OTTAWA, ON - APRIL 18: Anton Volchenkov #24 of the Ottawa Senators tries to check Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins as he carries the puck behind the net during Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Quaterfinals during the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals at Scotiabank Place on April 18, 2010 in Ottawa, Canada. (Photo by Phillip MacCallum/Getty Images)
This won't come as a shock to anyone but the Devils' loss to the Flyers in the playoffs really irritated me. The lack of discipline and the way the Devils were bullied in their defensive zone on both even strength and the penalty kill was tough to watch. The penalty killing unit was especially poor as it let up 6 goals in the playoffs (72.4 kill rate) with 5 of the goals scored by Flyers in front of the net (with 3 of the goals even scored by or attributed to activity by Chris Pronger). I was originally going to link to each goal to show as examples, but I didn't feel the need to relive those 'lowlights' from the playoffs again.
Random Tangent- Pronger played a lot of minutes in the playoffs. I sure hope he can still play that effectively when he is 42. Ok, I am done. Just had to get that out. Ok where was I....
The penalty killing unit has been in a transition period with the roster turnover the last few years and there is good news and bad news for the unit in 2010-2011. The Good: Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder will be additional assets to Colin White and the rest of the defensive corps, playing a lot of minutes and improving the back pair of defenders on the penalty kill. The Bad: With the loss of Rob Niedermeyer (who was replacing the time John Madden once played on the unit) to the
Pittsburgh Penguins Buffalo Sabres, the buyout/release of Jay Pandolfo and seemingly no interest in bringing back Dean McAmmond, the Devils lose 1/3 of the forwards that significantly contributed on the penalty kill in 2009-2010.
After the jump I will talk about the defensive distribution of minutes and what we can expect from the defensemen this year. I will also write about how successful the Devils penalty kill has been in the past few years and compare that to the successes that the Sabres and Senators had over the same time period. Adding in the Sabres and Senators top pairing penalty killers (Volchenkov and Tallinder respectively) only enhances the Devils penalty killing unit and hurts two eastern conference rivals. In part 2 of this post I will focus on the forwards and how Travis Zajac's ice time might be distributed a bit differently this year.
By their team philosophy (in addition to their mainstream media reputation as still playing the 'trap') one would probably think that the Devils had one of the top penalty killing units in the league. The chart below shows the Devils rankings (post lockout) on the penalty kill.
Over the 5 years since the lockout the Devils have averaged out to be 15th in the league in the penalty kill. There was a terrible year right after the lockout in 2005-2006 (which certainly wasn't helped by the signings of Vladimir Malakhov and Dan McGillis) where they ended up ranked 26th, followed up in 2006-2007 with a very good year that placed them 4th in the league. Since that point they have ranked 13th, 20th, and 13th in the last three years respectively. While they aren't the most proficient team on the penalty kill they certainly have benefited from playing very disciplined hockey when it comes to taking unnecessary penalties.
The following table shows the rankings in penalties taken by the Devils versus the rest of the league and the ranking of power plays goals against. Simply stated, since they take fewer penalties, they let up fewer power play goals. This helps make up for a pedestrian penalty killing unit. However, when the Devils have been faced with penalty killing situations in important spots (like in the playoff series against the Flyers) the unit has been exposed. (Another bonus to acquiring Tallinder and Volchenkov are that both players play disciplined hockey as Volchenkov had only 38 penalty minutes and Tallinder had only 32 penalty minutes last year.)
|Times Shorthanded Ranking
So why is the information above important? Both Volchenkov and Tallinder were top pairing penalty killers for Ottawa and Buffalo last season, and by adding them to the Devils penalty kill we might finally see the success rate on the penalty kill start to improve. While they are not solely responsible for their former teams successes on the penalty kill, the minutes they played show they did contribute to the success. On average of the last three seasons both Ottawa and Buffalo had a higher average penalty kill percentage than the Devils (individually the Devils did have an edge in 2007-2008 over Ottawa). Looking at the chart below you will see the total penalties taken by Ottawa, Buffalo and New Jersey over the past three seasons and the corresponding penalty kill percentage.
Buffalo averaged roughly 20 more shorthanded situations while Ottawa took a whopping average of 56 more penalties than the Devils over the last three seasons. The Devils, on average, were shorthanded a little more than 3 times a game which equates to roughly about 12/13 minutes of total ice time that has to be accounted for by the defensive corps. This time is distributed to those most capable defenders of the team and that usually means that some defensemen can prepare to play 15%-20% of their time each game killing penalties. The following chart shows the shorthanded time on ice for Devils defensemen post lockout (last season's stats will be listed later in the article). Please note that I only listed those players who averaged at least 1:00 minute or more in shorthanded time on ice and players who played in at least 40 games.
Editor's Note: As I was about to publish this piece (and without access to the original table) I noticed that Bryce Salvador's time was missing. Salvador averaged 2:35 on the penalty kill in 2007-2008 and 3:05 in 2008-2009.
You can see by the times listed above that Colin White and Paul Martin were the Devils top pairing on the penalty killing unit the past few years, with Bryce Salvador picking up some heavy minutes as well. Also, before he was traded during the season for Ilya Kovalchuk, Johnny Oduya was starting to play a more prominent role on the kill unit. While Martin didn't see much time on the PK unit last year there is still significant time that has to be made-up to account for his loss and the loss of Oduya by trade. Addin the possibility of Bryce Salvador not being with the team next year and you can start to see why Lou Lamoriello sought to add depth to the defense in the offseason.
