One key to the Seattle Kraken’s success in this second year has been the team’s ability to recognize its shortcomings and improve in season. While other examples certainly exist—like three-on-three overtime, for one—the best illustration of this self-improvement is Seattle’s marked amelioration of the penalty kill.
We can pinpoint when the turnaround began. It was Dec. 31. The Kraken took the ice for practice at Kraken Community Iceplex looking downtrodden. They had just gotten smoked by the Edmonton Oilers the night before, 7-2 on home ice. Two of the goals against had come on Edmonton power plays, and at that point in the season, it was painfully obvious that something needed to change in how the team was approaching these four-on-five situations. The Kraken PK had dropped to 31st in the league, succeeding just 67.9 percent of the time. Goals were coming almost at will for opposing teams.
At that New Year’s Eve practice, the penalty kill took on a new look, and since that day, a dramatic turnaround has taken place. For the season as a whole, Seattle’s PK is still just 22nd in the league, nothing to write home about. But it has improved by 8.3 percent to a 76.2 percent success rate through 79 games. And if you break that down to just the 2023 calendar year, Jan. 1 through April 10, Seattle has a 83.9 percent success rate, good for fifth in the NHL in that stretch.
“It’s a different look,” said coach Dave Hakstol. “The first half of the year, we were coming out with a lot of top-down pressure—there’s still a little bit of that—but this just fits the personnel that we’re using much better to their skill sets. And it’s been a good change.”
Sound Of Hockey talked to Morgan Geekie and Yanni Gourde, two key players in the penalty kill at different stages of the season, as well as Hakstol to take you inside the changes that have transpired for the Kraken.
The old system
The system Seattle was using to start the season was the aggressive “wedge plus one,” which typically looked something like this:
In this system, the three players around the net stay relatively compact, while the player at the top, noted as F1, flies around the top of the zone, trying to disrupt passes. If he gets pulled too far to one side, he and F2 are supposed to quickly rotate to keep pressure on the power play quarterback at the top of the zone and to keep seams across the middle closed.
Geekie says the team called the old system the “toilet bowl.” Assuming the puck is at the top of the zone, F1 would go after the power play quarterback and push him to one side or the other. “If he’s a right-handed shot, he’ll be shaded to the left side. So the left-side guy will go and push him towards the wall, basically encouraging him to pass it to the half wall.”
From there, if the puck goes back up to the top, that’s when the rotation would happen, as F1 takes the spot F2 previously held, and now F2 is at the top. Or, as Geekie explained it: “If [the other team] somehow gets it back up to the top, the forward that pushed down will come underneath, and the other forward on the far side will just assume the first position and go back up to the top. And so it’s basically just spinning and spinning and spinning.”
Get it? It’s like a toilet bowl.
That sounds simple enough, so why didn’t it work for Seattle? Well, apparently there’s a lot of room for error in that system.
“Where you get mixed up is if one guy pushes, or the other guy pushes too early, it opens up the whole seam underneath,” said Geekie. “Or if you push too late, it opens up the high seam, and the guy on the half wall can walk down. And then if you push too far, then it goes back up to the top, you can walk all the way in.”
Geekie explained that killing penalties like that works well for some teams, but it depends on the personnel. He said that’s how his former team, the Carolina Hurricanes, killed penalties when he was there, and they did so successfully. But the Kraken just couldn’t ever seem to get the rhythm down.
Gourde put the challenges of the wedge-plus-one system in simpler terms. “There’s way more switches, there’s way more reads, I think, than [what we’re doing now]. If the puck’s in the middle of the ice, [and you get beat], the other guy flexes to the other two. If the pass stays on the outside, then the same guy attacks. So all those rotations, where you make reads, it’s a little bit harder.”
With so many moving parts, it was all too common for Kraken penalty killers to get crossed up in those earlier months of the season. And the second that happened, the puck seemed to end up in the back of the net almost every night. A change was desperately needed.
The new system
We thought we were pretty smart when we called for a simplified penalty kill on the Sound Of Hockey Podcast, just days before the late-December change was implemented by the club. What Seattle switched to then, and is still using now, looks more like this:
It’s a more passive system that focuses on keeping the puck to the perimeter and blocking shots, as opposed to trying to disrupt passes before shots can even be taken.
“What we’re doing right now is more straight-line, always flexing back to the middle of the ice to prevent any seam,” said Gourde, who has been a mainstay on the PK all season. “You stay in your shooting lane more often, so if you get beat by one pass, there’s always one guy that kind of is in a good spot to help you out.”
Gourde explained that the penalty killers all keep their backs to the middle of the ice, and there are trigger points that tell them when to pressure the puck. Once those triggers happen—usually when the puck gets along the wall—they pounce to try to force mistakes.
The players still read off each other, and they may rotate slightly as a unit, but it’s rare to see players actually swap positions in the more traditional four-man box formation. This simplifies things compared to the previous system and minimizes the potential for missed assignments and misreads.
The change has worked wonders, and the numbers bear that out. On a 10-game rolling basis, the Kraken spent most of the first 45 games well below the league average, but they now sit among the best teams in the NHL as we approach the playoffs.
Jared McCann has been the x-factor
In addition to the systematic change, Seattle also adjusted the personnel it was using to kill penalties. The most obvious alteration was the inclusion of Jared McCann, who has become a lynchpin to Seattle’s success in this area, despite not having the traditional penalty killer profile.
Gourde, who has been partnered with McCann for most of the second half of the season, says its McCann’s speed, good stick, and ability to read the play that make him successful. He also says McCann’s offensive ability can keep opposing power plays honest, because they know if they turn the puck over to McCann, he can quickly make them pay.
“Every time we see a loose puck, we know he’s jumping, I know I’m jumping,” said Gourde. “So we create a little bit of something out there, and we’re super aggressive on those walls. When you’re aggressive, it’s an easier read for everybody.”
Improving is “what you’re supposed to do”
Hakstol gave credit for the successful changes to his assistant coach, Dave Lowry, who oversees the penalty kill for the Kraken, and to the players on the team.
“That’s what you’re supposed to do, right?” Hakstol said. “You have to evolve in the areas, you have to address areas that aren’t going well. And whether it’s a systems change or a change in the way the players are executing or a combination of the two really doesn’t matter. I mean, you address it honestly and look for a solution. In that case, it was a very good solution. Dave worked really hard on it, the players have worked really hard on it.”
But Hakstol isn’t satisfied with the improvement the team has made. As Seattle heads toward its first playoff appearance, he calls the penalty kill “an area we can still continue to keep building; we’re still working at it.”