I will always remember the late Bob Johnson for two quotes.
Ultimately, Johnson is right, although certain skill sets make some penalty killers better than others. The most important must be anticipation. Being able to break down the opposition's play in front of you will allow for perfect positioning to get into shooting and passing lanes. With active sticks you can prevent and break up passes, and keep the puck to the perimeter.
Skating would be another important attribute. Speed is obviously necessary, but so is mobility and lateral movement. Some of the greatest penalty killers have been speedballs. Remember Dave McLlwain? Winning faceoffs is another obvious, as that can kill 30 of the 120 seconds shorthanded right there. Shot blocking has become an essential task for all penalty killers. Experience and veteran savvy tends to help, though not always. And needless to say, good goaltending is important.
Goaltenders aside, I wanted to look back at some of the great penalty killers over the years. I also asked the many hockey history fans at HFBoards.com's History of Hockey discussion forum for their input.
The first name that popped into my head was Boston's Derek Sanderson. Together with Ed Westfall, "Turk" was an important member of the Boston Bruins PK unit that regularly finished near the top of the league in PK% in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Not surprisingly, the Bruins also finished near the top of the league in those seasons, including two Stanley Cups.
Now those Beantown teams were known for the belligerent play, and they earned their "Big, Bad Bruins" nickname. But in large part their PK team allowed them to play that way. A strong PK allows a team to play with a more aggressive game plan. With the great confidence that your PK unit will halt opposition power plays, a team can be more initiating in physical play and forechecking. Sure, the higher tempo game plan can result in a greater chance of penalties against, but the overall benefits outweigh the detractions if you're likely to survive the 2 minutes shorthanded anyways.
Having defenseman Bobby Orr on the PK unit didn't hurt the Bruins either. Don Cherry loves to tell the story of how Orr once killed a penalty all by himself. He got a hold of the puck and ragged it for the length of the penalty, refusing to give up the puck!
Which leads me to a different penalty kill strategy. The Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s have really popularized the use of superstar offensive players as penalty killers. Regular PK tandems in Edmonton in those days included Wayne Gretzky with Jari Kurri, and Mark Messier with Glenn Anderson.
Don't laugh. Other than Kurri none of these all time greats were known for defensive play. But the Oilers consistently had strong penalty killing during their Stanley Cup dynasty.
The school of thought here is that an offensive wizard such as Gretzky is always such a threat to score on the penalty kill that other teams would be more conservative and tentative on the power play. Defensemen wouldn't pinch to keep the pressure on. Gretzky scored 73 career shorthanded goals, by far the most in NHL history.
The Oilers had lesser skilled players killing penalties as well, namely Esa Tikkanen and Craig MacTavish. MacTavish is now coaching and penalty killing is generally a strong suit of any MacTavish team. Getting in passing and shooting lanes and blocking shots are key strategies here. Watch any Edmonton Oilers game now and you'll notice the skaters block more pucks than the goaltender.
I always remember Guy Carbonneau as a fearless shot blocker. He was the defensive forward extraordinaire in his prime, but he may be the greatest shot blocker of all time. He knew how to time the perfect drop. Countless bruises led to a lot of wins and 3 Stanley Cups.
Carbonneau of course grew into the role as top defensive forward after learning from the best. Not surprisingly, during the Montreal Canadiens dynasty of 1970s featured strong penalty killing, and Doug Jarvis and Bob Gainey were responsible for that. Carbonneau and Mike Keane formed an effective tandem, both in Montreal and Dallas.
Notice how a great penalty kill seems to coincide with team success? It is almost impossible to be a Stanley Cup champion with poor penalty killing.
Nick Metz and Joe Klukay in Toronto in the 1940s; Marty Pavelich and Tony Leswick in Detroit in the 1950s; Claude Provost and Ralph Backstrom in Montreal and of course Dave Keon in Toronto in the 1960s; Don Luce and Craig Ramsay in Buffalo, and Bobby Clarke and Bill Barber with Philadelphia, in the 1970s; Dave Poulin and Brian Propp in Philadelphia in the 1980s; and Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby in Detroit in the 1990s. Steve Yzerman also deserves credit for being a big part of the Detroit penalty kill in their heyday.
In the past two seasons Ottawa has had the best penalty kill unit in the NHL, and that was a big reason why they were in the Stanley Cup final in 2007. As such, Mike Fisher, Chris Kelly, Daniel Alfredsson, Antoine Vermette and now departed Peter Schaefer are also worthy as candidates as the greatest penalty killing tandems, at least in the current era.
Other than Orr, I've only looked at forward tandems. Two defensemen almost always are part of the penalty kill unit, but often they don't get credit as being penalty killing specialists. Often the job falls to the team's best defensemen, who also often happens to be an all star known for far more than penalty kills. Guys like Ray Bourque, Denis Potvin, Chris Chelios, Niklas Lidstrom and Al MacInnis were/are regulars on the PK but better known for their offense.
Defensemen who immediately jump to my mind as penalty kill specialists include Brad Marsh, Kjell Sameulsson, Adam Foote, Bill Hajt, Terry Harper, Craig Ludwig, Dallas Smith, Scott Stevens and Rod Langway. Note how traditionally a top PK defender is big, physical and a great shot blocker. Their job is traditionally to clear the front of the net, block shots and fire the puck out of the zone.
To conclude my look at penalty killing specialists, here's a look at the top scoring short-handed players of all time, heading into the 2007-08 season. Active players are marked with an asterisk:
1. Wayne Gretzky 73
2. Mark Messier 63
3. Steve Yzerman 50
4. Mario Lemieux 49
5. Butch Goring 40
6. Dave Poulin 39
7. Jari Kurri 37
8. Sergei Fedorov 36*
9. Theo Fleury 35
9. Dirk Graham 35
11. Derek Sanderson 34
11. Pavel Bure 34
13. Joe Sakic 32*
13. Peter Bondra 32
13. Bobby Clarke 32
13. Guy Carbonneau 32
13. Brian Rolston 32*
17. Dave Keon 31
17. Bill Barber 31
20. Mats Sundin 30*
20. Russ Courtnall 29
20. Bob Pulford 29
20. Craig MacTavish 29
20. Esa Tikkanen 29
25. Dave Reid 28
25. Jeremy Roenick 28*
25. Mike Modano 28*
25. Mark Howe 28
25. Bernie Nicholls 28
P.S. - A good trivia note: Theo Fleury once scored 3 SH goals in a single game!