The Bewildering Brilliance of the New Jersey Devils Penalty Kill

The New Jersey Devils have the most successful penalty kill in the league. They have killed 90.4% of all of their shorthanded situations; they are the only team who is above 90% and one of seven above 85%. They have the league's best home PK with 65 out of 70 kills in 19 home games, a 92.9% success rate. Their road success rate has been impressive with 77 kills out of 87 in 24 road games, a 88.5% success rate. While the latter's only third in the league, it's still great. They lead the league in shorthanded goals with 11, a healthy lead over the second place team, Carolina, who has 7. The Devils have allowed the fewest amount of power play goals in the league with 15; their goal differential of -4 is the best in the NHL. Simply put, you couldn't ask for a better performance by this side of special teams.

It's not only been brilliant, but also bewildering. I'm still amazed at how few goals they have allowed in general. The amazement grows when you consider the Devils have not been among the most disciplined teams in the league this season. As of Thursday afternoon, the Devils are tied for 19th in the NHL with 157 shorthanded situations, a far cry from the fewest total of 119. Yet, it has not hindered them. And the unit's success has included contributions from unlikely sources. As Tom pointed out on Thursday, Ilya Kovalchuk - a player who has not been a regular on the PK - has stepped in this season to play not-insignificant minutes shorthanded and has obtained success. Rookie Adam Henrique has not only played his way into a regular role on the team, but as a PK force. Injuries to various defenders have not faded them either; they still successfully kill calls. When I put it all together, it's just mind-boggling that the Devils penalty kill has been so successful this season.

I would have to admit that at some point, the Devils would have hit a cold streak or not be as hot by now. Now it's 43 games into the season, and the penalty killers keep racking up successful kills and occassionally a goal for New Jersey. It's the best penalty kill in NHL - and the world. It also warrants further investigation. What about the Devils' penalty kill is truly sustainable? What is likely to regress in the future? What can the Devils do to improve their PK, if anything? Please continue on after the jump for some answers to these questions among additional analysis.

Collective Achievement

The last time the New Jersey Devils had a success PK rate in the top 5 of the NHL was in 2006-07. That team killed 85.2% of all penalties, good for fourth in the league. They were largely led by five players: Jay Pandolfo, John Madden, Colin White, Paul Martin, and Brad Lukowich. Those five played over 200 minutes and averaged over two minutes of shorthanded ice time per game. They were the only five players who've done so on the team; therefore, they really carried the load. In fact, Pandolfo, Madden, and White averaged over three minutes per game so they were truly the PK leaders. The team also got a minute plus per game from Sergei Brylin, Jim Dowd, Johnny Oduya, and Brian Rafalski in support; but it was really the prior five who got the majority of the job done. (Aside: none of these players are Devils now.)

Fast forward to today's team. Right now, only two players have been getting heavy minutes on the PK: Bryce Salvador and Anton Volchenkov. They're the only two who are on pace to play more than 200 minutes on the PK and they currently average over three shorthanded minutes per game. Instead of leaning one group or two forwards and three defensemen, this team has six other players with over two minutes of shorthanded ice time: Zach Parise, Henrik Tallinder, Dainius Zubrus, Patrik Elias, Adam Henrique, and Andy Greene. (I'm excluding Jacob Josefson and Mark Fraser due to their low number of games played.) On top of that, Kovalchuk, Ryan Carter, Mark Fayne, and Matt Taormina each average over a shorthanded minute per game; driving up the number of players regularly involved on the PK this season to 13. That's a larger group than the successful 05-06 PK units.

Peter DeBoer and Dave Barr could be leaning on the veteran defensemen, but the work among forwards has spread out. That's definitely a plus from a fatigue and match-up perspective. It means fewer players have to eat up big minutes regularly on the PK, the work load can be (and has been for the forwards) spread out. That they've achieved success has allowed the coaches to make changes should a player have a bad game, if they're unable to play, or if they're in the box. It may hurt when Salvador or Volchenkov are in the box, but it hasn't burned the Devils too badly this season. When you consider that Tallinder, Volchenkov, and Greene have missed games due to injury and that the PK keeps on succeeding, it's makes their success more impressive since they have been regulars. Fayne or Taormina have been slotted in and they haven't been liabilities. I expect the Devils coaches to continue employing a collective effort for the rest of this season, and I think it helps explain the impressiveness of the Devils' penalty kill.

Percentages & Rates

What has been impressive but won't likely last are the team's percentages on the PK. According to Behind the Net's stats for 4-on-5 situations, the Devils have the league's best shooting percentage with 20% and the league's second best save percentage with 93%. As remarkable as they are, they're ridiculously high at both ends. In the last four seasons, the Devils have shot at 7.2% (07-08), 14.6% (08-09), 9.9% (09-10), and 6% (10-11) in 4-on-5 situations. It's not a consistent percentage and their 2008-09 season placed them third in the NHL. Even that high percentage is a good drop from 20%. It suggests that their current shooting percentage, while impressive, is rather unsustainable.

