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Blues' Hitchcock cites legendary coach for revolutionizing penalty killing

by Dan Rosen

St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock compares former University of Alberta coach Clare Drake to another legendary college coach.

"This guy is John Wooden," Hitchcock said.

Like Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach, Drake never was a head coach in the NHL, but he mentored many of the top coaches in the League, including Hitchcock and Mike Babcock, is one of the most decorated collegiate coaches in history, and is considered one of the greatest innovators and teachers ever to grace the game.

As an example, Hitchcock recently credited Drake with revolutionizing the way teams kill penalties.

"Penalty-killing in the '50s, '60s, '70s and even into the early '80s was a passive box, but he created pressure points," Hitchcock said. "The term everybody uses now, 'Four go,' was his idea."

Hitchcock said Drake, now 87, presented his penalty-kill philosophies to a group of hockey coaches in Alberta in 1982. Drake felt it was better to have the four players killing the penalty attacking, pressuring and trying to check the puck back instead of sitting back and letting the power play get to work to create chances.

Hitchcock said all the coaches, him among them, were scared of Drake's PK philosophies because none of them thought what he was saying could be done.

"Now everybody does it," Hitchcock said. "Everybody follows those pressure points. Everybody follows the angling, top down, stuff like that, how to stop entries, how to put the power play into positions where you can squeeze hard with numbers."

Modern technology and systematic changes in power plays have enhanced Drake's influence on the penalty kill to the point where Columbus Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards said he's noticed PKs around the NHL in recent years applying pressure that is harder and deeper than ever before.

New York Islanders coach Jack Capuano said it's a result of a greater ability to pre-scout teams through video study.

"There are too many good players in this league that if you give them time they're going to make plays, find players," Richards said. "Penalty-killing has really evolved into a systematic game. Everyone is about power plays, and I think penalty kills come out with the intent that they're going to kill one way regardless of the power play they're going against."

Blue Jackets center Ryan Johansen also said he feels the pressure being applied by penalty-killers is gaining in intensity and is being aided by new wrinkles teams are implementing on the power play.

"There's a bunch of different stuff that has been brought in recently, the last few years, all the drop passes on breakouts, and everyone likes shorthanded goals so [the penalty killers] go for them," Johansen said. "When there are trigger points, they're all over you, smothering you."

A perfect example is the shorthanded goal scored by Chicago Blackhawks center Artem Anisimov last Friday against the New York Islanders at Barclays Center.

The Islanders were trying to break out of the zone and the puck got to forward Brock Nelson at center ice. Nelson, his back turned toward the defense, tried to swing a pass to defenseman Johnny Boychuk that was intercepted by a pressuring Anisimov, who went in alone for a shorthanded breakaway goal.

The key was that the Blackhawks had three players spread across the red line, pushing up to create havoc in the neutral zone. The Islanders were impeded from entering the zone cleanly so they tried a swing pass to gain some speed. It got intercepted.

"The best penalty kills in the league are the teams that don't allow the other teams to set up, and the way to do that is to pressure off entries," Winnipeg Jets forward Andrew Ladd said. "Any time you can disrupt that before they can set up that's where you're going to have the most success."

Hitchcock credited Drake for having the brains, intuition and confidence to revolutionize the way teams kill penalties.

"The passive box has gone bye-bye," Hitchcock said, "and it's because of him."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

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