Killing penalties is a brutal assignment. There are blocked shots from the point. Cross-checks along the boards. Vicious elbows in net-front scrums. If, by the time you’ve reached the bench, you’re not bent over, gasping for air with a throbbing ankle a blood running down your cheek, either you haven’t done your job or the Flyers are in town. 15.6% power play last season. I’m just sayin’.
Off-season Signings Have Bolstered the New York Rangers Penalty Kill
Obviously, aggressive play and gaping wounds are part of even-strength hockey, too. But minutes played on the penalty kill take a severe toll. Which is why, where the New York Rangers are concerned, there’s an argument to be made for taking at least some shorthanded responsibilities away from certain veterans and giving them to players who are… um… older.
Zibanejad and Kreider Bear a Heavy Load
It’s easy to mistake centre Mika Zibanejad and left wing Chris Kreider as further on in years than they actually are. After all, they survived the teams’ massive rebuild and are easily the longest-tenured members of the squad. There’s also Zibanejad’s flowing locks which, like rings on a tree, provide visual evidence of passing years.
Still, at 30 and 32 years old, respectively, Zibanejad and Kreider are by no means over the hill. They’re both in the early stages of long-term contracts and promise to be prominent Rangers for years. They’re smart players, dangerous with the puck and strong on their skates. Both are fixtures on the Rangers’ top line, and with good reason. Kreider’s always had the tools to contribute in a big way offensively but was criticized for inconsistent production through much of his career. That streaky nature, though, may be a thing of the past. In the ’21-’22 season, Kreider scored 52 goals, a whopping 24 more than he had in any previous campaign. He compiled another 36 last season, good for second most on the team.
The leader in that category was Zibanejad, with 39. The Swede also notched 52 assists, finishing with a career-best 91 points. Zibanejad has averaged just a notch above 74 points over the last five seasons. For a player with his back-checking prowess, that’s impressive. When you factor in his well-documented battle with COVID and injuries which limited him to just 113 games from 2019-2021, such production is outstanding. It goes without saying (and yet, I’m saying it) that the Rangers will rely on Zibanejad and Kreider’s offensive prowess once again this season. Undoubtedly, they’ll also play big minutes on the penalty kill.
An Eye Towards Offence
The Rangers have promising young talent up-front. Filip Chytil has proven he’s got the tools to be a force on offence. Alexis LaFreniere and Kaapo Kaako have shown glimpses of the skill sets that made them so coveted in their respective draft years. The Rangers expect much more of them, however, and if the team doesn’t see those improvements as the season opens, the Blueshirts will obviously need to play their most consistent offensive players in as many optimal scoring situations as possible. Which begs the question: should the Rangers continue to lean so heavily on Zibanejad and Kreider to kill penalties? It’s hard to overstate the importance of good penalty killing to a team’s success, but if Laviolette were to reduce the time Zibanejad and Kreider spent on the penalty kill, the twosome would likely have fresher legs at even strength and on the power play and more opportunities to dominate in the offensive zone. Of course, for that to happen, the Blueshirts will have to look elsewhere on the roster for strong shorthanded play.
Enter Nick Bonino
Nick Bonino, one of a handful of free agents signed this off-season by a Rangers’ management looking to shore up team depth with reliable veterans, is no stranger to the penalty kill. At 35, Bonino is an old-school grinder whose scoring prowess peaked in Anaheim ten years ago (his 22 goals, 27 assists and 49 points notched during the ’13-’14 Ducks campaign remain the centre’s single-season highs). Bonino has bounced around the league over the last nine seasons, playing for five teams over that span (including two stints with the Pittsburgh Penguins). All the while, he’s consistently killed penalties. He’s played in 696 regular-season games over that stretch, logging almost 1,500 minutes shorthanded.
Last season, during which he was traded from the Sharks to the Penguins, Bonino skated in just 61 regular-season games. Nevertheless, his regular season TOI in shorthanded situations exceeded 142 minutes. Projected over an 82-game season, that’s roughly 190 minutes on the penalty kill. That’s a huge number, especially when you consider that defenceman Adam Fox led all Rangers skaters last season with 171 minutes of PK TOI. Having won 49.9% of faceoffs (which often take on extra importance in shorthanded situations), Bonino’s not a juggernaut at the dot. But he’s been slightly better in that department than Zibanejad, who has a 49.7% success rate over his career.
More From Jimmy Vesey
It would seem, then, that Bonino might help significantly reduce Zibanejad’s penalty-killing burden. As for easing the load on Kreider? Fellow left-wing Jimmy Vesey settled in nicely in a bottom-six role upon last year’s return to the Rangers. He played a solid 120 minutes on the penalty kill. Look for him to contribute even more time to the PK this season. And winger Tyler Pitlick may handle some of the shorthanded load as well. Another off-season addition, the 31-year-old has played significant minutes killing penalties for the Stars, Flyers and Coyotes.
The Stalwarts Return
The Rangers enter this season with the very stalwarts who led their penalty kill last year. Expect big contributions from Fox and fellow Defencemen Jacob Trouba, Ryan Lindgren and K’Andre Miller. Forward Barclay Goodrow will once again be a major part of the penalty kill.
And sure, Zibanejad and Kreider will likely play important minutes, too. But there’s hope that, with the arrival of Bonino and Pitlick, those minutes may be fewer and farther between.
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