Players buying into Arniel’s plan has Jets PK among best in NHL
Shorthanded success can be a game-changer
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NASHVILLE — When Scott Arniel was hired as an associate coach for the Winnipeg Jets, he came in with a list of priorities he felt could take his new team to a new level.
As the man in charge of the defence, he wanted the Jets to defend better and to take ownership of their play in the defensive zone. Winnipeg was giving up too many quality chances in their own end, ranked in the bottom half of the league in shots and goals against over the 2021-22 season.
The other item was the penalty kill, an area in which Arniel has earned a reputation as something of a guru. Over his four seasons in Washington before joining Rick Bowness’s staff, the Capitals had the seventh best PK unit in the NHL.
As for the Jets, they were coming off an embarrassing playoff-less season, including a penalty kill last year that ranked near the bottom of the league, better than only the Vancouver Canucks, Seattle Kraken and Detroit Red Wings. Equipped with a tried-and-true formula, Arniel believed he could turn it around.
He also knew he needed more than a plan.
“I didn’t look at anything to do with what went on last year. I just kind of had a game plan and I didn’t know if it was going to work,” Arniel told the Free Press ahead of Sunday’s 5-3 win over the Philadelphia Flyers. “The biggest thing is the players have to buy into what you’re doing, and they have.” Heading into Monday night’s action, the Jets had the second-best penalty kill in the league, behind only the Boston Bruins. Winnipeg is clicking at an 83.8 per cent success rate, nearly 10 points better than they were a year ago.
In the Jets last 15 games, they’ve allowed a power-play goal in just four of them. Prior to a disappointing performance against the Flyers, in which they allowed two goals on four shorthanded situations, Winnipeg was a perfect 18-for-18 over a six-game stretch.
“What I’m really impressed with our guys is there’s a lot of detail that has to go into it… and our detail has been outstanding. Whether it’s the first four guys going over the boards or the next four, they’re all cohesive, have the same look. They’ve been real good in that sense.”
Defenceman Dylan DeMelo has played a key role on the penalty kill since being traded to the Jets midway through the 2019-20 campaign. He was part of the frustrated group last season that seemed incapable of shutting down other teams and he’s now a big part of the success this year, playing on a No.1 unit that includes defenceman Brenden Dillon and forwards Adam Lowry and Morgan Barron.
Whether it’s the first group or the second — a unit consisting of defencemen Neal Pionk and Dylan Samberg, as well as forwards Saku Maenalanen and Kevin Stenlund — the look is the same. That’s what happens when you have a structured plan in place that is trusted by the players, and easy to understand and execute.
“It’s honestly been a totally new system of how we kill. Guys know exactly what they’re supposed to do when they get out there,” said DeMelo. “Even in the pre-scout, when they throw different things at us, we’re able to do a really good job of reading off each other and guys are blocking shots. We’ve done a really good job on face-offs, too, which is huge. It’s not just one thing, guys have done a great job and it’s been a total buy-in.”
He added: “For me, it’s been a lot of fun to win some games for us with our PK. Hopefully we keep doing that.”
DeMelo noted part of the buy-in process had to do with players challenging themselves to be better than last year. There’s a lot of pride that comes with special teams, especially when your play is hurting and not helping the team win games.
When things are going badly, there’s a tendency for that frustration to snowball into something bigger. Conversely, when you’re having great success, it can be a major injection of energy and purpose.
“Sometimes confidence, it’s a hard thing to put your finger on. But when you have it, you’re making your reads a little bit quicker and things like that,” said Lowry. “We’ve done a real good job of pre-scouting the other teams and trying to combat what they’re trying to do. You’re kind of working as a four-man unit, five-man unit if you count (our goalies). That’s been the biggest part, is the type of chances we’ve given up this year. I feel like they’ve been a lot less dangerous and our goaltending’s been great.”
There’s no doubt that having strong goaltending is a key component to success, whether it’s on the penalty kill or any other aspect of the game. It’s of particular importance when the team is down a man and it’s inevitable the other team is going to get some quality looks.
Connor Hellebuyck has been exceptional for the Jets this season, and backup David Rittich has played well in relief. When you have stellar goaltending, that trust in your netminder allows for some different wrinkles in your system.
“The No. 1 place to score a goal comes from right in front of the goalie. When we give up the Grade A point-blank shots, we’ve made a big mistake and we know it and we’ve really from the start tried to eliminate giving up those quality chances,” said Arniel. “A goalie of that ability and with the tools that he has, if he can see those shots from farther out, have time to get his big body set or get moving if it’s a side-to-side play to get moving earlier because he knows that’s where we’re kind of pushing things, then he can make those saves. When has no idea where the puck is going or it’s coming from an angle that he’s not expecting, that’s when it’s tough for our goalies.” Continuity is also key. By employing the same personnel as often as possible, it helps speed up that chemistry.
With Barron, Maenalanen, Stenlund and Samberg all new to the PK, as well as learning a new system, there were some early growing pains. The Jets allowed four power-play goals against in the first seven games, only to follow that up with a stretch of nine games where they went 21-for-21.
“The chemistry of the forwards and the D is very important, but so is Scotty preparing them for what to expect, what are their tendencies,” said Bowness. “I don’t know what went on last year. I know how we want to do it and we’re just going to worry about what we’re doing now.”
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.