The U of M Bisons men’s hockey team has a problem.
No, it is not the club’s record — it currently sits 4-4-0 on the season and fifth in the conference. No, it is not the club’s relative inexperience — of its top 10 scorers, only two have played more than two seasons in Manitoba.
The problem is that Manitoba’s penalty kill — to put it mildly — is faring quite poorly. Currently last in the conference, just behind the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds, at 66.7 per cent, the Bisons have given up 13 goals on 39 short-handed situations.
This does not need to be the case, as the herd has all the tools necessary for a strong penalty-kill, preventing goals against and turning the tide in games. It all comes down to how the kill is deployed.
The problem: Passivity creates too much time and space
When Manitoba takes a penalty and the opposing team sets up in the Bisons zone, the puck is kicked to the point, with the opposing team setting up in an umbrella — the typical offensive scheme favoured in hockey today.
In response, the Bisons retreat into a tight diamond setup around the slot. One player stays in the high slot to pressure the defender at the top of the umbrella, two players man either faceoff dot to cover movement down to the corners and the last player battles in front of the crease.
What this setup does effectively is protect the home plate area of the ice, clogging up movement through the slot and toward the goal. Unfortunately for the herd, the way it plays this style sacrifices allowing shot quantity for cutting down on shot quality.
The root cause of this issue comes down to how Manitoba plays passive defence in its own end.
Instead of challenging the puck carrier no matter where they are, the Bisons sit back in the diamond using positioning to try and force the opposition to take shots from low-danger areas, and then collapsing on the crease to clear loose pucks away. A similar style is used at even strength, and has led to heavily lopsided shot counts.
Bisons starting goaltender Riley Lamb has faced the second most shots of all goaltenders in Canada West, at 247, in his six games played. Only Taz Burman of the University of Lethbridge Pronghorns has faced more, but Lamb faces more on average — 41.17 to 37.71 shots per game.
This passive defending style may cut down on the high-quality chances Bisons head coach Mike Sirant is trying to limit, but the increased workload on Lamb will wear down the rookie netminder while still giving opponents plenty of chances to score.
The passivity does not end there, as when the herd clears the puck down to the offensive zone, a new issue arises.
Unlike most penalty-killing schemes in Canada West, which emphasize speed and pressure on the forecheck once the puck is cleared from the zone, Manitoba goes its own way.
Where other clubs elect to send a forechecker deep into the opposition’s zone to pressure players trying to set up transition back down the ice, Manitoba sends one skater in for a shallow patrol.
The effect is to give the opposing team a chance to breathe and set up their zone exit, while Manitoba gets to keep a player near the neutral zone to cause more pressure in transition. When it works, it’s effective, but the plan can leave the herd open for odd-man rushes, and more aggressive forechecks on the penalty kill serve to create pressure and kill more time off the clock.
This is playing conservative hockey, and in Canada West this just does not work.
The solution: Aggressiveness
Thankfully for Manitoba, the solution to this problem is simple. While on the penalty kill, speed and physicality can be used to create pressure all over the ice.
The herd can broaden the diamond while in the defensive zone, pressuring the top of the umbrella and forcing attacking players to the boards where you can tie them up and kill precious seconds off the clock. Then, when the puck is dumped down the ice, it can use an aggressive forecheck to pressure back-checkers and force them to make mistakes.
With Manitoba’s mix of speed and physicality on the roster, this can be easily accomplished.
Colton Veloso springs to mind as the best man for the job, being the prototypical power forward, similar to former Bisons captain Brett Stovin. Though, where Stovin could take draws and be used as both a forward and defender, Veloso brings more size and strength which can be used to wreak havoc in the defensive zone.
Veloso also has the speed and offensive awareness to be used as a deep forechecker once the puck is dumped down the ice, being a physical presence able to worry defenders into making mistakes or physically removing the puck if needed.
Also effective for this role — albeit in a slightly different deployment — is Jeremey Leipsic, who has speed and stick skills to irritate opponents, knock down passes and strip pucks off sticks.
Both forwards do a great job in the offensive zone at pressuring puck carriers and battling with defenders. They take away time and space, forcing opponents to make mistakes and generate scoring chances.
This same aggressive style they play can be used to kill time and create turnovers while on the penalty kill — the Bisons just need to use it.