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Even in the middle of a season that was disappointing overall, there are still bright spots. In 2014-15, one of those was the Carolina Hurricanes penalty killing. At the trade deadline when things were shuffled a bit with the departure of blue line penalty kill regulars Tim Gleason and Andrej Sekera, the Canes were #1 in the entire NHL in killing penalties. (The Canes ultimately finished a very solid 4th overall in penalty killing percentage in 2014-15.)
As an important aside, assistant coach Steve Smith who led the Canes penalty killing deserves a huge amount of credit. Most importantly, the team was very good at killing penalties as measured by the stats above. Smith also managed to buildt penalty-killing units largely without using any of the team’s stars at forward. Eric Staal and Jordan Staal who have both played in this role in the past were mostly exempt in 2014-15 as was Jeff Skinner as one would expect.
This important success is obviously something the team would like to carry over into 2015-16. It is possible, but will require some adjustments personnel-wise.
At forward, the Canes return most of the successful players from 2014-15. Patrick Dwyer who logged 2:03 of penalty kill ice time per game (second only to Jay McClement) is gone, but otherwise the team has options. Jay McClement and Riley Nash who logged 2:11 and 1:41 of penalty kill ice time respectively and also bring a left and a right shot faceoff option. Victor Rask, Nathan Gerbe and Brad Malone also played penalty kill last season. At forward, you have to like having two centers for anchors and also knowing that you have Jordan Staal and maybe Eric Staal if you get desperate and need help.
The blue line is a bit trickier. On defense, Ron Hainsey and Justin Faulk led the team in penalty kill ice time averaging 2:02 and 1:59 per game respectively. That makes up about half of the defenseman penalty kill ice time of 3:50 per game. But the rest was a combination of players who are mostly gone. Jay Harrison averaged 1:01 before he left. Andrej Sekera and Tim Gleason both averaged 1:01 per game before being traded at the deadline. And Brett Bellemore averaged 0:59 in his 49 games played. When you net it out, the Canes defense returns its top two penalty killerss in Faulk and Hainsey but must mostly find new options after that. James Wisniewski averaged about one minute of ice time on penalty kill in Columbus, and John-Michael Liles did average 0:26 per game for the Canes. And that is about it for experienced options. Michal Jordan would figure to be more of a power play contributor than a penalty killer. Same goes for Ryan Murphy, and it seems unlikely that Smith would chuck a rookie like Hanifin or Fleury directly into that role while he was still getting his feet wet. How Smith builds out the second half of his defense pairings for the penalty kill will likely have a significant say in whether the Canes can carry 2014-15’s success immediately into the new season or whether there is a bit of an adjustment phase with new players involved.
There are not a ton of options available at this point in the offseason, but if the Canes do not make a bigger addition like Christian Ehrhoff, there might be value in adding a third pairing stay-home defenseman who can kill penalties and maybe provide some stability and a backstop for what is likely to be an inexperienced second half of that third pairing.
However, at the end of the day penalty killing can be very much about the system, confidence and the willingness to pay the price. With Steve Smith still at the helm, there is good reason for optimism that he can piece together combinations that work just like last season.