With the Blackhawks finally expected to improve defensively this season, it was assumed their penalty kill would improve in step.
But the preseason results on the penalty-killing front weren’t encouraging.
In five games in which the Hawks used a complete or partial NHL-caliber lineup, they killed only seven of 13 power plays, including one of five last Monday against the Red Wings.
And that wasn’t simply small-sample-size bad luck. They also conceded golden opportunities left and right. The Hawks’ preseason penalty kill ranked 24th in shots allowed, 30th in scoring chances allowed and 30th in expected goals allowed per minute.
Those numbers are alarming because they so closely mirror the Hawks’ penalty-killing woes last season. After faring well in 2019-20, tying for eighth in the NHL with an 82.1% kill rate, they dropped to 28th with a 76.8% kill rate in 2021. They ranked 19th, 22nd and 23rd, respectively, in those aforementioned stats.
There’s still plenty of hope this regular season will be different. But the Hawks will at least need to learn from what they did wrong in the preseason. Ryan Carpenter, the de facto ‘‘PK captain’’ for three years running, certainly realizes that.
“Sometimes early on, as a PK-er, you want to work hard, but sometimes you’re not working smart,” Carpenter said. “Sometimes you have to stay calm and just hold the middle and be in the right spot. [If] you get running around too much, usually the first unit is way too skilled — they’re going to make that pass through you, and it’s going to be a grade-A chance. That’s what it might have been a little bit against Detroit.”
Coach Jeremy Colliton has somewhat dismissed the preseason results because of rust, players likely not going 100% and his own experimentation with combinations.
His belief that the units will improve over time began to be validated in the preseason finale Saturday. The Hawks killed off both Wild power plays, and Carpenter scored a short-handed goal.
“We’ve had a scrambled group throughout camp,” Colliton said. “We’ve been trying to find out who can kill. . . . A lot of it is just familiarity with the forward pairs and ‘D’ pairs and reads everyone’s making. You can have the same PK structure, but within the structure, there’s always a lot of reads.
“You [have] to play together a bit and have those reps before you feel comfortable. . . . It’s going to be a test. It’s not going to be perfect, but we expect to get better as we go.”
Kirby Dach and Alex DeBrincat likely will receive more PK time. They weren’t heavily used in that capacity during the preseason. Carpenter, Jonathan Toews, Brandon Hagel and Jujhar Khaira saw the most short-handed ice time among forwards.
Using top-six forwards on the penalty kill is a trend around the league, and that duo’s emergence as viable killers — with their ability to translate turnovers into short-handed counterattacks — was a bright spot late last season.
“What’s cool about offensive guys like [Dach and DeBrincat on the PK] is they know, from a power-play standpoint, the seams you’re looking for and certain plays to try to execute,” said Connor Murphy, who trailed only Jake McCabe in preseason short-handed ice time among defensemen.
The Hawks did modify their penalty-kill forechecking strategy slightly for this season, but that’s the only change they made, Carpenter said.
Notes: The Hawks cut their camp roster to 28 by sending down Mike Hardman, Reese Johnson, Nicolas Beaudin and — surprisingly — Jakub Galvas to the AHL late Saturday night.
† The NHL unexpectedly ruled Alex Nylander waivers-exempt for this season, and the Hawks promptly sent him down to the AHL on Sunday.
† The Hawks reportedly brought back defenseman Erik Gustafsson on a one-year deal. He was released from his professional tryout with the Islanders.