The Blue Jackets currently rank 30th in the NHL on the penalty kill, with a paltry 71.4% being killed without a goal. While that rate wouldn't be the worst all time (that dishonor belongs to the 1979-90 Kings at 67.7%), it would put the current Blue Jackets squad among the ten worst penalty killing teams since the NHL began keeping track of the stat in 1963. Despite the current run of eight straight killed penalties over the last two games, the Blue Jackets could make some small adjustments that would help improve the unit. To figure out these adjustments, lets go to the tape!
The Neutral Zone Forecheck
This play is an extreme example of the issues with the Blue Jackets neutral zone play when down a man. They have been playing their forwards very aggressively, which means if they get beat, the opposing team can enter the neutral zone with ease. Here, there are multiple breakdowns in addition to the issues with the set up. Lets use some screen caps of this goal to break down the problems.
You can see Derek Dorsett putting pressure on Marc-Andre Gragnani, however notice how far up ice R.J. Umberger is. In this situation, I would prefer Umberger either play deeper and allow Dorsett to swing across and pressure, or for Umberger to play further up and force the play and make sure Dorsett swings back quickly.
This image shows Umberger making a couple of very big mistakes. First, he is not putting nearly enough pressure on the Buffalo defender. If he is going to be caught up ice like this he needs to force Ehrhoff into making a quick decision, preferably a difficult or less than ideal pass. Instead, he moves towards him slowly and allows Ehrhoff to make a crisp tape to tape pass to Pominville. His next two mistakes are related. For some reason R.J. decides to try and tell Dorsett where to go. I'm not sure where he's pointing, as he is definitely giving Dorsett some bad information (Dorsett should be hustling back to the blue line). While he's focusing on pointing in the wrong direction, he gets lazy with his stick and is not taking away any passing lanes. This allows Ehrhoff to pass it straight up the middle of the ice, the one spot he should be forcing the pass away from.
The poor job on the forecheck by Umberger now forces miscommunication between Tyutin and Wisniewski and a missed assignment by Dorsett. If Umberger had been playing closer to the Columbus blue line earlier, he could have picked up Pominville and Ehrhoff would not have been able to make the pass. If he had been playing higher in the zone or taking away a passing lane, Pominville would not be able to break in that quickly. Instead, Pominville hits the line with speed, before Dorsett has a chance to get back to the blue line and pick up Vanek. This problem is further compounded by a lack of communication between Wisniewski and Tyutin. They both crowd the middle of the ice, instead of just Wisniewski playing Pominville. This allows Pominville to drop the pass off to a wide open Vanek, who has a clear lane to the net.
Instead of shooting, Vanek makes a very smart decision. He hangs onto the puck long enough that Tyutin and Mason completely commit to the shot. This is not a mistake on their part, as Vanek is a very dangerous player. But this allows Vanek to hit Boyes for the cross-ice one-timer, while Pominville goes to the net to screen Mason.
Chasing in the Defensive Zone
First off, had Aaron Johnson not blown a wheel on that loose puck this would not have been a goal. The major issue I have with the Blue Jackets on this play is the chasing done by Grant Clitsome.
At this point the Blue Jackets are not in trouble yet. Johnson is still on the ice, but Clitsome is in position to deny either Sabre a lane to the net, Pahlsson is in position to deny the puck up the half-wall and Dorsett is covering for Clitsome in front of the net.
Only 1 second has passed, but now the Jackets are in serious trouble. Clitsome decides to chase Vanek around the net. Dorsett is still half covering for Clitsome and gets confused in his responsibility and misses Pominville, who buries the one-timer.
This goal could have been easily avoided. The Blue Jackets have been hyper-aggressive in the defensive zone, especially with their defensemen. This goal showed it twice, first with Johnson, then with Clitsome. Had Clitsome merely taken Vanek's lane to the net away, then gone in front of the net and pushed the play to the far corner, Dorsett would have been higher in the slot and picked up Pominville in time. Instead, Clitsome puts himself in a position where he is defending no one, and the Blue Jackets have two defensemen behind their own goal line on one side of the ice. Far too aggressive play by the defensemen.
This goal should have been avoided easily, even with their current set up. Captain Rick Nash is puck watching, not paying attention to Kuba, who sneaks back door for the one-timer. The middle forward on the penalty kill has two jobs: 1) take away passes to/through the slot and 2) don't let anyone come back door. In this case his stick is in a very bad position and is not taking away any passing lanes, plus the more egregious mistake of not realizing Kuba has creeped down from the point.
