By Stan Smith
I am old.
I watched the Maple Leafs win the Stanley Cup kind of old.
It would make sense that my thoughts would lean slightly toward old-school ideas. At the same time, I feel that you can teach this old dog some new tricks.
Who Should Play on the Penalty Kill?
My old-school thinking regarding penalty killing has always been that you put your four biggest, best shot-blocking, defensive players on the ice. Then, you have them get in the way of the opposing team’s power play.
The general idea was you would block shots and block passes. If you got your stick on a puck, you iced it, and got off the ice, allowing the next group of penalty killers on the ice.
The players on the penalty kill did not have to be fleet of foot or remotely dangerous offensively with the puck. They were expected to form a box in front of the goaltender and stay there, not allowing the opposing team any chance to penetrate the dangerous scoring areas of the ice.
This was how it was done, from the dawn of the sport of hockey right up until the 1980s.
Wayne Gretzky Changed the Way Penalties Were Killed
Then a player by the name of Wayne Gretzky came onto the scene. As a Peewee player at the age of ten Gretzky scored 378 goals in 85 games. I got to watch Gretzky play in a Peewee tournament in Brockville, Ontario. His teammates would give him the puck and he would skate down the ice and score with it. That was it. The opposing players didn’t stand a chance.
When Gretzky joined the NHL he changed the way the Edmonton Oilers killed penalties. Gretzky was a threat to score any time he was on the ice, be it even strength, power play, or on the penalty kill. By the time Gretzky retired, he had scored an NHL record 73 goals in shorthanded situations.
Having Gretzky on the ice added another dimension to the penalty kill. Now the players on the opposing power play had to be aware that any mistake, any bobble, and the puck could just as easily end up in their own net.
Over the Years Offensive-Minded Players Have Thrived on the PK
Over the years since, there have been some offensively highly skilled players who have thrived on the penalty kill. The player that is second on the list of shorthanded goal scorers is none other than former Gretzky teammate, Mark Messier, with 63. Next are Steve Yzerman at 50, and Mario Lemieux at 49.
The Boston Bruins’ Brad Marchand leads all active players with 33 short-handed goals.
A search of top shorthanded scorers for the 2022-23 season on Naturalstattrick.com, interestingly enough, shows two of the top-three point scorers on the penalty kill are Elias Pettersson (four goals and eight points) and JT Miller (three goals and six points).
The Maple Leafs Should Remember Those Two Canucks’ Names
Do those two names ring a bell for Maple Leafs’ fans?
I’m sure it does for any of us that watched Pettersson and Miller both score (and assist on) two goals on the same penalty kill when the Maple Leafs lost to the Canucks in Vancouver on March 4.
Mitch Marner Has Become a Solid Penalty Killer for the Maple Leafs
Segueing back to the Maple Leafs, when the Maple Leafs first started using Mitch Marner on the penalty kill I was not thrilled with the idea at all. I felt that Marner’s minutes would be better utilized in areas of the game where he had better offensive opportunities.
Specifically, these opportunities included the shift immediately after a successful penalty kill. My biggest worry was that he would be lost to injury from blocking shots.
At first, I cringed when Marner was on the ice killing penalties. But, I eventually got past that feeling and gradually found myself looking forward to seeing Marner out there in shorthanded situations. I was excited over the thought of him getting his stick on an errant pass and then breaking up the ice.
I’ve Now Come Full Circle about Penalty Killing
After I saw that one penalty where Petterson and Miller destroyed the Maple Leafs’ power play, I have finally come full circle. I now see the penalty kill the same way that I am sure Gretzky probably saw back in his heyday. It’s another opportunity to score.
I want to see Auston Matthews and William Nylander join Marner on the penalty kill. I relish the thought of one of them breaking down the ice with Marner on a 2-on-1 instead of David Kampf or Alex Kerfoot.
Matthews’ game fits well suited to the penalty kill. He’s grown into a solid 200-foot player who also happens to be the NHL’s top shot-blocking forward with 77. While Nylander is not a shot-blocker and has had his defensive game questioned in the past, that part of his game is getting better and he does have the similar hand-eye coordination to Marner and is adept at knocking passes out of the air.
If Nylander gets the puck going the other way, he’s the fastest Maple Leafs’ skater with the puck. It is not uncommon now to see Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe toss Nylander on the ice for the occasional penalty kill.
I’m Still Old School in One Way
I still want to see two defensively sound defensemen out there on the backend with the Maple Leafs shorthanded. Mark Giordano (123 blocked shots) and Justin Holl (113 blocked shots) would be my ideal pairing.
I do have to admit that this old dog would not mind seeing the Maple Leafs create more offensive chances on the penalty kill.