Column: Using the penalty kill as a weapon

Of all the things that are most interesting about the top major junior team in Canada, one stat sticks out like a sore thumb.

The Prince Albert Raiders, with only one loss in 25 games, have scored 15 shorthanded goals this season and only allowed nine power-play goals in 124 opportunities.

Those 15 are eight more than the Red Deer Rebels, who sit second in the WHL with seven.

The Raiders have also killed 92.7 percent of power plays this season, six percent higher than the next closest team in the WHL.

Prince Albert, much like the Rebels have been able to weaponize their penalty kill.

The league’s leading point producer, Raiders’ forward Brett Leason plays in all situations, including the penalty kill. He has five goals while shorthanded and has 26 tallies in 26 games. Linemate Noah Gregor has three shorthanded goals and four on the power play for 12 total on the year.

All that is to say, the Raiders, like many teams at the NHL level are recognizing the opportunity available.

Red Deer is doing the same with Brandon Hagel and Reese Johnson. Johnson has scored three times shorthanded this season, while Hagel has two.

That’s more shorthanded goals than many teams combined.

Both teams, two of the top 10 in the CHL are using their first line players on both the power play and the penalty kill.

What is noticeable about each of those four players is their ability to use speed both offensively and defensively. They are creating pressure on the attacking team in the offensive zone.

Also, in transition, they are using their speed to put the power play group back on its heels, during a time when that unit is supposed to be attacking. This creates mistakes and mistakes equal turnovers and turnovers often lead to goals. Especially at the major junior level, where teams are prone to mistakes.

Last season in the WHL, Justin Almeida had 43 goals, six of which were shorthanded. He was top 10 in the WHL in points. Matthew Phillips, who is currently playing with the AHL’s Stockton Heat had 112 points with the Victoria Royals last year. He was one of the best players in the WHL last season and had five shorthanded goals.

Using talented players is not a completely new strategy on the penalty kill, but it does have faults.

Not every top player has the hockey IQ to play on the penalty kill or the desire. Also, fitness comes into account, because if you play on both the power play and penalty kill as well as top minutes five-on-five, you’re looking at a lot a time on ice.

A few NHL teams also employ this strategy, including the Boston Bruins. Brad Marchand is the NHL active leader in shorthanded goals, with 23 on his career. Marchand is almost always teamed up with Patrice Bergeron, who is arguably one of the top defensive forwards in all of hockey and is also an offensive threat.

Eric Staal, who scored 42 goals last year for the Minnesota Wild, also kills penalties. He is fourth on the active list with 19 career shorthanded tallies.

Email sports tips to Byron Hackett

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