Looking into the Flames’ new penalty kill

One of the few positives to exist in the first game of the regular season was the improved special teams, specifically the Calgary Flames’ penalty kill. This season is significant, with hopes of the team finding success after last season’s fraudulent excuse for a PK.

On Wednesday night we caught a glimpse into what Paul Jerrard was preaching throughout training camp and the preseason: an aggressive, intelligent penalty kill that is opportunistic in every sense of the word.

Defensive Zone Play 

When it comes to breaking up set plays and passing sequences, this was one area I wanted to highlight especially. Sean Monahan struggled last season in terms of defensive impacts both at even strength and on the PK. It’s no secret that there is hope that the defensive elements of his game round out to match his offensive instincts but in particular his work with Troy Brouwer here was fascinating to watch:

PKGIF6

Reading the play extremely well, Brouwer pinches on Oscar Klefbom to force the pass while Monahan poke-checks the puck away from Milan Lucic to force the puck out of the zone. The situation – though incredibly minor in the grand scheme of events – is a positive sign along with a few other sequences involving Monahan and Brouwer together.

Let’s hope it continues for a prolonged period.

The final sequence in the defensive zone that I want to draw attention to happens shortly after the sequence above. It highlights a couple important areas I hope to get more insight on: repeatability of breaking up zone entries and whether or not there is more value that can be squeezed out of Lance Bouma and Matt Stajan this year.

I bring this up because at this point both of them eat up a decent portion of the salary cap and with this team having cap problems as well as youth chomping at the bit the team needs to maximize whatever results they can out of them.

PKGIF7

Oilers rookie Jesse Puljujarvi’s zone entry is funnelled into another forward and T.J. Brodie while Stajan forces the puck out of the zone. In some limited tracking that I had completed from last season, I did find Stajan breaking up entries more often than other Flames forwards.

PKGIF8

Another quick entry with seconds left and Bouma works to obstruct any play from forming completely which then forces a pass and a shot that is forced to the boards. 

Finally, let’s take a look at the Michael Frolik shorthanded goal which was the result of quick recovery in the defensive zone after some strong neutral zone play:

After forcing the play out of the defensive zone, the Oilers make for another play with half a minute left. The continuous theme of forwards exerting pressure to push the puck carrier into a defenseman to separate the player from puck is key here. With the puck separated, Dennis Wideman has time to recover the puck and 13 seconds later the Flames have another shorthanded goal.

Suffice it to say, communication and efficient decision making are critical components that contributed on the play.

Neutral Zone Play

We’re going to highlight a couple of areas of work in the neutral zone, the first of which is an emphasis on suppressing and preventing the controlled entry. The Flames – anecdotally, at least until I can finish tracking last season’s penalty kill – suffered from issues of suppressing controlled entries under Bob Hartley.

Finding some sort of remedy by change in systems, play, and habits could go a long way to improving this aspect of the team. One zone entry I want to draw attention to was from the Flames’ first penalty kill:

pkgif1

Lance Bouma and Matt Stajan cut in to limit room in the neutral zone, forcing the pass which inevitably leads to a chip in and a race to the puck. All of this leads to a puck battle which eats time, a very weird bounce, and the puck being cleared again.

Again – this time in the second period – we see the same similar tendencies: an appropriate amount of pressure on the Oilers’ powerplay that closes in on the gap.

PKgif3

Frolik’s positioning and location in the neutral zone gives him the flexibility to move depending on where the puck carrier goes. His partner in crime, Mikael Backlund, then pursues Jordan Eberle funnelling him and Oscar Klefbom into Mark Giordano’s lane, which breaks up the entry and play.

The next aspect we’ll look at specific to the neutral zone is pressure, specific to suppressing the play from breaking through the neutral zone. The Flames did a fantastic job on a couple penalties they killed but it was front and center during the second period with both shorthanded goals.

PKGIF4

After a puck was shot out of play into the net, the Flames win yet another faceoff, and clear the puck down the ice. Again, we see forwards applying pressure waiting for the Oilers’ breakout. Monahan and Brouwer read the play perfectly with Monahan forcing the turnover which leads to the Brouwer goal:

PKGIF5

After that, the rest is history on the play. Brouwer dangles around the defender to put the Flames within one at this point. This may be one goal that specifically stems from aggressive play – and at times rather claustrophobic defending in the neutral zone  – but it does indicate that Jerrard is finding a way to imprint his style of play on the team already.

