Welcome back to our series examining the systems and schemes that the Kraken have employed throughout this inaugural season. In part 7, I wrapped up my look at the team’s even-strength scheme by diving into a few of the Kraken’s offensive zone plays. In this part 8, I analyze how Dave Hakstol and his staff draw up the defense when killing penalties.

Hakstol’s philosophy: communicate and play connected

Tactics and approach take on exaggerated significance when a team is at a manpower disadvantage. In these scenarios, it is by definition not enough to win one-on-one. To the contrary, individual, improvised play can expose the defense by taking a player out of position. On the other hand, skilled opposing forwards will skate and pass through an over-determined, reactive penalty kill unit like traffic cones. The unit needs to play connected to cover for the absence of one or two teammates.

The specific coaching points on the penalty kill are myriad and include:

  1. Protecting the slot from the highest-danger opportunities.
  2. Prioritizing stick checks over physical play to thwart net-front passes and shots.
  3. Conservative, straight-line pressure from the goal outwards, looking for a shot block when an opposing player has the puck in a shooting position high.
  4. Aggression when the puck is loose along the boards or the opposing player doesn’t have the puck in a shooting position.

But, above all, the key is for the penalty kill units to communicate and develop chemistry. When one skater advances to create puck pressure, the others need to react in unison to maximize the chance of a takeaway and minimize the defensive risk.

On Feb. 14, the Kraken lost to the Toronto Maple Leafs 6-2. At the time, Darren Brown noted the dispirited effort as the nadir of the season. The Kraken appeared entirely outclassed, and nowhere was this more evident than on the penalty kill, which allowed the Maple Leafs to convert both of their two manpower advantages into goals.

At that point, the team had attempted multiple defensive-zone penalty kill schemes, including the triangle-and-one, the diamond formation, and others, but the schemes hadn’t been particularly effective at creating coordinated puck pressure or turnovers leading to breakaway opportunities going in the other direction. Of particular concern, the Kraken appeared static in their positioning.

Following the Toronto game, the team focused on improving on the penalty kill. Over the next six games, Seattle killed 16 of 17 penalties, while notching two shorthanded goals of their own for a remarkable +1 overall on the penalty kill. A couple days after a particularly encouraging five-for-five penalty kill performance against the Boston Bruins on Feb. 24, Dave Hakstol was asked about the improved play and alluded to scheme adjustments that I’ll dive into below. But he also emphasized the improvement of his penalty killers in playing connected hockey within the scheme. Communication and the ability to exchange positions when a player advances is key.

Source: Seattle Kraken on YouTube

Hakstol 5-on-4 neutral zone scheme: Same side pressure/1-1-2 formation

The goal of the neutral zone forecheck when killing a penalty is to deny controlled entry into the offensive zone. If the penalty kill can force a contested possession scenario at the defensive blue line or force a dump in, the defense can bleed time or gain possession and quickly clear the zone. The penalty killers will, of course, look to capitalize on a giveaway. But getting too aggressive on the forecheck can expose the team to a rapid strike off a zone entry.

Diagram 1. NZ 1-1-2 (same side pressure).

When the opponent has full possession at or near its own net, Seattle’s F1 (the top forward in the formation) will attempt token pressure that forces the power play to commit to a path of attack. F2 then supports from farther back looking to create a wall parallel to the boards with the F1, funneling the advance into half of the ice. D1 and D2 are positioned at the back near the blue line, prepared to deny entry if the rush has faltered or retreat into the defensive zone if a controlled attack has materialized.

Clip 1. NZ 1-1-2.

In this clip, Riley Sheahan (No. 15) is F1 at the top of the formation, supported by Joonas Donskoi (No. 72) as F2. Sheahan provides pressure, forcing the Blackhawks to advance up the far boards and is supported by Donskoi. This thwarts the advance, and the Blackhawks look to break pressure by sending the puck across the ice. Sheahan and Donskoi reform and similarly pressure the near-side advance. This time the Blackhawks achieve a controlled entry and the penalty killers assume their defensive-zone positioning.

This approach is sometimes called same-side forward pressure. It also resembles the team’s conventional 1-2-2 neutral zone forecheck but with one of the middle-layer forwards removed. Here is another example. And one more that shows the risk when the high token pressure gets caught too deep.

