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The Wild’s penalty kill has gone from exceptional, to a mildly passing grade

NHL: Minnesota Wild at Calgary Flames Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

It hasn’t been a talker much of late, but the penalty kill of the Wild that was once high atop the league with a scorching 96.2 percent efficiency has fallen back to the pack. Still currently ranked 12th in the league, one has to wonder: what happened to that promising start?

When looking at the penalty kill, one has to first look at personnel. Of the Wild forwards and defensemen, these following players make up the Wild penalty killing units:

Unit 1:

Mikael Granlund/Zach Parise - Mikko Koivu

Ryan Suter - Jared Spurgeon

Unit 2:

Eric Staal - Jason Pominville/Erik Haula

Marco Scandella - Jonas Brodin

As expected, Koivu leads the forward group for short-handed minutes, followed by Granlund. They’ve been primarily deployed in the defensive zone during 5v5, so seeing them on the PK is nothing new. Koivu has carried a reputation of being such a solid defensive forward, that in year’s past, it’s a shame he wasn’t been given more of a consideration for the Selke Trophy before Bruce Boudreau’s marketing campaign. He’s been a rock in the faceoff circle, and Zucker and Granlund’s emergence this season has allowed that line to flourish despite getting the majority of the starts on defense.

But what if I told you that Koivu and Granlund actually aren’t nearly as good on the PK as you’d think? Compared to the other PK units of the Wild, it is actually Eric Staal, Jason Pominville, and Zach Parise that do a better job of mitigating unblocked shot attempts. And while the wingers like Parise and Pominville are vital to a kill, Staal’s ability to be force on the PK and in the faceoff circle only adds to his value.

The recent loss of Jonas Brodin hurts the penalty killers. It’s placed more of a strain on both Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon to play with Marco Scandella. Not to mention the puck and stick skills of Brodin are missed when it comes to attaining the puck and sending it down the length of the ice. Brodin ranks just behind Spurgeon in terms of unblocked shot mitigation while on the man-disadvantage.

However, the number one goaltender in the league in terms of Goals Against Average and Save percentage isn’t anywhere close to that short-handed. A drop in save percentage is expected for any and just about all goalies in the league. When the opposition gets to tee up clap bombs with extra space on the ice, goals are going to be scored. Dubnyk’s save percentage in all short handed situations? A mere .873. That kind of drop off from number one in all situations to 27th in short handed situations among goalies that have played 10 games or more.

Yes, this means that Darcy Kuemper, whose played in a total of 11 games this season, ranks a full 10 positions higher than Dubnyk. Though, Kuemper ranks 53rd, or dead last in the amount of shots faced with a measly 45 Shots against, compared to 157 shots faced while short handed.

The Wild PK is like a golfer with a 13 handicap. Month-to-month, the PK could be simply unstoppable and put up a 96% kill rate, but if they’re not right, they could drop to a brutal 73% the next month.

Wild Penalty Kill 2016-17

Wild PK Splits Rank TSH GA %
Wild PK Splits Rank TSH GA %
Total 12 142 25 82.4
Home 7 62 9 85.5
Away 20 81 16 80.2
October 1 26 1 96.2
November 29 38 10 73.7
December 2 42 4 90.5
January 23 30 7 76.7
February* 25 5 2 57.1
Wins 28 48 13 72.9
Losses 3 110 12 89.1
0 Days Rest 9 20 3 85
1 Day Rest 10 82 13 84.1
2 Days Rest 15 24 4 83.3
3+ Days Rest 27 14 5 64.3

What’s weird, and maybe the biggest stat that stood out was the fact that the Wild penalty kill is significantly worse in “Wins” than in “losses.” Another trend that is shown in these numbers, is that the Wild are able to kill penalties more successfully on days where there is no rest - back-to-backs - better than with three or more days rest when they can actually work on special teams in practice. This is significant as the Wild will have their “Bye Week” later in the month of February before concluding the month with a back-to-back against Los Angeles and Winnipeg. It will be the last rest of any extended time until the end of the season.

How exactly does a team go about improving the penalty kill?

It will likely come down to a review of the presonnel on the ice to better maximize certain player’s ability to lock down the defensive zone. Guys like Staal, Parise, and Pominville are just better on the PK than your normal staples on the ice.

A player that could, or should see more time on the PK? Nino Niederreiter. He’s tops on the team for unblocked shot suppression at 5-on-5, so lets give him a shot to do take what he’s doing effectively at even strength and let him help stabilize the otherwise volatile PK.

Minnesota is also one of the the best teams at keeping the majority of the shots coming from long range and keeping those that get through of the low-danger variety. That’s tougher to do when you’re down a man. However, what you saw from the PK in October was a unit that pressured the shots from the point and forced the opposition away from the slot. That allowed Dubnyk to see just about any shot coming his way. Giving the goalies better visibility and shutting down those passing lanes to reduce the cross-ice passing, should help the number one thing that can help improve the PK down the stretch.

Goaltending. Devan Dubnyk is the best goalie in the league, and when it comes to the PK, he needs to play like it. Dubnyk, and Kuemper to an extent, can single-handedly put the Wild PK back into the upper echelon of penalty killing.

Minnesota, as a team, doesn’t have many weaknesses as a whole. They continue to win even in spite of those numbers. But come playoffs and when every goal carries just a little more weight to it, taking away the power play as a weapon for the opposition will be an asset to a team with championship aspirations. There’s 30 games left in this season that has already been one of the best seasons in franchise history, and wrangling in that up-and-down penalty kill will allow this team to boldly go where no other Wild team, and frankly, no team in this market has gone before.