Looking Ahead Through the Next 81 Games

(This penalty kill embodies a lot of what was covered above.)

A lot of this may look incredibly promising – and I feel like it is – after the last couple seasons. The most obvious point is the team having consistency through the remaining 81 games (or anything after that). The problem with last season’s penalty kill specifically was the passive nature. Jerrard had mentioned his reluctance this preseason about wanting to sit back, block shots, and allow entries against.

The Flames, even with all their penalty troubles, found a way to make it work up until the soft goal that Brian Elliott let in. Outside of that and a few minor hiccups at times at the hands of Connor McDavid primarily, the units seemingly worked cohesively with the defense, communicating, and finding avenues to create moments of offensive zone pressure.

To that end, it’s still important to keep in mind that the penalty kill still has a massive time management factor to it. The teams – both the penalty kill and the opponent’s powerplay – are managing elements like fatigue, shift length, time left on the clock, time left on the penalty, matchups, formation/time in formation, and so on.

 Some other valuable things to keep in mind when observing a penalty kill include:

  • Being aware that shots against and goals will happen. This is the nature of the game in itself. The point is to limit these from happening as much as possible.
  • The balance of shifts that are started vs on-the-fly (OTF) shifts. This has been a developing point of research and analysis by Prashanth Iyer of Winging It In Motown. The tl;dr is: it appears to be important.
  • The penalty kill isn’t inherently about survival anymore and Jerrard’s message is drenched in it. Two goals in six penalty kills should hopefully be a taste of what’s to come.
One final note on something that will come up lots: faceoffs. The main point I’ll emphasize here about faceoffs is how critical it is to avoid confirmation bias on them. For example, if the Flames lose a crucial faceoff late in the penalty kill then everything shifts to “Why didn’t the player win the draw? They’re so important.” If they win it and clear it down the ice then the narrative stands that they’re the key to success.

A faceoff is a set puck battle that is a path to a desired outcome. You want it so you can clear the zone, for example, or to try to score a goal in the offensive zone. Whats may be more important is the 20 seconds after a faceoff win or loss.

    Coming up in the next few days I hope to have some tracked data as well as some more detailed work specific to what formations (both forecheck/pressure based in the neutral zone and the defensive zone) are employed.

    • Greatsave

      Love it. And love the positive reaction from everybody.

      I want to ask this though: Being proactive on the PK means aggressively trying to force your opponents to make decisions and hopefully some of them will be bad decisions or mistakes. It might work against the Oilers, but what about when they come up against the Ducks or the Hawks? (BTW 7 of the top 10 PP’s last season were Western teams.) How will this level of proactiveness fare against the really talented PP units in the league? Is it too risky? Might guys be too easily beaten by the likes of Patrick Kane, Getzlaf, and Tarasenko?

      • piscera.infada

        My biggest gripe with the penalty kill the last number of years was how passive the Flames were in giving up the zone, and then allowing the opposition to set up thereafter. Quite simply, the high pressure system works because the other team has to make plays with speed and precision. You can be burned by it once the opposition sets up in the zone, but they can also just as easily burn you when you’re passive.

        The biggest key here, is to not allow the powerplay to set up. As Mike puts it above, “goals will happen”, but the more difficult it is for a team for actually establish their powerplay system within the defensive zone, they less likely there are to be chances created thusly, and therefore, the less likely you are to be scored on.

        I would say the biggest area of weakness in pressuring through the neutral zone would be a higher chance of odd-man rushes. That said, that’s a tradeoff I’m willing to make. A consistently passive penalty kill is far more lethal than the occasional odd-manned rush you might give up.

        • I legitimately forgot to draw reference to ZEFR in this piece, a stat that Arik Parnass devised which effectively is time-in-formation for PP.

          It’s something I’ll remember to draw attention to on the next post. The reason I bring this up is because you mentioned not allowing the opposition’s PP to set up.

          And that’s the crux to what was happening last year. Allow the zone entry easily -> get into the passive box/occasional diamond/very rare wedge+1 -> block shots -> hope to god you survive

          Like you said, there are concessions to be had, but more work on suppressing the entry or forcing the chip-in/dump-in gives the team an opportunity to recover there and clear the zone/force a puck battle to eat time.

    • cjc

      Valuable work. There was a lot of sky-is-falling after Wednesday’s game, but once the stink cleared there were some positives to take home.

