Special Teams Focus: Shorthanded Aggression

The Preds’ penalty kill numbers are both buoyed and harmed by their aggressive focus.

One of the key storylines entering this season for the Nashville Predators revolved around special teams. While the 2018-19 season featured a fine penalty kill, the Predators were more akin to housecats than saber-toothed tigers on the power play, finishing with the worst conversion rate in the league at only 12.9%. Now, six months later, the scripts are flipped: the power play is humming along while the penalty killing units have been a point of weakness early on. While they conceded their first shorthanded goal since October 26th on Thursday night against the Avalanche, but then conceded shorthanded three times last night against the Vancouver Canucks. Currently, the Predators’ penalty kill is 26th in the league.

Watching the Predators in action, it is easy to spot what the key issues have been on the penalty kill. To start, it is important to understand what special teams systems the Predators are both using and facing. The Predators tend to utilize a diamond on the penalty kill, a standard counter to the umbrella power play system. In the diamond, one forward sits high in the middle hoping for a counterattack while denying the middle point. If a shot gets blocked, the Predators can expect the high man to quickly accelerate past defenders and find an open breakaway. However, this sacrifices some structural balance closer to the net as, when opponents work the puck low, they can often be opened up by teammates in the upper slot or cross-ice.

If you are new to the systems used on special teams and want to learn more, please read this special teams rundown on the most common special teams systems.

Ironically, while the diamond is typically considered a counter to the umbrella, teams are beating the Predators’ penalty kill while utilizing the umbrella. While great counter-aggression can come from the diamond, there is a balance that teams need to strike. A team cannot sit back on their heels when using a diamond because opponents are going to work the puck down low and force teams to collapse in on themselves. Simultaneously, if one chases the puck too much like Viktor Arvidsson does here against the Florida Panthers, opponents are going to find open passing seams across the ice.

Viktor Arvidsson loves working the penalty kill and scoring highlight reel shorthanded goals. In fact, everyone on the Predators does. The Predators already have four shorthanded goals this season, the second-most in the league. However, for every shorthanded goal, there’s at least one time that the Predators get burned with trying to force a turnover while down a man.

Simply put, the real issues for the Predators’ struggles this season on the penalty kill has been from over aggression while utilizing a system that is both high-risk and high-reward, and the results are exactly what one should expect. The two key areas where the Predators are being burned are on cross-ice passes, as in the above goal, and on the rush.

Against the Arizona Coyotes, the Predators had their goal lamp lit three times from Coyote power play goals. The second power play goal from Jakob Chychrun shows the same issue with cross-ice passes that the Predators face, and that issue really is a lack of respect for the far man.

Now, like the goal above where Arvidsson abandons the far man to skate across the ice, Austin Watson fails to pay his responsibility on the far side enough respect. He tries to throw his stick at the pass from Nick Schmaltz over to Chychrun, but it is too little far too late. Before that pass, you can see Watson get sucked into the middle by #83 Conor Garland. By the time Watson realizes he abandoned his responsibility, it is too late for him to defend the pass and ensuing shot.

It is no surprise that these two examples are both from Watson and Arvidsson, the two penalty killers who are the biggest shorthanded threats. There is a price to pay for leaving your spot on the diamond, and the Predators’ goal account has been charged accordingly.

The other key weakness for the Predators has been in their neutral zone defense. While there are so many theories regarding defensive zone structure on the penalty kill, what a team does in the neutral zone still plays a key role in how a power play can shake out. Teams want to typically defend the blue line to force an offside or a turnover, but usually they do not do so with the vigor of the Predators.

Drawing again from the game against the Coyotes, you can see a whopping three Predators trying to defend the blue line while Mattias Ekholm sits back. That is a serious commitment to defending the blue line while on the penalty kill. However, the Coyotes’ breakout focuses around buying enough time for Phil Kessel to accelerate and hit his elite top speed to burn through the defense.

Typically teams will want to attack such a player at the red line with one player while the other defenders fall back and remain flexible, or more commonly just ceding the neutral zone and instead focusing on forcing the skater away from the middle of the ice. While a skater with speed and a shot like Kessel’s is dangerous anywhere, the chance for damage is severely mitigated by forcing him along the boards.

Of course, trying to force a turnover or get an offside call at the blue line, the Predators stand strong with three members. Kessel initiates a give-and-go with Clayton Keller to burn past Calle Järnkrok, gets to the upper slot, and then snipes the puck past Saros with his elite shot.

Calle Järnkrok is not the only example of the Predators being taken advantage of when over-committing to defending the blue line. Last night, Ryan Ellis was caught completely flat footed on the Predators’ blue line as Elias Pettersson scored the Canucks’ first power play goal of the evening. That these issues persist regardless of which player one inserts into the situation is a testament to how these are strategic and structural weaknesses, rather than weaknesses that stem from individual players.

The other issue plaguing the Predators defense against the rush is when a shorthanded attempt fails. Last Thursday night, the Colorado Avalanche and Joonas Donskoi torched the Predators off of a failed counterattack by Colton Sissons. Additionally, Nick Bonino is caught high and the Avalanche find themselves suddenly on a 3-on-2 down towards the Predators’ end.

Now, the edge-work of Dan Hamhuis does not help the Predators here either, but extremely often teams are getting these rushes on the Predators because of their aggression. Luckily for the Predators, they have the goaltending to bail them out and allow them to take these chances, but an important point is that many teams do not. Aggressive teams typically have outstanding goaltenders because they can rely on them to compensate for over-aggression. Not every team has the ability to take chances and play as offensively as the Predators. It is a luxury.

By that token, it is important to note the rewards of the Predators’ aggression on the penalty kill. As stated earlier, the Predators have the second most shorthanded goals in the league, and fifth most over this season and last. They also have the sixth highest corsi-for percentage over that span. The Bridgestone faithful are treated to at least a rush while shorthanded most games, even if the Predators fail to score.

In that way, from a strategic standpoint, the penalty kill is operating exactly as it should this season. The Predators use a frantic, aggressive man-on-man coverage that creates turnovers, but also opens up passing lanes for their opponents. Both the Predators’ diamond formation and commitment to defending the blue line speak to their intent to take the puck off of their opponents.  However, opponents have been taking advantage of the opportunities given to them from these aggressive formations. From this strategic standpoint, one could reasonably argue that the penalty kill actually overachieved last season. The Predators deploy a classic high-risk, high-reward strategy, and it has played out just as one should expect. Whether or not it is the best for the Predators is a different question.