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Don't panic over the Wild penalty kill

The Wild penalty kill has stuggled out of the gate this year, but we should be optimistic about a turnaround.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, the Wild posted a league best 86.3% penalty kill success rate. That success was actually a fairly surprising result given the previous best finish for a Mike Yeo penalty kill was 15th. The penalty kill was a real asset last year and considering the absence of change in the roster this past offseason, it was reasonable to expect that the Wild would once again be a dominant penalty killing team. However, the Wild penalty kill is currently sitting at a saddening 74.4% success rate, good for second last in the league.

I hadn't noticed any substantial differences in the penalty kill strategy when I watched the games the first time around, but just to be sure I went back and watched all of the goals scored against the penalty kill this year and many other successful kills. The only real difference I see this year compared to last is that the Wild defenseman haven't been gapping up on the blue line quite as aggressively, and this has led to some easier zone entries. A staple of last season's penalty kill success was zone denial and that was accomplished by back-pressure by the forwards on the puck-carrier at the same time a defenseman challenged at the blue line.

The in-zone penalty kill (the box) sets up identically to last year's. There were a few breakdowns in coverage that I noticed, but that's going to happen to every team who is a man short. Some people may point out that a couple of goals have been scored against with an opponent standing directly in front of Dubynk with the Wild defenseman showing no desire to clear the front of the net. I am fairly certain this approach to opposing forwards in fron of the net is by design, as Dubnyk is a big goalie who should be able to look around screens. This allows the Wild defenseman to focus on clearing away any rebounds or cross-ice passes. They used the same strategy in front of the net last year and it worked out just fine.

So if everything is virtually the same, how does the best penalty killing team in the league become one of the worst? Well we've heard it said before, and it certainly rings true in this instance. Goalies. Are. Voodoo.

Last year, in 38 regular season games with the Wild, Devan Dubnyk posted a shorthanded Low-Danger Save % of 97.18, good for fourth in the league. This year, with the same group in front of him mind you, Dubnyk ranks dead last (goalies with >40 min shorthanded) in Low-Danger Save % with a mark of 76.19! That's a full six percentage points below the next "best" goalie in that category. Remember, these low-danger shots are the ones you don't mind giving up when killing penalties. Not getting anything near competent goaltending on the most harmless shots that can be given up is basically insurmountable for any team.

Still don't believe that the penalty kill (outside of Dubnyk) is ok? Let's go back to last year and that dominant league-leading penalty kill. That first place penalty kill went through a 16 game stretch from December 10th to January 14th where they operated at a 76.1% success rate, not too dissimilar from this year's pace. The best penalty kill in the league looked like one of the worst for a short stretch. And why? In that time-span, Darcy Kuemper posted an astonishing 71.43 Low-Danger Save %, good for dead last in the league over that time.

The lull in last year's penalty kill numbers was turned around by trading for Dubnyk, who in turn gave them a Vezina-worthy performance down the stretch. We constantly hear about how goalies are the most important penalty killer on the ice, and it's damn true. This is not the time to spread the blame around and make changes to a penalty killing process that proved it worked last year, and by everything I can tell should be working this year. The penalty kill success rate is going to go up simply because Devan Dubnyk is not the leagues worst goaltender. The season is (very) young and soon Dubnyk will return to at least his average self and the top-notch penalty killing will resume.

All stats courtesy of the amazing war-on-ice.