The Kraken’s current approach seems to be a slight a variation from what the team utilized early in the year, which resembled more of a 2-2 (sometimes called a “retreating box”) neutral-zone forecheck. In this version, after providing token pressure, F1 would typically retreat into a formation at the same level as F2.

Clip 2. NZ 2-2 (retreating box).

This forecheck is less aggressive and keeps F1 in position to rapidly enter the defensive zone. Here is another early-season example.

You will still see a neutral zone forecheck that resembles a 2-2 formation when the advance of the opposing power play has stagnated at center ice. But the team’s current default approach keeps F1 in a more aggressive position up ice.

5-on-4 DZ scheme: triangle and one

Once in the defensive zone, the Kraken deploy in a triangle-and-one formation. The two defensemen default to positions just above the outer edges of the crease (forming the base of the triangle) and a forward is positioned in the mid-to-high slot (completing the triangle). These defenders form the core of the defense and will look to thwart cross seam passes and scoring opportunities with active stick checks.

Diagram 2. DZ Triangle & One.

The second forward (the “and one” penalty killer) activates in a straight line from the goal toward the opposing player in possession of the puck. The player’s goal is to be in a position to block a shot and then either force the opposing player to concede possession or angle him to a lower-danger portion of the ice. The tactic of forcing an opposing player into a lower position for coordinated pressure is sometimes called the “Czech press.” The Kraken utilize this strategy when they can.

Diagram 3. DZ Triangle & One (forward exchange illustration)

The key to a successful triangle and one is communication and coordination because the “one” player can change at any time based on puck position. For example, if the “one” forward’s puck pressure at the near-side point causes the opponent to pass across to the other point, it is often the case that the forward at the top of the triangle will be in the best position to create immediate pressure on the other point. Accordingly, he immediately activates into the “one” position and the previous pressure forward rotates down to fill the vacated spot in the triangle. (See diagram 3.)

Clip 3. DZ Triangle & One.

Here Yanni Gourde (No. 37) starts as the “one” penalty killer but exchanges with Karson Kuhlman (No. 25) fluidly several times. This effective tandem work serves to create pressure without unnecessarily exposing the middle of the defense to prime scoring opportunities. Briefly at around :19 there is confusion between Gourde and Jamie Oleksiak (No. 24) about who would play where in the triangle. This leads somewhat directly to a moderate-danger chance and serves to underscore the importance of communication.

This clip further shows that exchanging is key not just for the forwards. Defensemen can activate out into the “one” position when there is controlled, threatening possession low along the boards. In this case a forward needs to crash down to protect the near side of the net and re-form the triangle. Here is another example showing defensemen stepping out into the “one” position to challenge low possession, leading to various exchanges within the triangle-and-one formation.

As Hakstol noted, this exchanging of positions was not nearly as fluid early in the season, causing Kraken pressure to come late.

Clip 4. DZ Triangle & One (early season).

This clip is from a Nov. 21 home tilt against the Capitals. You can see that the Kraken are deploying a similar triangle-and-one concept. But the penalty killers are just a beat slower in their reactions and exchanges, appearing uncertain at times whether the closer player will activate to become the “one” player. This leads to a more static triangle defense, often with one player chasing the play all over the ice.

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In addition to the base triangle-and-one scheme, the Kraken will deploy other schemes in specific defensive-zone scenarios. For example, when the puck is at or below the circles, and the opponent has not established puck possession, the Kraken will aggressively press that side in an attempt to win a puck battle and force a turnover.

Clip 5. DZ corner pressure.

The Kraken send up to two penalty killers into the corner, while the others cover the slot low and high, forming a box in the lower half of the ice where the puck is in dispute. The risk comes if this pressure is broken. In the clip above, the Flames break the Kraken’s corner pressure and force them to transition back into their base triangle-and-one defense. Before Seattle can get established, however, Calgary gets a clean shooting lane to the net and scores. Here is another example of the Kraken transitioning in and out of this tactic in connection with their base triangle-and-one scheme.

This current corner checking tactic also seems to be a slight variation on the team’s early-season approach. In the fall, it was not uncommon for the Kraken to send three penalty killers into a corner scum, leaving only one skater to protect the middle. There are obvious risks to committing three of four skaters into the corner, and the Kraken have seemingly moved away from this practice.

