Penalty-killing was one of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ greatest strengths in 2021-22.
Well, for much of the season, anyway.
Until it became one of the league’s leakiest shorthanded units.
The Penguins entered their Jan. 23 game against Winnipeg with the NHL’s top-ranked penalty-killers, with a 90 percent success rate.
But a key penalty-killer, Teddy Blueger, had his jaw broken on a high hit from Jets defenseman Brenden Dillon, and by the time he rejoined the lineup 16 games later, another core penalty-killer, Zach Aston-Reese, was just a few weeks from being traded to Anaheim.
The penalty-killing rarely regained its rhythm during the second half of the season — it had only one truly strong run, snuffing all 15 power plays it faced during a five-game stretch from March 11-19 — and slid to seventh place in the rankings, with an 82-game kill rate of 82.3 percent.
The Penguins didn’t fare any better during their Round 1 playoff series against the New York Rangers, either, yielding six goals in 19 shorthanded situations over seven games.
Two of the forwards deployed most often when the Pittsburgh Penguins were down a man, Aston-Reese and Brian Boyle, no longer are on the payroll, and it’s conceivable that another frequent penalty-killer, Jeff Carter, who will be 38 on Jan. 1, will have that part of his workload reduced to try to keep him relatively fresh.
Figuring out how to lift the penalty-kill out of its rut figures to get a lot of attention when the Penguins convene for training camp next month.
Josh Archibald, signed as a free agent from Edmonton, likely will be in the mix, along with Brock McGinn and Blueger, and possibly Carter.
And top-six right winger Bryan Rust might be a candidate to turn up there on a regular basis, as well.
There is no question about Rust’s ability — or willingness — to kill penalties. He did it a lot earlier in his career and filled that role often enough in 2021-22 to prove that he’s still adept at it, averaging 46 seconds of shorthanded work over 60 games.
The issue, then, is not whether Rust, 30, is capable of contributing when the Penguins are down a man, but whether it’s prudent to have him do so.
Factors in favor of doing so are his proven penalty-killing prowess, and the dimension his offensive ability adds to the shorthanded unit. When he is out there, opponents have to be aware that one lapse in judgment or execution could result in Rust getting a breakaway.
That might result in someone on the other club’s power play deciding against trying a high-risk/high-reward pass or move that wouldn’t be as risky against a less-skilled penalty-killer.
The obvious downside: Killing penalties is hockey’s equivalent of working on the bomb-disposal unit. Putting yourself in harm’s way — specifically, in front of pucks moving at high speed — is a key part of the job description.
Consequently, guys who take on that duty probably should expect to spend a little time with an X-ray machine now and then.
Losing any player because of a broken bone is a setback for his team; when he’s a first-liner, it can be a whole lot worse.
That’s part of the reason some clubs decline to send out prominent forwards when they’re down a man, although Brian Burke, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ president of hockey operations, said others are rethinking their approach.
“(Boston’s Brad) Marchand kills penalties,” he said. “Mitch Marner (of Toronto) kills penalties. There’s a thought process now.
“I used to be in the school that ‘grunts’ killed penalties — that’s all I did, basically, my first couple of years — but now, teams are using like … (Edmonton’s) Leon Draisaitl kills penalties.
“And (their teams) are like, ‘OK, we’ll run the risk of blocking a shot and getting hurt, because the guy is too valuable as a killer.’ ”
Mike Sullivan and his staff will have a number of issues to resolve during the preseason, and whether to use Rust as a full-time penalty-killer could be one of the most intriguing.
And one of the most important.