Not only are the shooting percentages in 4-on-5 situations inconsistent, so are save percentages. Again, from the last four seasons in 4-on-5 situations: 90.1% (07-08), 85.9% (08-09), 86% (09-10), and 87.6% (10-11). By the way, the 2007-08 save percentage of 90.1% was the best in the league; since then, they've been around the middle of the league or the lower third. Moreover, Martin Brodeur (92.6% PK) and Johan Hedberg (91.1% PK) have been nowhere near 93% shot stoppers at even strength, both goaltenders have been inconsistent this season. Hedberg's even strength save percentage just got a recent bump above his PK save percentage; but the latter's more impressive at 91% than the former (91.2% is below league average, if I recall correctly). It's rather baffling that the team's save percentage been so much better in theoretically more difficult 4-on-5 situations as opposed to even strength. In my view, it's further reason to believe it to be unsustainable like the team's current shooting percentage.

When will they drop? I couldn't tell you. Maybe the Devils will remain riding these until the end of the season, maybe it'll fade incrementally over time, or maybe it'll all fall apart starting tomorrow. All I know is that it's not likely to hold up over time. I certainly wouldn't expect such good percentages next season.

That all said, there's some signs of real excellence by the PK units overall. Goals are special and important events that involve some kind of luck; but shots are far more controllable by a team. Percentages will fluctuate, but shooting rates can tell us more about what a team really accomplishes on the ice. In 4-on-5 situations, the Devils have truly been fantastic with their shooting rates. The Devils have the league's second best shots for per 60 rate (SF/60) of 13.0 and the league's fourth best shots against per 60 rate (SA/60) of 40.8. These numbers provide evidence of what we've seen in games. The Devils' aggression from their attacking forwards have yielded some offense - maybe a breakaway, maybe a rush-up ice - and so they do get shots on net. Their formation and the decision making from their personnel has forced opponents to hang back on their shots. Their success rate hasn't been just a case of some excellent streaks in either shooting or stopping pucks. Relative to the league, the shooting rates show how good the Devils have been. If Dave Barr and the other coaches are to be commended for the PK (and they should), then this is why.

By the way, the Devils also boast some relatively low SA/60 rates on 3-on-5 situations (67.7) and 3-on-4 situations (70.1). Those situations are rather rare, which is why I've been focusing on 4-on-5 situations. Still, it further suggests that the Devils skaters on the PK are doing their jobs.

They really are relatively limiting their opposition on the PK and they're really generating offensive opportunities. Those two rates give me confidence of future success on the penalty kill. OK, the save percentage dipping would obviously mean more power play goals will be allowed. The shooting percentage dropping would mean those offensive rushes don't yield goals to help the Devils out on the scoreboard. But the PK isn't suddenly become one of the worst in the league or drop to mediocrity. For the rest of this season, opposing teams will still struggle to get shots on net. The Devils will generate some shorthanded shots on net; even if they get cold there, the clock will still run and precious seconds would run off either way. That's real.

The Standout Players

Of course, when a penalty kill unit has success both somewhat sustainable (SF/60, SA/60) and not really sustainable (S%, Sv%), some of those players have to be doing quite well. I'm not going to run through all of them, but there are certainly a few who've stood out. I'll name four:

First, there's Ilya Kovalchuk. Tom profiled Kovalchuk's contributions on the PK this season in this post. If you haven't read it, go do so now. Done? Good. I'd like to add one more impressive stat. Corsi makes the most sense for even strength because generally players on power plays have incredibly high values and players on the penalty kill have incredibly low values. Special teams involve special situations, focusing on one end of the game over the other. Still, I wanted to see who had the highest Corsi on the team in 4-on-5 situations among Devils who played at least 1 TOI/60 in 10+ games in said situations. Kovalchuk leads the team. In fact, Kovalchuk leads the league. That he's only been on the ice for only one PPGA at 4-on-5 certainly speaks to the notion that he's not a defensive liability; and the SF/60 jumps up when he's out there.

Second, there's Adam Henrique. This is a rookie. Rookies don't just step onto special teams and succeed the way he does. He's likely to regress hard to the mean with his shooting percentage; he's not going to pot in all of those breakaways and two-on-ones. Nonetheless, his 4 shorthanded goals ties him for the league lead, he's got 3 assists to go with them, and he's only been on the ice for 3 one-man disadvantage goals against. In fact, he's got the best on-ice goal differential in 4-on-5 situations in the league with +4. Besides, if he can keep getting them, then it's a big help to kill clock and force the opposition to defend - even if the goalie gets a stop. Moreover, when Henrique steps on the ice at 4-on-5, the SA/60 drops dramatically. As if there's not enough to appreciate about this rookie's season, his PK work is just icing on the proverbial cake.

