Hurricanes’ special teams through seven games this season can be summed up with two statements:

  • One unit that is not generating enough goalie movement.
  • One unit that causes too much goalie movement.

I’ll let you figure out which is which, but the answers are obvious. 

The Numbers Through 7 Games

Following last night’s against the Tampa Bay Lightning (10/16/2018), here are Carolina’s special team numbers:

Penalty Kill

  • Ranked T-30th (EDM) on the penalty kill at 63.6% for last in the league.
  • Allowed eight goals in 22 short-handed situations.
  • Ranks 9th in the league with those 22 short-handed situations.

Power Play

  • Ranks 28th on the power play at 8.0%.
  • Scored two goals in 25 power play opportunities, one goal was an Empty net goal.
  • Ranks T-1st (CAL) for 25 power play opportunities.

The only difference we see in the numbers from past years is the more aggressive Canes are taking more penalties than usual. As things are leveling off as the team approaches game 10 on the season, there is an alarming trend that needs to be corrected in the next 13 games to maintain playoff hopes in Caniac Nation.

The Royal Road

Diagram of the Royal Road

I first became familiar with this phrase in 2015 when MSG TV analyst and former NHL Goaltender Steve Valiquette popularized for me when he broke down and categorized goals scored for an entire season. Here he describe what the royal road is in this video beginning at the 45 second mark:

To sum up, the royal road is a line dividing a zone into two halves from the top of the faceoff circles. Plays, either by pass or skating with the puck, across this dividing line dramatically increases the chance of scoring.

Friend of 328 Cat Silverman had an excellent breakdown of how Anaheim’s defense system affects goaltender John Gibson’s performance. In that breakdown Cat references the royal road, and that’s when the lightbulb went off for me. In my games notes, I’d frequently jotted down in my game notes cross-ice passes on opposing goals, while rarely mentioning at all for the teams offense.

Penalty Kill (or team defense) Kiss of Death

Patrik Laine’s first goal of the season in game six against Winnipeg shows you everything you need to know about the penalty kill struggles:

The aggressive play from both forwards and defensemen is creating open passing lanes frequently. On this goal, both forwards overload one side of the ice leaving Brett Pesce stuck in no-man’s land because he can’t leave the crease unprotected while van Riemsdyk is watching two net-front opponents. The path across Royal Road is open, and Pesce can’t cover Laine appropriately.

But this isn’t an isolated incident. Of the eight goals allowed short-handed, seven have been scored as the puck has crossed, or entered the road. But this isn’t isolated to 4-on-5 play.

Here is a breakdown of the 22 goals against scored against Carolina in the early going:

Goals scoredMethod
7Cross Royal Road at Even Strength
4Enter Royal Road on the Penalty Kill
3Enter Royal Road at Even Stength
3Cross Royal Road on the Penalty Kill
2Empty Net
1Cross Royal Road on the Power Play
1Rebound in front from a short-side shot
1Top-shelf, short-side shot

Of the 20 goals scored while the goalie is in net, 18 are from high-danger chances. Both Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney are playing well enough despite their respective save percentages. They’re being beaten on goals where they can be be set before shot as the often as moving laterally in their crease.

Power Play the Same as it Ever Was

The Tampa game saw better puck movement from PP1 (Aho, Staal, Ferland, Teravainen, Faulk), but they aren’t getting the goalie moving enough.

Early issues begin with the opening faceoff when the team fails win the draw or shoots too early (looking at you #27). Play remains overloaded on either side of the ice where the opposing netminders only have to change their depth, with little to no lateral movement. The goalies are set, and the shooter don’t have good enough shots to be a stationary goalie on the regular. 

Let’s take a look at the one legitimate power play goal on the season and note two things:

  1. Teravainen is at least a step or two away from the blue line. Faulk and Slavin are often positioned too high in the zone. Sometimes with their skates on the line without the puck. Here, Teuvo being in just a little closer at the top of the point cuts down on the passing distance. Shorter passes means less time for defenders to react and change position. This allows for quicker shots.
  2. While the play doesn’t cross the Royal Road, puck movement from one side other opens the shooting lanes and rebound changes. Before the clip above, Aho moves closer to the middle to takes a shot from the top of the right side circle. This creates a rebound that Faulk is able to grab on the other side of the Road. He then moves it up to Teravainen, the moment the clip begins. Goals off the rebound aren’t recorded at the same percentage as Crossing the Road plays, but the preceding puck movement moves defender to create better looks for the cross-ice player.

Puck movement needs to be more creative in general. The distance and angles of passes need to change. Player on the point needs to be 2-3 steps closer to the goal. This allows the man on the half-walk (Faulk from the goal clip) to move away from the boards and find a better shooting angle. 

When the coverage is tight and those passes and shots aren’t available, play must work down to the goal line. At the moment, it’s just an outlet for the half-wall to find space before receiving the puck again.

I’d prefer to see the play change sides below the goal line, shifting player roles. Weak side half-wall now becomes the strong side; goal line players and screeners can switch; defenders on the point and try and slide down to the back-door or far side post of tip-ins.

Alternating positions and roles during puck movement will cause coverage issues. This will open the door for a Teuvo-to-Sepe or Necas-to-Svech cross the royal road pass and more open nets to shoot on.