      It will be interesting to see how Edmonton responds on the PP tonight. They probably went over this tape in detail. Then again, it’s always a good sign when you force your opponents to change their plans.

      Expecting a much better performance tonight. Goal and an assist for Johnny. Tkachuk picks up his first point, too.

    • Scary Gary

      Another positive from game 1 was the number of face-offs won, something the flames have struggled with for as long as I can remember.

      Backlund 62.5% (won 10, lost 6)
      Monahan 61.5% (won 16, lost 10)
      Bennett 66.7% (won 4 lost 2)
      Stajan 53.3% (won 8, lost 7) via puckbase

    • JMK

      This is the kind of analysis I love to see. Reminds me of the kind in depth analysis that goes into rugby. Great to see and read, thank you!!

      It was these kinds of articles that I would have loved to have seen 2 years ago when the flames were bucking the trend. Rather than harping on about corsi and regression non-stop this type of in depth analysis on why they were seemingly transcending advanced statistics or perhaps how ‘luck’ (and I hate that word even in the hindsight sense as people misinterpret it) was evident in the in depth analysis.

        • cberg

          Whether you consider it tactics or not, I think the biggest thing about two years ago was Johnny Gaudreau broke out upon the league. Not only did he arrive as a skilled player, but the Flames found a means/system to enhance his speed of attack and abilities to find the trailer on the fast break. They were very effective and drove the play and opponents were slow making adjustments, that didn’t really arrive till the following year.

      • I was going to try and breakdown the entire 2015-16 PK this summer but life got in the way. It’s still going to happen, but mostly it’ll be used as content to juxtapose the Jerrard era PK vs what we all experienced in the past.

        The marriage of systems breakdowns, tactics, and plays with stats is long overdue. Lots of folks do it, but it’s also some of the most time consuming analysis available.

        Plus in recent years a lot of the folks doing it in the public sector are being hired/snatched up.

    • ChinookArchYYC

      I expect this kind of analysis is time consuming. It’s much appreciated and frankly outstanding. Who else or where else can a reader get this level of detail. Thank you.

    • DoubleDIon

      PK looked good, but the player usage made me wish Hartley was running the bench… and I didn’t like Hartley. Pretty obvious Grossman, Engelland and Wideman can’t hang with top lines. It also bugs me that Kulak is clearly our 4th best defenseman right now and Jokipakka is our 5th best and neither were in the lineup. Giordano-Brodie, Hamilton-Jokipakka and Wotherspoon-Kulak would be our pairings if this really was a meritocracy.

      • cjc

        The important thing will be whether GG learns from his mistakes (assuming his hand wasn’t forced into playing Grossman). So far it looks like he’s learning that.

        He can only use the players given him. Kulak and Jokki will get their games this year. Wotherspoon is still a borderline NHLer but aside from that there were other considerations (i.e. maxing out cap space). If Wotherspoon were here instead of Grossman, they’d be over the cap, or they wouldn’t have signed Versteeg.

    • knappsacked

      Hey mike. This looks like it was a lot of work so i just wanted to say thank you for the effort and i found kt very enlightening. Keep up the good work man!

    • HunterSteez

      It feels like the flames neutral zone play has improved across the board, not just in the PK. Hopefully this stays consistent. Great breakdown, Mike.

      • I think – depending how the next few games go – that may happen. From a systemic standpoint most of the first period was full of a lot of failure by it’s part.

        The Oilers were clicking quite well when it came to supporting the puck, finding an outlet pass, and getting the controlled exit.

        This team has elements that should find success in what they were hoping to achieve but it didn’t initially happen.

        A bulk of my writing this season is strictly going to be game flow, systems, stats, and play breakdowns so I’ll try to cover as much as I can 🙂

    • Craig

      This was awesome! Thanks Mike. The breakdown with Video helps show each of your points, and helps to emphasize what my eyes saw on Wed.

      I’m glad to hear that Monahan is starting to show signs of being defensively strong, him and Brouwer looked awesome together.

      Backlund and Frolik look so good together on the PK, if the other pairs can learn from them we’ll be in really good shape.
      Now we just need to limit the amounts of penalties taken.

    • kittensandcookies

      The game sucked but the PK made me cry with tears of joy. So much better than the passive hold-on-to-your-hats wibbly wobbly PK from years past.