Third, and related to Henrique is Zach Parise - Henrique's regular partner. Parise has as many shorthanded points as Henrique with 7, more than his power play points. Parise has been dogged in attacking defenders on the PK and he will press for a turnover where appropriate. That's a big help on a kill. Parise leads the forwards in shorthanded minutes and when he's out there, the SF/60 jumps higher than anyone - even when Kovalchuk steps on the ice. He's even in goal differential, but he's been taking to his new PK duties as well as anyone could expect.

Fourth and foremost, there has to be love for the defense and there's no one defender more deserving than Bryce Salvador. He leads the Devils in shorthanded ice time, he averages over 3 minutes per game on the PK, and he has been solid. His on-ice goal differential is even. The only other defensemen where the SA/60 drops when they're on the ice are the currently injured Andy Greene and call-up Matt Taormina. And for Salvador, it drops 2.3, which is rather good. Salvador has played in every game this season, he's leaned on the most on the PK, and he's been as good as one can be in those situations.

This is not meant to disrespect Patrik Elias (SA/60 drops when he's out there), Dainius Zubrus, Henrik Tallinder, or the rest. It's just that these four players have really stood out on the PK even by some advanced numbers. No, they're not all that ideal. Again, the best on-ice Corsi for a player who's played at least 10 games and at least 1 TOI/60 is a little over -40. Still, the on-ice and off-ice splits for shots show us who's getting help and even for players where the SA/60 rises, it usually comes with SF/60 rising and even so the SA/60 rate itself isn't all that high. It has truly been a group effort amid some great performances so far.

Improvements - A.K.A. Stay Out of the Box

So the Devils have great shooting rates, they're riding percentages, and several players have done very well in 4-on-5 situations. The PK is incredibly successful and even when the percentages drop, the success rate as a whole probably won't drop too far. Short of some horrid nights, this PK is likely to finish quite well among their peers.

Nevertheless, good is not as good as better and the Devils can help themselves out by not taking so many penalties to begin with. After all of this praise about the PK, the cold fact remains: the best penalty kill is the one that doesn't take place. As much as Devils fans love the "power kill," the PK isn't scoring goals like the frustrating power play. 11 shorthanded goals - 10 through goaltenders - are impressive, but it's still a smaller contribution than 21 power play goals (16 at 5-on-4, 4 at 5-on-3, 1 at 4-on-3). As great as the goaltenders have been in those situations, I don't know if it'll last for the rest of this season. Besides, the Devils aren't invincible when killing a penalty, they've allowed 15 PPGs. They're not going to hold opposing teams to none for the rest of the way. Therefore, it's to the Devils' advantage to avoid going on a disadvantage.

More importantly, even as good as the Devils' PK has performed, they're still defending for a majority of the time. Yes, they got a great SF/60, but it's still far less than their SA/60; the Devils are out-shot regularly like pretty much every PK in the league. While a successful kill is good, I'd rather have them avoid getting out-shot for a part of the game when they could be attacking themselves. When the Devils take multiple penalties, that time adds up and just the time taken up by primarily defending can hurt the Devils' cause in a game.

As noted prior to the jump, the Devils are no longer among the top teams when it comes to being shorthanded. They're tied for nineteenth with 157. They're on pace to break 300 shorthanded situations for the first time since the 2008-09 season. That's not a positive even with a great PK, so the Devils would only be helping themselves by cutting down on the penalties. Just looking at the drawn-taken list at Behind the Net for who's getting called in 5-on-5 situations, David Clarkson, Ryan Carter, and Petr Sykora stick out as players who should make the most effort to avoid minors in the future. They each have taken 10 or more calls this season. Following them is five-sixths of the blueline (I'll note Kurtis Foster has only taken 1 call as a Devil), which is concerning given that two of them are the big-minute guys on the PK: Salvador and Anton Volchenkov. The defense as a whole can help out a lot by not making dumb decisions or getting beat such that they need to take a minor to prevent a goal. In general, they just need to be smarter with their sticks and decisions to hit a player.

I don't think the Devils will shoot up to the top of the league for fewest shorthanded situations, but they can ease the PK's workload by taking fewer penalties. This way when the 4-on-5 percentages do regress or if the units just get cold, the effects may be lessened.

Your Turn

Until it fades, I'm just going to appreciate it for what it is; I suggest you do the same. I don't know if I'll see the Devils ever be so productive and effective on a penalty kill like this. Between the players, Dave Barr and the other coaches, and good fortune, it's been equally brilliant and bewildering.

Now it's your turn to talk about the PK. What is your general reaction to how they have been performing this season? Who has stood out the most in your eyes? What do you think the Devils can do to improve their penalty kill going forward? Where do you see the Devils' PK ending up by the end of this season? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Devils penalty killing units in the comments. Thank you for reading.

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