Is it hot enough for you Wilderness? As we roll into Steamtember, remember that Wild training camp opens just a mere 12 days away. This week in my quest to make this Wild squad a real legit contender, I am fixing the penalty-kill.
While the PK wasn't awful last season, it certainly wasn't good either. Lots can be pointed at the goaltender, Niklas Backstrom, being over-played down the stretch and the team around him just struggling to stay afloat.
It is curious to point out that the penalty-kill was almost always the strongest point of the team's play under the helm of Jacques Lemaire. In 2008-09, his final season, the Wild PK ranked 2nd with an 87.6 percent success rate. In early November of that year, the Wild had eclipsed the 93 percentile.
The 2013 season? The Wild ranked a mediocre 18th with an 80.7 percent success rate. Strangely enough, Minnesota led the league in fewest times short-handed both in '08-'09 and '13.
A great penalty-kill starts from the back end. Backstrom will need to be given ample rest this season. In order to stay sharp, he cannot be ridden into the ground like he was last season. It eventually wound up costing him the playoffs with a sports hernia. Backstrom is a solid positional goalie and if his penalty killers can keep good position on the opposition, he should be successful more often than not. Josh Harding truly inspired a myriad of hockey fans with his gutty performance in the 2013 Stanley Cup Quarterfinal against the Chicago Blackhawks. He absolutely needs to stay healthy and be effective this season. The goalie tandem will need to be just that, a tandem, a team. They need to push each other and keep each other sharp by playing well and spelling each other frequently for success.
Next, is the defensive corp. Ryan Suter is leading the way for this group. The guy eats minutes like Joey Chestnut eats hot dogs; no chewing and as many as he can. His defensive partner will be Jonas Brodin. Brodin will need to repeat and (I don't know if this is possible) build off of his rookie season. Jared Spurgeon and Marco Scandella will need to be more physical in front of the net if they want to have better success killing off minors. If Spurgeon cannot push power forwards around, then they may need to rely of Keith Ballard for extra physicality. The good thing going for this defensive group on the PK is that they are smart, cerebral players and know how to get into shooting and passing lanes, making life a little bit easier for the net minders.
Cal Clutterbuck is now a New York Islander. It was said last season that he was morphing his game into the gritty, grinding type that is good at killing penalties. Problem was, while he was used in that situation, he tended to be on the ice when a PPGA was scored. So, General Manager Chuck Fletcher made a statement move that will most definitely improve kill convergence. He signed Matt "Are f&%!ing kidding me!" Cooke. Add him to a tough-as -nails PK with the likes of Torrey Mitchell, Kyle Brodziak,maybe Jake Dowell, and of course Jason Pominville, Zach Parise, and Mikko Koivu. The grinders mixed in with the smorgasbord of captains should see marked improvement.
When a team leads the league in fewest times short-handed, elite penalty killing becomes that much more important. An opposing team knows beforehand that the game will be tough because the scoring will most assuredly have to come 5-on-5 or short-handed. If the Wild can have the success on the kill that the Jacques Lemaire-led Wild did, you will see the team not only be at the top part of the standings, but they will sustain their success. Just look at Chicago. They had an outstanding PK during the regular season, ranking 3rd with an 87.2 percent and an even better kill in the post season. They rode their PK all the way to the Stanley Cup. Their PK was so stifling that they could endure their power play woes in the Final series against Boston.
Staying out of the box is essential to a good penalty-kill as well. It seems obvious, right? Obviously if there isn't a penalty that needs to be killed, it's good, right? Penalties are going to happen. No one and no team are ever that perfect. If the team can limit the hard minutes of PK time on players like Parise, Koivu and the defensemen, not just throughout the season, but as a per game basis, you will likely see a dramatic increase in offensive numbers. What this means is Zenon Konopka absolutely has to stay away from, well, being Zenon Konopka and taking the bone-headed penalty. Taking needless instigator minutes or really bad/obvious obstruction and bench penalties need to be all but eliminated from the Wild's game. Teams in the Central Division can and will take advantage of extra minutes on the power play.
An improved penalty kill coupled with an improved power play will make a difference for the Wild this season. In the end that means not only a playoff berth, but a real chance of making the finals. Training camp opens September 11th, and we can only sit and watch from our humble homes in the Wilderness