It doesn't take a genius to figure out that the Arizona Coyotes penalty kill wasn't good last season. The unit finished 26th in the NHL in PK%, ending the year killing off only 79 percent of penalties. The only teams to finish worse were Minnesota, Toronto, Florida and the New York Islanders.
There is no doubt that if Arizona wants to contend for a playoff berth in the upcoming season, the penalty kill is going to have to improve. Let's take a deeper look at some of the numbers behind that 79 percent, and how important improvement is.
Over the past five years, Arizona's penalty kill has been inconsistent, to say the least. They have finished sixth best (2009-10), 26th (2010-11), eighth (2011-12), 22nd (2012-13) and 26th again (2013-14). Strangely enough, seven of the players who received significant PK time last year also played quite a bit on the group that finished eighth three years ago.
Only one of those seven, Derek Morris, will not be returning in 2014-15. The team has the players needed for a successful system while shorthanded, but for some reason, consistency is hard to find.
However, one thing is for sure: a good penalty kill is vital to a team's results. Sure, there are outliers (see: Minnesota last year), but for the most part, a good penalty kill will equal a good season and a bad penalty kill will make it difficult to qualify for the playoffs. Eleven playoff teams finished in the top 15 in PK% last year. A good penalty kill has the ability to make a team's season.
For the Coyotes, when they take penalties is almost as important as how many they take. Of the Coyotes' 272 penalties last season, 82 of them came in the first period, 89 came in the second and 77 were tallied in the third. Not surprisingly, the Coyotes often allowed the first goal. When the opposition scored first, Arizona had a .231 winning percentage, 27th in the league. However, when they managed to score first, they had a .767 winning percentage, a top five number. As expected, the Coyotes' had a 22-2-2 record when leading after the first, but just a 3-18-2 mark when trailing.
So how can the PK get better in 2014-15? For starters, if Mike Smith can return to his former, Vezina-like self, it will go a long way in and of itself. The Coyotes will also need players like Antoine Vermette and Joe Vitale to win defensive zone faceoffs that send the attacking team out of their zone early on. The loss of Boyd Gordon in that role significantly hurt the team, so Vitale has some large shoes to fill.
The Coyotes may be well served by mixing their size and speed while shorthanded. Players like David Moss and Martin Erat, though reasonably good defensively, are not highly regarded for being fast. On the other hand, players like Lauri Korpikoski and potentially Max Domi have the potential to stretch opposing power plays, pressure defensemen on the point, and maybe even create a scoring chance or two. The tougher it is for a power play to enter the zone and cycle the puck, the harder it is for them to score.
But the easiest way to improve the penalty kill is to stay out of the box entirely. The Coyotes took nine bench minors in 2013-14 for infractions like too many men on the ice, which was 22nd in the league. That is an easy area to cut down on infractions, as are plays like delay of game (launching the puck over the glass or playing a faceoff with the hand).
But ultimately, if the Coyotes are chasing fewer pucks and fewer leads, the kind of tired legs and lost battles that result in hooking, tripping, and interference minors should decrease, and the Coyotes' penalty kill should become a nagging blister instead of an Achilles' Heel.