What’s going wrong with the Reign penalty kill?
The special teams for the Ontario Reign has been a conversation both for good and bad. On the one hand, the power play is 24-for-101, good for 23.8%, and second-best in the AHL. On the other hand, the penalty kill has been a completely different story. Ontario’s 73.2% penalty-kill ranks 30th in the league. For such a talented team, this is a large discrepancy.
We probably take their strong power play for granted. It’s among the most talented teams in the league, so it would make sense that they’re one of the top-performing teams with the man advantage. Fair or unfair, this is to be expected.
This brings us back to the penalty kill. After one of the recent powerplay goals allowed, I couldn’t get out of my head that it felt like all of them have been cross-seam passes to a wide-open player with too much time and space. While it isn’t actually all of them, it sure is a lot of them.
Twenty-six times the opposition has scored on the power play against the Reign. I went back and watched each one of those to see if there was anything consistent. Wouldn’t you know it – there is.
First, a little bit more detail on some penalty kill statistics. In the 24 games this season, the Reign has allowed a powerplay goal against in 19 of them. In seven of those 19 games, they’ve allowed multiple powerplay goals against, allowing three powerplay goals twice. Nearly 30% of the teams’ games have seen multiple powerplay goals against.
Almost half of the 26 have come in the third period (12). They’ve allowed the same amount in the second period, with the other two coming in the first.
When looking to see if there were any consistencies with the goals against, I looked only at 5-on-4 power plays, of which there are 21. Ten of those 21 were scored from the right circle, and another was a rebound directly off a shot from the right circle.
Now to those cross-seam passes. Of the 21 5-on-4 powerplay goals against, 12 of those – or 57% – have come via a direct pass from one circle to the other or diagonally from the point to a circle.
I’m going to give a handful of examples below. I’d like to note that I know I’m not saying anything the Ontario Reign coaching staff isn’t aware of. That said, the amount of the same style goals is interesting, if not alarming.
Two of these examples come off of faceoffs, including this first one against the Colorado Eagles from November 7th.
Jaret Anderson-Dolan loses the faceoff cleanly, and it goes back to the left point. Samuel Fagemo is the other penalty killer, and he runs up to cut off the D-to-D pass, however as you’ll see, he overcommits just enough, and his stick is no longer in the passing lane:
It may not look like much, but at this level, that’s all that is needed as Jordan Gross is wide open at the right point:
JAD was perhaps a little late to make his jump as well, but the pass was likely always going to get across. It’s a tough play for Fagemo as he wants to cut the initial pass off, but as Dylan Sikura slides down the wall, Fagemo is caught too high.
The next example is from the Reign game in Tucson on November 12th. The initial pass comes from the point-man Janis Moser to the right circle to Victor Soderstrom. I don’t think there’s much of an issue with that, perhaps JAD could have been a little tighter to Moser, but I don’t see a big issue there.
This screenshot below is where the fatal pass comes. JAD is applying pressure, and Fagemo isn’t in a bad position with his stick in a passing lane. Sometimes though, a great player makes a great play. Soderstrom is one of the top prospects in the Arizona system, and this is an excellent pass to Mattias Macelli.
It could be worth pointing out that Markus Phillips is a little too low in the slot and doesn’t allow himself enough time to get out and challenge the shot. This could be something that is a system thing, though.
The Ontario Reign coaching staff may want those shooters in the circle to be the responsibility of the forward killers. It can be a difficult task and requires good communication and being able to react quickly.
The next clip is a goal in Abbotsford on November 30th. This is, in part, another great pass, this time by Nic Petan, who is able to loft it nicely from the left circle to Sheldon Rempal at the right. That’s the first issue, the cross-seam pass.
I would again take issue with the defenseman as Cameron Gaunce is too tight to his low forward and leaves too much space to cover to be able to challenge Rempal:
On December 18th against Tucson, we have another situation off of a faceoff. A couple of things happen on this play.