Enter Volchenkov and Tallinder to the Devils. Both averaged roughly 3 minutes on the penalty kill unit and played on the top defensive pairing for their clubs.
Over the past 3 years both players have played heavy minutes on the penalty killing unit for their teams. In addition to the time on ice statistics I also added the total goals against each player let up when they were on the ice. Considering the situations they are put in with minutes and responsibilities on the penalty goal neither player let up many goals when on the ice.
I also checked their quality of competition via BehindTheNet.ca and looked at their level of competition on the penalty kill. While Tallinder didn't have a positive QOC last year on the penalty kill he was on the first pairing, usually paired with Calder Trophy winner Tyler Myers. Volchenkov on the other hand had a higher QOC then any Devil the last two years. As far as the Devils are concerned, Colin White and Bryce Salvador had the highest QOC among returning defensemen from last year.
Now as John has noted in recent posts, Colin White is pretty good. Additionally he averaged the highest time on ice per shorthanded situation and played against a high level of competition among Devils players last year. His primary pairing partner was Mike Mottau, who he was paired with for over 35 percent of the shorthanded situations the Devils faced. While Mottau was capable, he was a bit out of his element, being matched against stronger players. This is not Mottau bashing, I actually like him a lot on the third or sometimes second pairing, but he is not a first pairing player on the penalty kill or even strength. Injuries during the year made Jacques Lemaire split up his top penalty killers in Salvador and White (especially after the Oduya trade) and it resulted in two primary pairs of players. Mottau/White and Greene/Salvador.
In the playoffs the only change was a surprisingly low number of minutes for Paul Martin and Andy Greene on the penalty kill and the usage of Martin Skoula in their place. Most likely this was due to the fact that both Martin and Greene were needed on even strength to attempt to move the puck out of their own zone. That said, the fact that Martin Skoula and Mike Mottau were two of our top four penalty killers is probably one of the reasons the Devils were bounced out of the playoffs so early. Individually either player would be OK in a 4-man rotation but for both to be in that rotation was a cry for help.
The table below (courtesy of information generated from dobblerhockey.com) allows you to look at how the pairings were put together by Lemaire last year. For good measure I also added the 2008-2009 Devils pairing stats to show that Brent Sutter seemed to rotate his top four penalty killers much more than Lemaire who was consistent in using his specific pairings (shocking considering Lemaire's need to shuffle his forward lines so much).
Adding in the pairing information for both Volchenkov and Tallinder shows that Tallinder/Myers were joined at the hip on the penalty killing unit while Volchenkov's primary partner was Chris Philips during the season and for the playoffs. It will be interesting to see how all four players adapt to new partners next year (both on even strength and the penalty kill) to see if one partner might have been making the other look better than he was.
Last year the Devils took almost 85 less penalties than the year before and it allowed them to keep all of their defensemen's penalty killing exposure to a minimal level. Historically this hasn't been the case as secondary penalty killing defensemen played anywhere from 1:45 to 2:25 per game, with top defenders (Paul Martin, Colin White and Scott Stevens/Ken Daneyko before them) playing in excess of 3 minutes per game. As demonstrated above Volchenkov and Tallinder are both defenders used to dedicating 3 plus minutes to the penalty kill unit each game. The question now becomes who will be the Devils top pairing on the penalty kill. Is it the new guys or will Colin White keep the top spot? I am not sure how John MacLean divided those minutes in Lowell last year, but if I had to venture a guess I would say the Devils now have three top penalty killing guys who will be used interchangeable, on the top pairing. It will likely depend on how they compliment each other on the ice. Tallinder being the less physical of the three might be moved back and forth on a pairing with White or Volchenkov until MacLean finds the right fit.
Supplementing Colin White with the new additions and players already on the roster should help the unit clear the front of the net and move the puck out of the Devils zone better than they have been in previous years. Either Bryce Salvador (if he is still on the team) or Mike Mottau (if he is re-signed) could function very well in a second unit setting, with Andy Greene stepping in to fill the gaps. It's important to keep Andy Greene's time on the penalty kill to less than a minute (shift) per game will be important as he is the team's one offensive threat from the blueline and he needs to be utilized for attacking purposes as much as possible. To take two top penalty killers and add them to a group that performed decently, if not well, and combine that with the low number of penalties the Devils take should result in the Devils having a successful power play next year, provided they have the support up front.......
Ensuring that Volchenkov, Tallinder, or White are out there consistently for the 1st/3rd defensive shifts should result in about 3:15-3:30 minutes per game for each of them which will set the Devils penalty unit up to be tough to play against down low. I have listed my time projections for the Devils after this paragraph. Am I over or under projecting anyone's time? I have left Salvador in there for now (he is still on the roster) and if he is moved later on I would imagine Mike Mottau would be re-signed to play the minutes necessary.
In attempting to generate a guess as to how many penalty minutes per game the Devils would have to kill I used their prior year's number of roughly 3 penalties which would generate 12 minutes of power play time that needed to be distributed among their defensemen.
So now it is your turn. Do you think the time projections above are realistic? Should the #1 PK Unit be Volchenkov and Tallinder? Tallinder and White? White and Volchenkov? Sound off below.