Where Nash's stick is positioned, he is not defending any pass, nor covering any player.
Also caught puck watching: Grant Clitsome. Tyutin turns the puck over and chases up the wall. This is fine, as it doesn't allow Spezza to make a play to the net. However, Clitsome is watching the play instead of realizing that he needs to complete his half of the rotation with Tyutin. He realizes this far too late, which allows Michalek to put a beautifully heartbreaking tip on the Gonchar shot past Mason.
More puck watching: Derek Mackenzie. Remember what I said two paragraphs ago about the middle forward on the penalty kill? Don't let anyone come back door, don't let anyone pass it through the center of the zone. Mackenzie gets caught doing both here. Kostitsyn gets through Methot due to his aggressiveness and where he is set up in the zone (I'll get to this), but Mackenzie makes a downright foolish play, trying to come all the way down and help on Kostitsyn even though he won't get there in time, there are closer Jackets players and it is not his responsibility. This leaves Suter wide open and Mackenzie out of position to break up a pass.
The Position of the Strong Side Defenders in the Defensive Zone
This is my primary issue with the Blue Jackets penalty kill. Look at the position of Tyutin and Dorsett. The standard set up is to have the strong side defenseman closer to the face off dot than the goal line, with the forward higher still, closer to the point. This takes away the half wall and the point, but allows opposing teams to cycle the puck down low and gain an advantage. When Franzen plays the puck down low to Filppula, Tyutin overcommits and even hits him (a penalty killing faux pas, especially in the defensive zone). This spreads out the space between Tyutin and Dorsett enough that Franzen can pick up the puck and fire it past a screened Steve Mason.
This goal further illustrates the position of the Jackets players. Look at this image:
I would much rather see the Blue Jackets play with the strong side defenseman closer to the blue X and the strong side forward on the red X. In this case, Vermette is attempting to get Dallas to push to puck lower and take away the shot from the point. However, this opens up the middle of the ice, so Martinek slides much higher than I would like to see. This creates an open man down low, and with crisp passing, the puck can be moved to a net-front two on one very quickly. To further this problem, it appears Clitsome was puck watching (again), and lost Ryder, which allowed for the cross-crease pass.
Based on the previous two clips, you can see the Jackets troubles instantly. Methot and Pahlsson are both set up far too high in the zone. After rotating forwards, Methot is still in the same position. This leaves the lane open for Sedin to pass to Burrows down low, walk to the net and bury his own rebound.
This is not a mistake on his part. This is coaching. The coaches clearly want a set up with the defensemen playing very aggressively, with the forwards pushing the opponent down the half wall (the hashmarks by the boards) and taking away the point. I disagree with this set up. With a set of very good defensemen, this can work. If you have players who can win races and battles for the puck, make quick good decisions and have the puck skills to get it down the ice in a pinch, this can be successful. However, the Jackets personnel doesn't fit. I would much rather see the defensemen play lower in the zone and be more passive. The forwards would then be responsible for pressuring the opponent on the half wall and then jumping out to cover the point. This allows more point shots, but it removes much of the ability of the opponent to make clean passes around the net. Further, it frees up your defensemen to clear the net, hopefully giving Mason a clearer view of shots from the point.
The final way to help improve the penalty kill? Keep Aaron Johnson off the ice. He over-commits, makes poor decisions and falls down more than any professional hockey player I've ever seen. On this goal, his responsibility is Cleary. Instead of playing his man, he tries to block the pass, which impedes Mason's ability to make a save, and Johnson himself knocks it in. Had he just gone where he was supposed to go and picked up Cleary, Franzen's pass would have been safely broken up on the opposite side of the ice.
Postscript: I left off both powerplay goals scored by Minnesota and the Lidstrom powerplay goal. The Heatley goal was literally played perfectly by the Blue Jackets and was just an incredible play by one of the more talented individuals in the NHL. Seriously go watch that goal again. The Jackets pick up every player, there are no lanes to the net, and Heatley has a guy draped all over him. Yet he manages to tip a very hard pass into the top shelf from the slot. Scandella's goal looked like a poor neutral zone forecheck, and likely would have been included in that section, but the only replays I found had the stupid view where the camera shows a close up of a random player the announcers are talking about, totally ignoring the play. I hate when they do that. Anyway, it did not allow me to properly see where the breakdown came, whether it was player mistake or a poor set up at the blue line. The Lidstrom goal was essentially a 5 on 3, and was mostly the result of good puck movement by Detroit. However, I might have an issue with the Jackets 5 on 3 set up, but that one goal was not enough evidence to prove it was not player mistake.