Finally, earlier in the season, the Kraken also used a diamond formation penalty kill at times.

Clip 6. DZ diamond formation.

This clip is from Seattle’s Feb. 1 game in Boston. In theory, the Kraken likely formed this way to get width near the circles in an attempt to derail the Bruins’ lethal weak-side one-timers. In practice, the Kraken looked static and uncertain and gave up that precise type of goal anyway. This was just a couple weeks before the penalty kill corrections Hakstol described above.

5-on-3 NZ and DZ schemes

When at a two-man disadvantage, the Kraken deploy similar, though inherently more conservative, concepts. Going up against a five-on-three power play, the team is very likely to concede controlled zone entries and exterior shots on the power play. Accordingly, the goal is two-fold: (1) limit the highest danger shots and (2) hold the opponent to one-and-done opportunities by recovering saved or blocked shots and quickly clearing the zone.

In the neutral zone, the Kraken retreat in a 1-2 formation. Compared with the five-on-four penalty kill, the Kraken remove the advance forechecking forward and play far more cautiously. The goal is to force zone entry toward the boards. This formation also allows for an easy transition into the similar defensive zone structure.

Clip 7. NZ 1-2; DZ triangle.

In the defensive zone, the Kraken typically employ a triangle formation when the opponent is in full possession high. Compared with the standard penalty kill, the additional “one” forward is removed. The top forward will at times look to create token pressure high, but will not extend as far as the blue line because this would risk breaking down the defense entirely. The goal is to disrupt shots and passes when they do happen rather than preventing them entirely.

Penalty kill possession and offense

When the puck ends up on a Kraken penalty killer’s stick, the player faces a decision point: clear immediately, possess and kill time, or attempt an offensive advance. Penalty kill offense is all about opportunistic transition play. So the calculation the player needs to make is usually one of arithmetic.

If there is a turnover in the neutral zone or a shot block or turnover high in the defensive zone, and the potential for an odd-man transition breakaway presents itself, the Kraken have been inclined to push the issue over the last few months. Gourde and Colin Blackwell were dynamic in tandem on these attacks.

The triangle-and-one can be a particularly effective scheme at creating turnovers high in the defensive zone that lead to breakaways, often led by the “one” penalty killer. For more on how the Kraken look to create offense on the penalty kill, check out this truly outstanding stuff from Alison Lukan.

That said, if the arithmetic is not in favor of a breakaway or the penalty killers are at the end of a long shift, Kraken penalty killers will prioritize possession time to bleed the clock, provided there is no risk of a turnover.

Clip 8. Possession approach.

In the likely scenario that an opponent quickly engages to contest possession, the Kraken (like all teams) immediately look to fire the puck all the way down the ice rather than risk a defensive-zone turnover.

Scheme scorecard: Net improvement over early-season play

Overall the Kraken rank in the bottom third of the league in both goals allowed per sixty minutes on the penalty kill (ranking 30th out of 32 teams) and expected goals allowed per sixty minutes on the penalty kill (ranking 23rd out of 32 teams), per MoneyPuck.

And the team’s goal prevention alone has not improved markedly, even after the team’s mid-February adjustments noted above. Through the Feb. 14 Maple Leafs game, the team had allowed 31 goals on 123 opponent power play opportunities, for a kill percentage of just under 75 percent. Since that time, the team has allowed 20 goals on 84 opponent power play opportunities, for a kill percentage of just over 76 percent.

That said, the team’s improved coordinated aggression on the kill has facilitated more successful counterstrike opportunities while on the penalty kill. Again using Feb. 14 as our dividing line, the team had scored just 2 shorthanded goals in the 123 opportunities through the loss to Toronto. Since that time, the team has potted 6 goals in 84 opportunities.

On a net basis, the team allowed .235 goals per power play through Jan. 14, and has only conceded .167 goals per power play since that time. With this improved production, the Kraken now rank 16th overall in the NHL (approximately average) in expected goal differential on the penalty kill, per MoneyPuck.

5-on-4 PK xGoal Visualization by: MoneyPuck

The defensive zone production needs to improve, especially for a team that wants to make defense its calling card. But, with more time to work on their communication and chemistry, the trend is positive moving into next year.

Next: decoding Hakstol’s power play scheme

In part 9, I’ll look at how Hakstol and his staff scheme the power play to create scoring opportunities.