Blackhawks penalty kill is on life support

The Chicago Blackhawks penalty kill used to give other teams fits, not so much this season.

In fact, it has been so disastrous that teams are much more likely to try and draw every penalty they can. What’s worse is that more often than not opponents have been able to capitalize on the man advantage.

While there is still plenty of time to right the ship, the penalty kill is certainly a cause for concern. To put things in perspective, the Blackhawks are killing penalties 46.15 percent as of this morning, while the rest of the league is averaging 81 percent.

For those of you keeping score at home, that number puts the Blackhawks dead last, and if it’s not corrected in short order, it could jeopardize their chances of even making the wild card.

No matter how magical Patrick Kane, Artemi Panarin, and Artem Anisimov’s line is, or how unexpectedly great Richard Panik has been to start the season, that’s nearly impossible to overcome. In fact, unless all four lines start scoring at the same clip as the “Bread and Butter” line, the focus will remain firmly on the PK until they find some way to stop the bleeding.

The Blackhawks are averaging 3.71 penalties per game, which is far too many with a leaky PK. There was a bright side in Monday night’s overtime loss, Tyler Motte’s four-minute penalty was successfully killed, but they are going to have to put together a stretch of successful penalty kills for that to be anything more than a footnote in the current narrative.

So the question is what can they do to fix it?

Lock It Down

First and foremost, stop taking so many unnecessary penalties (please note: this sentiment is best delivered at a yell).

If there isn’t an immediate scoring threat, there is no reason to be committing penalties all over the ice. This one is pretty straight forward: if you stay out of the box, you stay out of PK trouble.

The Blackhawks still need to be better, in the event that they have to commit a penalty to stop a breakaway but they don’t need to keep giving up undisciplined penalties to ‘practice’ the PK.  At the rate they are going, the netminders might be staging an intervention and ask that they just let the other teams take their shots on the breakaway.

It doesn’t help matters that Jonathan Toews is currently leading the team in penalty minutes (9).

See-Shaw Effect

Andrew Shaw was known for taking some boneheaded penalties over the course of his career in Chicago, but when he was on the ice, he was able to muscle opposing players away from the crease or at the very least draw their focus enough to limit their effectiveness.

Unfortunately, that is one thing that is missing on the current roster. If the other team is going to have a man advantage, they simply can not be allowed to camp out in front of Corey Crawford (or Scott Darling) waiting to tip in a shot from the point.

This is where Shaw is missed the most; his net front presence was a tremendous asset whether he was screening for his linemates, or clearing the crease for his netminder. However, the fact remains Shaw is not here and someone is going to have to step into that hole and start helping the netminders by pushing the screen out or at the very least opening up the line of sight so that Crawford or Darling have half a chance of seeing the pucks coming their way.

Lane Closure

Over the course of the Blackhawks’ seven games, the Blackhawks have been a bit off the mark in terms of closing off the shooting lanes on the kill. They are putting bodies on the player, but that doesn’t stop them from firing a shot on net, and if the opposition is camped at the net more often than not it’s going to find a way behind the netminder.

Not only are they giving up some prime real estate around the net, making Crawford’s job more difficult, but they are also giving teams way too much room entering the zone. Part of what made the Blackhawks penalty kill so dominant a few years ago was that they made teams battle to move through the neutral zone and forced the opposition to follow the path they dictated as they entered the zone by closing off the lane up the middle.

Currently, opponents are being given a lot of freedom to get to the middle of the ice, leaving all four defenders hovering around the potential shooter instead of in front of him. That trend makes it harder for the penalty killers to block shots, deflect pucks, or screen the shooter or passer.

So far, the aggressive pressure that has been the hallmark of the Blackhawks penalty kill has faltered and the issue is going to continue as long as the opposing players are given all the room in the world to set up at the top of the zone for a pass, or a hard shot that lands within striking distance of their linemate sitting in Crawford’s lap.

Return to Form

The good news is that the Blackhawks can make a few adjustments and correct course, and they have a solid veteran presence to help convey the changes that need to be made.

The bad news is that the usual suspects are not performing as well (including Tyler Motte, Jonathan Toews, and Artem Anisimov who have contributed 27 of the Blackhawks 64 penalty minutes in the first seven games), but Dennis Rasmussen could be looking to earn a bigger role on the penalty kill as he has been quite effective in a very small sample size.

As always, when you have the kind of roster turnover that the Blackhawks have had in recent years, growing pains are to be expected but the time for excuses have come and gone. The Blackhawks are undoubtedly prioritizing the penalty kill as they hit the ice whether it be in practice or game play. The kill is cause for a lot of concern across the board, and the topic that is at the forefront of every coach, player, fan and beat writer in Chicago.

If they can’t figure it out quickly, Stan Bowman may get a little more active early in the season.

Positive Signs

While the penalty kill has been getting much of the spotlight, there have been two things that have been providing a bit of a welcomed distraction.

Richard Panik has been having a great start to his season, and currently, leads the league with six goals (and is tied for second with eight points). Of course, this is a very small sample size, but considering he is tied with rookie sensation Auston Matthews, and above last season’s standout rookie Connor McDavid it’s pretty impressive for a guy who was projected to land in the bottom six. For the time being, he has been making his case to stay on the top line with one of the top two-way pivots in the game in Toews.

Artem Anisimov is also having a great start as he currently is second in the league in points with nine. While he has still floundered on the faceoff dot, with an abysmal 35 percent success rate, and he has already almost matched his penalty minutes totals over the last two seasons, he has also been the lynchpin once again centering the line with Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin.

While his production almost makes you want to overlook the flaws in his game, both of those stats absolutely must be corrected. Especially the penalties since the kill has some very obvious holes at the moment.

While the penalty kill has been seriously cringe-worthy, at least we know that the magic of the Bread and Butter line was no fluke. And the Blackhawks finally have some secondary production with 16 players contributing at least a point thus far this season.

The Blackhawks are going to need all of these positives to carry forward, but all of that will be a non-issue if they can’t resurrect their penalty kill because at the moment it is on life support.

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