First, Quinton Byfield is beaten cleanly on the draw. Soderstrom (77 below) is able to immediately move it to Macelli at the left circle. In this screenshot, Vilardi gets out as quickly as possible to stop that pass but is unable to. Perhaps the bigger issue here is Byfield gets slightly held up in the low slot and is unable to get up to the gaping passing lane:
Michael Carcone then wastes no time as he one-times it home:
A bit more recently, on December 29th, we see the cross-seam pass rear its ugly head again in Bakersfield.
It is again the duo of Anderson-Dolan and Fagemo that get beaten here. JAD is approaching Seth Griffith to provide pressure there, but the issue is Fagemo is a bit in no man’s land, up high in the zone.
This allows for a relatively easy pass to Cooper Marody, who is left wide open. Once again, the defenseman, in this case, Blake Siebenaler is tied up with his man in front of the net and unable to challenge the shooter:
COOOOP!! #Condorstown pic.twitter.com/OcUt07pmBg
— Bakersfield Condors (@Condors) December 30, 2021
The last example is from Ontario’s New Year’s Eve game against Henderson. Given how it started, it’s unfortunate this ends up in a goal against.
For starters, in this picture, Jordan Spence actually has possession of the puck in the corner:
However, Spence falls down, and the puck will make its way to Paul Cotter on the right boards. Because Spence had possession, you can see Byfield in the middle of the slot starting to make his way toward the blueline, anticipating Spence clearing the puck.
You’ll see in the video below that Byfield does have to swing back into the play, but in doing so, his eyes are glued to Cotter. This can be a common problem when you are caught “puck watching” and not recognizing the weak-side players around you. In this case, Connor Corcoran is behind Byfield in the left circle and makes himself available for an easy pass:
The killers being that close together and sucked down that low is problematic. We see Corcoran realize he has so much space he can take his time corralling the puck before shooting:
So what does it all mean? Is it a system issue, a personnel issue, or poor goaltending? In fairness, it could be a little of each.
I don’t buy too much into the problem being one of the personnel, though. Anderson-Dolan and Fagemo were guilty on a few of the examples above, but Fagemo is quietly becoming a solid defensive forward, and Anderson-Dolan has played this role before. I also think it’s perfectly reasonable to expect your more skilled players like Byfield and Vilardi to kill penalties.
To me, the common issues seem to be two-fold: the penalty killers are not doing a good enough job eliminating passing lanes, allowing passes to get through too easily, and the defensemen are getting caught too low.
Most powerplays these days run a 1-3-1 where a lot of it can run through the bumper player in the slot. That has not where Ontario has been beaten; it’s been on the circles. The penalty killers are often in a 1-1-2 formation, in part to have a body in that slot area to protect against the bumper.
In theory, this makes it more difficult for the cross-seam pass to get through, but it does give those opposing players in the circles a little more time and space. Way too often, the player receiving the pass has ample time to make a play. Also, while the defensemen’s responsibility is to be down low, they can be asked to approach and challenge the shooter in the circle. In many of the goals, they are either unable to or are late to do so.
Then there is the old adage of “your goaltender has to be your best penalty killer.” In watching the goals given up while short-handed, with so many of them being on plays forcing the goaltenders to move laterally, it can be a bit more difficult. That said, in the six clips above, five of them were scored short-side, with either Matt Villalta or Garret Sparks appearing to have enough time to get set. Only one was actually a one-timer. At least in these examples, you’d hope for a couple of more saves.
Overall, it’s one thing for the pass to get through the seam. It’s a whole other issue that the player receiving the pass has as much time as he does to get a shot off. That leads me to believe it is at least partially system-related. Those shooters should not have as much time as they do.
As a coach (albeit not professionally), I know these are the types of issues that keep you up at night. The Reign coaching staff is undoubtedly well aware of the team’s performance when short-handed. With less than one-third of the season in the books, there’s still plenty of time to right the ship.