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The Canucks have paid a premium for their penalty kill.
Their top forward in shorthanded ice time during the regular season was Jay Beagle, a fourth-line centre making a very un-fourth-line-like $3 million per season. Then there’s Brandon Sutter, who makes $4.375 million per year, and is skating on the wing on the fourth line. Next up is Tyler Motte, the only Canucks’ fourth-liner that is paid like one at a mere $975,000 per season.
Fourth in shorthanded ice time per game? None other than the six million dollar man himself, Loui Eriksson.
Fortunately, the salary cap doesn’t matter when you’re in the playoffs or even playoff-adjacent. Teams don’t need to be cap compliant in this qualifying round, but that doesn’t mean the Canucks’ penalty killers can’t cost the team in other ways.
For instance, the penalty kill arguably cost Jake Virtanen his spot in the lineup.
Virtanen didn’t do himself any favours with his performance in the Canucks’ training camp heading into the qualifiers, losing his spot on the third line to the returning Micheal Ferland. Still, there should have been a place in the lineup for an 18-goal scorer, even if only on the fourth line.
There’s just one issue: the fourth line is the home for the Canucks’ primary penalty killers. Since Virtanen doesn’t kill penalties, head coach Travis Green chose to keep Motte and Sutter on the wings with Beagle. It’s the same reasoning that cost Sven Baertschi his spot on the roster during the preseason.
The penalty kill also costs the Canucks at five-on-five. When not killing penalties, Sutter, Beagle, and Motte primarily play in a shutdown role. The trouble is they don’t do much shutting down. The two Canucks forwards on the ice for the highest rate of shots against at five-on-five this season were Beagle and Motte, while Sutter wasn’t too far behind.
Defensive players often get labeled as “two-way forwards,” but when they don’t provide offence, they’re really just one-way forwards. What’s worse, when they don’t actually do their job defensively, they’re no-way forwards.
If you’re going to spend that much on penalty kill specialists, you hope for a special penalty kill. Instead, it was thoroughly mediocre all season, finishing 16th in the NHL.
On Sunday night, the penalty kill cost the Canucks again: this time against the Minnesota Wild. There’s plenty of blame to share around after the Canucks’ Game 1 loss to the Wild, but when the only two meaningful goals were scored on Wild power plays, it’s hard not to look at the penalty kill or at least give them some serious side-eye.
It was the fourth line of Motte, Beagle, and Sutter that got hemmed in the defensive zone on their first shift, leading to a penalty and a quick goal for the Wild power play, setting the tone for the rest of the game. Then, with Beagle and Motte — the team’s top penalty killing unit — on the ice, Eric Staal found a wide open passing lane to feed Jared Spurgeon across the ice to put the Wild up 2-0.
Certainly, Markstrom could have done better on both goals, but that just highlights another issue — Markstrom has been patching up the Canucks’ penalty kill all season like Phil Swift slapping flex tape over a leak.
Markstrom was magnificent all season long, but deserves particular plaudits for his work on the penalty kill, where he repeatedly bailed out the skaters in front of him with stunning saves. When he couldn’t come up with the saves on Sunday, the penalty kill looked pretty pedestrian.
At the other end of the ice, the Canucks couldn’t come up with any offence at all, shut out by Alex Stalock. The Wild stymied the Canucks’ top forwards, limiting Elias Pettersson to just two shots on goal despite a gritty performance from the young star.
There were plenty of players that failed to step up on Sunday. Trade deadline acquisition Tyler Toffoli struggled in all facets of the game, Tanner Pearson took two unnecessary slashing penalties, and Adam Gaudette looked overwhelmed in his first postseason appearance.
Would it have been a different story if the Canucks had forward depth that could actually provide some offence from the third and fourth lines? Would it have been as easy for the Wild to key in on the Canucks’ few offensive threats if they had a wild card like Virtanen stashed on the fourth line?
Perhaps it wouldn’t have made a difference to have Virtanen in the lineup on Sunday — perhaps it’s too late this season given the way the roster has been constructed — but at some point, the Canucks have to take a chance on riskier players that might actually threaten to score a goal or two, rather than the supposedly safe Sutter and Beagle.
That might be something the Canucks can do against the Wild — they have Virtanen available, as well as Loui Eriksson, who is stronger than Sutter, Beagle, and Motte at five-on-five, and the intriguing Zack MacEwen, who has a wicked shot to go with his playoff-ready size and demeanour. More likely, it’s a job too big for the postseason and will require a more-significant roster shakeup in the off-season.