A new NHL season always brings a few surprises, and one that’s occasionally overlooked is the fiddling coaches do with their penalty-killing units. Sometimes the changes are temporary, as players are tried in the role and then moved out of it, and sometimes the changes stick. In some cases, coaches use the penalty-killing role to train younger players on the defensive side of the game, to round out their skill-set.
That certainly appears to be what is happening in a few NHL cities, and here we’ll look at some of the league’s more surprising penalty-killers in the early going.
Edmonton – Ales Hemsky & Jordan Eberle
Jordan Eberle’s first career goal generated a ton of excitement across Canada (and prompted this excellent HotH review of stellar first goals), but one of the interesting things about it was that it was a shorthanded marker. All together, Eberle played 2:13 while the Oilers were down a man. Of course, this fits in with Eberle’s performance outside the NHL; he was a member of Canada’s penalty-killing unit at the World Juniors, and last season he led the Pats with six shorthanded goals. Certainly it’s the offence that represents Eberle’s main appeal, but it will be interesting to see how his two way game develops, given his history and the early trust shown by coach Tom Renney.
On the other end of the scale in NHL experience is Ales Hemsky, who played more shorthanded minutes in the game against Calgary (2:02) than he did over the entirety of the previous season (0:46). He’s never been a penalty-killer at the NHL level; his previous career high in minutes was just over half an hour over an entire season, back in 2003-04. The Calgary game may represent a one-off, but given the lack of experienced penalty-killers on the Oilers roster (as well as the abundance of offensively talented youngsters) it’s certainly possible that Renney plans to use Hemsky in that role this season.
Atlanta – Anthony Stewart
A first round pick of the Florida Panthers back in the 2003 draft, Stewart’s offence stagnated at the junior level after his selection (despite an impressive showing at the World Juniors), and things didn’t get any better when he turned professional after the NHL lockout. Stewart has struggled to hit the 30 point mark in the AHL, so it was a little surprising to see him make the Thrashers out of training camp. That said, Stewart’s athleticism has always been very good (and Rick Dudley’s a sucker for a physical specimen), and maybe he can be reinvented as a checker in Atlanta.
Long Island – Josh Bailey
Since before his draft day, Bailey has had a reputation as a strong defensive forward and he’s carried that over to the NHL level (for example, McKeen’s magazine calls him “a multi-purpose player with intangibles such as stout defensive positioning”) but over his first two seasons he has only seen brief time on the penalty kill. He easily led all Islanders forwards in their first game of the season in penalty-killing time (5:00) and it appears he’ll be asked to step into a prominent role on the unit this season.
Philadelphia – Claude Giroux & Darroll Powe
Over the Flyers’; first two games, both Giroux and Powe have been asked to do a lot. Giroux’s averaged 3:42 a night killing penalties, while Powe’s been matched with specialist Blair Betts and has played more than 6:00 per game shorthanded. Both are playing far more time in that situation than they did last year, where they each average around the 1:00 per game mark. For Giroux, a budding scorer who finished just under the point-per-game mark in last year’s playoffs, this represents a handy skill and a developmental opportunity; for Powe, an undrafted role player with limited offensive upside this could be a career-saver, if he can take advantage of it.
Tampa Bay – Steven Stamkos & Martin St. Louis
These two are perhaps the least surprising names on this list – St. Louis has been used occasionally on the power play for years, while Stamkos was given a bit role on the unit last season – but it’s still noteworthy to see them deployed in this fashion. Stamkos represents a big part of the future of the team, and appears to be the heir to Vincent Lecavalier as the face of the franchise, but his game (like that of most young players) still has some defensive deficiencies and sticking him on the penalty kill can’t hurt. For St. Louis, I’ll be interested to see if his ice-time goes down as the season wears on, but it’s possible that head coach Guy Boucher has him pencilled in as a mainstay for the first time in years.