play goal. Conversely, they allowed eight power-play goals in the other six games. Four months into the season and by the end of January the Lightning penalty kill was sitting at 79%—ugly.

February

February almost perfectly mirrored December as the Lightning were 32 of 44 on the penalty kill in 14 games, good for 72.7%. Yep, that’s three months in a row of a sub-80% penalty kill. Tampa Bay shut out an opposing power-play in four games while allowing 12 goals in the other 10. At this point, there were two major talking points about the Lightning—Vasilevskiy’s workload and the penalty killing mess.

March/April

Penalty kill percentage over the final 18 games of the regular season—69.6%.

Fallout

Even with a poor penalty kill, the Lightning still managed to secure the top seed in the Eastern Conference. It’s a helpful reminder that teams can overcome their deficiencies and still be successful. Regardless, if there is one real blemish on this 2017-2018 Tampa Bay Lightning (aside from losing to the Washington Capitals in the Eastern Conference Final), it’s the penalty kill.

Management saw the need for a change on the coaching staff after reviewing the season, and aside from Jon Cooper and Todd Richards, every other assistant was relieved of their duties or did not have their contracts renewed. Included in this is Rick Bowness, a storied coach in the NHL who is well respected.

Unfortunately, it felt as though Bowness’s strategy on the penalty kill (and at even strength) was becoming obsolete. Tampa Bay’s penalty killing strategy focused on clogging up the shooting lanes with traffic, while having active sticks to try and break up passing attempts. What they didn’t do was attack the puck carrier as aggressively as many of the top penalty killing units do in the NHL. This enabled teams with gifted passers and shooters to manipulate the Lightning defense and put them in awkward situations.

Think about how teams attack Tampa Bay’s power-play. It lives off of Nikita Kucherov’s ability to pass the puck. When the opposing penalty kill attacked Kucherov, the Lightning struggled to maintain offensive pressure (unless Kucherov did Kucherov things and made a ridiculous pass) and thus failed to convert.

Tampa Bay didn’t seem to be comfortable with that aggressive approach on their own penalty kill and relied on their forwards making the right read on whomever had the puck. There were times this worked, but more often than not it resulted in a goal against.

There is also a discussion to be had on whether Tampa Bay’s discipline is a problem. The Lightning have consistently been an average team in terms of how often they’ve been penalized, except for the past two seasons. In 2016-2017, they were 13 above the average and in 2017-2018 they were 17 over the average (270 power-plays against for Tampa Bay in 2017-2018, the 10th most penalized team in the NHL). Combining 2013-2014, 2014-2015, and 2015-2016, Tampa Bay was over the average by nine. Is this something that should be worrying? Doubtful, but it’s something that caught my eye while digging into the numbers.

Hope

This all circles back to the premise of this series—hope.

What I hope to see next season is a penalty kill that is at least league average. Part of me believes the penalty kill woes were a result of some extremely bad luck and an inability to adapt appropriately as the season progressed. I liked general manager Steve Yzerman’s decision to bring in some new voices on the coaching staff, and the hires the organization has made over the offseason.

Tampa Bay has been one of the best run franchises since Jeff Vinik and Yzerman took over. They have consistently put the right people in the right positions and I see little reason to doubt them now. Just, a functioning penalty kill would be nice, guys. Please?