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Jerrard tasked with reviving penalty kill

by George Johnson @GeorgejohnsonCH /

Meticulous. Organized. Structured.

"Paul,'' explains Glen Gulutzan, "is a real details-oriented guy. If you look at the way he lives his life, you'd understand.

"I mean, I could list off his breakfast, lunch and dinner because I know what he's going to order.

"It's regimented, right?"

Okay, then: Quick-quiz time. Playing waiter for a day, what would Paul Jerrard order on a typical, say, Tuesday in a run-of-the-mill, oh, October?

"Well, for breakfast,'' replies the man now entrusted with the keys to the Calgary Flames' kingdom, "he'd have oatmeal with no sugar in it. But he'd probably put in walnuts and some honey. For lunch, if he went to Subway, a lean turkey sub. With lettuce. No mayo. No toppings whatsover.

"And then at night, for dinner, he'd have brown rice with a chicken breast and a salad with balsamic vinegar on the side.

"Every day."

If it's understood that the Flames' power play requires some sprucing up if they're to put themselves back in the playoff frame next spring, then their penalty kill needs nothing less than an overhaul.

Which is where Paul Jerrard enters the equation.

"I always say that power play is art, penalty killing is math.'' says Gulutzan.

"The one thing about PK is that it's structured. And Paul, as I said before, is a details guy; a structured guy."

The Gulutzan-Jerrard collaboration dates back to their days in Cedar Park, TX, just outside Austin, base camp for of the AHL Texas Stars. When Gulutzan was elevated to head coach in Dallas, Jerrard joined him there. Among his duties was the PK.

During their two years together in Dallas, the Stars finished 13th and 17th in that stat on a re-tooling team.

So when assembling his staff here, Gulutzan naturally turned to someone he's familiar with, someone he trusts.

"If you look at his track record,'' points out the boss, "from the American league to the NHL, Paul's always had a good penalty kill."

In tumbling out of the playoffs last year, Calgary's power play dropped six spots, from 16th to 22nd. 

Not good.

But not awful when considering the PK plummeted 14 slots, from 16th to last, and was equally culpable both at home (75.7 percent) and away (74.5 percent).

No coincidence that four of the five best regular-season teams ranked in the top five while playing at least a man down: Washington, St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Anaheim.

"We know the importance of special teams, they have to do the job,'' says veteran pivot Matt Stajan. "They weren't good enough last year. Bottom line.

"We need to improve them.

"If we don't …

"We're getting in sync here, and there are certain things we are doing differently (on the penalty kill). It's an adjustment for some of us but that's why we have this time, to get ourselves ready.

"We need to take pride in it right away because we can't afford to fall behind early and find ourselves playing catch-up again.

"The key is being together, whether we're forcing passes or pursuing the puck.

"We're working on our routes. We have different routes going up ice. And then, obviously, your goaltending has to make saves. That's a big part of any penalty kill. No secret there.

"But it's on all of us."

After coming aboard here, Jerrard did watch some tape of the Flames' struggling PK from a season ago, mainly for curiosity's sake.

"Last year,'' he says, "was last year. With me, it's about this year and what we're trying to do now.

"We're just introducing a different kind of a system on the penalty-kill forecheck and a few things we want to accomplish in-zone, and need to get the guys all on board.

"We have different trigger points so when there's an opportunity to pressure, we can all go and pressure. Pressure up ice, be organized at our blueline and then pressure in zone with certain triggers."

That word - pressure - crops up in virtually each conversation with anyone involving the penalty kill down at the Scotiabank Saddledome.

In every sentence, practically.

The latest reminder of the impact of special teams arrived as recently as Sunday night's 4-0 pre-season loss to the Winnipeg Jets. Calgary's work-in-progress penalty kill yielded two goals on three Winnipeg chances, the Jets none on four opportunities.

"We're not there yet,'' acknowledged Gulutzan, after working extensively on the PK prior to Sunday's game. "We're gonna get there. But we're not there yet. 

"It won't be a sit-back-and-block-shots penalty kill. We'll still get in lanes and block shots but the whole purpose of our penalty kill is to pressure the other team and if they beat us, we'll block shots after that.

"We also want to be better at our line, on denying entries.

"So it's more of a pressure penalty, as opposed to Chicago, who have a passive penalty kill but they're very good at it."

Used to be, a certain type of player - read: defensive, checking - was deployed on the PK, another - read: offensively gifted - on the PP. Now when identifying good penalty killers, those traditional lines are blurring.

"First of all,'' says Jerrard, "you're looking for guys who are smart. Guys who can read plays, anticipate passes, get to a spot you need them to be at when it matters.

"You're using a lot more skilled players now on the penalty kill. And that's because they possess those qualities I was talking about."

"Most NHL players, you could make a good penalty killer, if you really, really worked with them,'' chimes in Gulutzan. "Some guys are just instinctually better than others at reading plays, better with their sticks.

"The best penalty killers are not always the quickest, not always the biggest, they might not have the best reach, whatever it may be. But their hockey IQ is high."

It doesn't take a Scotty Bowman, Toe Blake or Al Arbour hockey IQ to clue in that the fate of the 2016-17 Calgary Flames will be tied in part to a significant upgrade on speciality teams, particularly the penalty killing.

"When you're reacting quickly and in sync,'' says Paul Jerrard, "you can almost out-think a power play.

"And that's what we're trying to achieve.

"The focus is on the players on the ice to do it together, as a unit. Everyone on the same page, acting as one.

"And you want it to come naturally. It needs to be structured."

As natural, as structured, maybe, as ordering oatmeal (no sugar) for breakfast, lean turkey at Subway (hold the mayo) as lunch and chicken breast (salad with balsamic vinegar on the side) at dinner.

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