December 8, 2013 Sections
Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
OTTAWA -- Given all their challenges in trying to improve, this may not have been a high-priority issue but it's not out of character.
The Winnipeg Jets and the Atlanta Thrashers before them have almost always had problems killing penalties.
So this year's start by the Jets, ranked at the bottom of the 30-team NHL in that category with a success rate of just 63.6 per cent (21 for 33) is again in the dreadful range. But it's the neighbourhood in which the team has resided for most of its 12 previous seasons.
Only once in that time has the franchise ever cracked the top 10 in NHL penalty killing, and in 10 of the 12 years, including last season's move to Winnipeg, the team was ranked 23rd or worse.
Bad luck doesn't usually last that long.
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The seriousness of this season's penalty-killing predicament was deepened with last week's road trip in which eight power-play goals were surrendered in 16 chances over three games.
If Winnipeg were to kill its next 20 short-handed situations -- bordering on a small miracle -- its percentage would come up to 77, still in the NHL's bottom half and still three points below the league average.
So what has been wrong, is wrong, with the Jets/Thrashers? And how are they looking to improve?
Well, as you might expect, it's a touchy subject, given that four of the team's five losses so far this season can be directly pinned on a lack of penalty-killing success.
Jets head coach Claude Noel and assistant coach and special-teams specialist Perry Pearn both declined this week to take questions on the matter, in particular what they think makes a good penalty-killer.
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Can what happened five or 10 years ago to the Thrashers still be relevant today?
Coming out of the lockout, a member of the Thrashers of 2005-06 said he really couldn't pinpoint why the team gave up a whopping 102 power-play goals that season.
J.P. Vigier was a regular on the Thrashers' penalty-killing unit for a good part of that season.
"I'm not sure I have an answer for that," Vigier said. "It's such a tough scenario. It could be a rut, bad bounces, a bad spell. There are so many things that go into it so it's really hard to explain why it's been so long that way. I wouldn't be able to put my finger on that."
The search for explanations to the prolonged poor performance likely has something to do with franchise success.
The Jets/Thrashers have but one playoff appearance to their credit in a dozen seasons.
Last season, just to review, Winnipeg was in fairly decent shape in the penalty-killing deparment halfway through 2011-12, right around the middle of the pack at 82.7 per cent and slightly better than the NHL average.
But a second-half swoon sent the Jets diving down to 24th place, finishing at 80.1 per cent.
They gave up 58 power-play goals on the season, more than double the total of the league leaders in New Jersey, who yielded just 27 over the whole year.
This season, many things have gone wrong, from goaltending to bad bounces to bad penalties to bad decisions to a rash of five-on-threes against.
And it hasn't helped that the team's most-used player on the penalty-kill from a year ago, defenceman Zach Bogosian, hasn't played a minute yet this season because of a wrist injury.
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So what do the Jets do to reverse history?
One man with ample experience in this area says many things are required.
Jacques Martin, the long-time NHL coach known to stress the defensive end of the game, said this week he didn't have enough background to comment specifically on the Jets/Thrashers years of struggles in penalty killing.
But he knows what teams should and must do if they want to succeed in this area.
"Well, goaltending is a big part of penalty-killing no matter what you say," Martin told the Free Press.
"The other areas? I would include aggressiveness. You've got to be willing to commit to blocking shots and being in the shooting lanes. To me, that's such a key, having proper lineups and being willing to block shots."
But it's not all just about a defender sacrificing his body, Martin said.
"To be all on the same page, all of the penalty-killers, that's knowing when to be aggressive and when you are, you all have to be," Martin said. "Many times then, if you can outnumber the opposition on loose pucks, or at least keep the numbers the same and win the battle and have good support, that makes your penalty killers very successful."
Another element to good teams in this area is they have good skaters who can be a disruption to teams coming up the ice, or to teams trying to enter the zone to set up the attack.
"A lot of teams line up three across, trying to make it difficult to enter," Martin said. "If you can't be penetrated with puck control, then you can look at overloading one side where the dump-in goes.
"But there are many things that go together, and they include players good at stops and starts, players with good sticks. And the goalie to make saves."
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The Jets will try to get going in the right direction today in Ottawa against the Senators.
Martin said he has confidence the Jets' penalty-killing will get better because they have made an excellent hire in assistant coach Perry Pearn.
"Perry's one of the best I ever worked with," Martin said. "It's going to come around."
Jets/Thrashers penalty-killing history:
GP GA Att. PK% Rank
11-12 82 58 292 80.1 24th
10-11 82 64 285 77.5 27th
09-10 82 57 320 82.2 16th
08-09 82 88 366 76.0 29th
07-08 82 75 354 78.8 27th
06-07 82 79 391 79.8 T-26th
05-06 82 102 491 79.2 T-25th
03-04 82 58 391 85.1 T-8th
02-03 82 65 355 81.6 T-23rd
01-02 82 65 358 81.8 25th
00-01 82 90 408 77.9 30th
99-00 82 76 386 80.3 24th
(GP- games played; GA-power-play goals against; Att-times shorthanded)
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 9, 2013 C3