While the New Jersey Devils' season has not gone particularly well given their not-so-good record of (11-13-6), there is one aspect to their game that has been fantastic: the penalty kill. It's one of the few consistently successful components to the team's performance.
The first thing anyone looks at for a penalty kill is success rate. That is, how often do they get through a shorthanded situation without conceding a goal. Before Friday's games, the Devils' have successfully killed 87.2% of all situations. Out of a total of ninety-four shorthanded situations, the team has only allowed twelve goals. Clearly, the Devils have been getting the job done. But there's no secret plan or wonderful fortune. Based on the underlying numbers in shorthanded situations, the Devils are among the best in the league. (Note: all charts taken before what happened on Friday night.)
I'm focusing on 4-on-5 situations because that is the most common shorthanded situation in hockey. Besides, the Devils haven't even had 90 seconds of 3-on-5 hockey this season so there's no point to look at it. The team data at Extra Skater says it all. The only area the Devils are not a top-ten team in is in 4-on-5 ice time. Both Martin Brodeur and Cory Schneider have been great in net. That may not last over a season but the team has been very stingy in allowing shots against. In terms of all shooting attempts against (CA, a.k.a. Corsi Against), all unblocked shooting attempts against (FA, a.k.a. Fenwick Against), and all shots against (SA, a.k.a. Shots Against), the Devils are well ahead of the league median in all three rates. They're not at the very top, but they are quite close. Regardless of what happened against Detroit, it would take a lot of bad PKs to drag them down to middle of the league.
I don't know about you, but this is remarkable. In general, it's always tenser when the team has one less skater out there. The team is forced to do nothing much but defend. The Devils do not score a lot of goals in general so any error here could be rather costly in a game. There are also changes from recent seasons that could have led to damaging results. Mike Foligno has taken over the PK so the players have had to deal with a new coach. Dave Barr is still on staff to provide input, but it is someone else's responsibility all the same. On top of that, the team has been without personnel who have played significant shorthanded minutes. For example, Bryce Salvador (fractured foot) and Anton Volchenkov have missed games due to injury, yet the team's PK keeps succeeding. That's because those who have played on the PK in addition to those two defenders have largely done well.
Let's begin with the defensemen. All data comes from Behind the Net's 4-on-5 player data. Salvador and Volchenkov have been the first-choice pairing whenever possible. When Salvador and, later, Volchenkov were sidelined, those minutes have been given to Andy Greene and a whole bunch of defenders. Using the wide metric of at least 30 seconds per game, only Eric Gelinas has not made this cut. I wouldn't put much stock into Marek Zidlicky or Jon Merrill as they just barely made the cut. Plus, Merrill has yet to be on ice for a shot against on the PK. That's more good fortune than just supreme play.
That being said, on-off differential isn't all great for the defensemen. Because there's been so many defensemen used, there isn't a defender not named Salvador where the shots against rate drops off when they're on the ice. Still, look at the on-ice SA/60 (shots against per 60) rates. It only got massive out there when Mark Fayne and Peter Harrold were out there. Fayne has played tougher and more minutes than Harrold, but he also has highest on-ice shooting rate among all defensemen. I think his inclusion is more by necessity than desire. Foligno and DeBoer prefer him over the rest. That will likely go away when Salvador returns. Since Harrold hasn't done so well, I think it's wise to keep him away unless it's necessary. But because they've had various partners and fewer minutes, then that may go down over time.
Andy Greene keeping shots against per 60 below 41 despite his minutes is very good. Especially because he usually sees the other team's top power play unit. Volchenkov looks like a PK monster given his minutes and the fact that shots against only go up slightly when he's out there. Adam Larsson got relatively little ice time but I see some good things. Of course, the goaltending behind all of them - except Zidlicky - has been very good. That only makes the defender look even better, maybe a bit better than how they are (e.g. Fayne, Harrold). Overall, I see that Foligno and Peter DeBoer have three defensemen they can lean on for most of the situation and a few others who could clean up the rest of the kill.
It's arguably more impressive to see the forwards in 4-on-5 play. The Devils aren't generating a lot of shots on the PK. They're a bit above league median but that's OK because defending is more important. The Devils still prefer to use three, sometimes four, sets of forwards when they can. Adam Henrique and Patrik Elias have been very good, especially Elias. He probably should get more minutes. Dainius Zubrus and Travis Zajac is another common pairing, and they take on tougher competition than Henrique-Elias. But the opposition has been able to find the net more often when they are out there. The differential is quite large. Their on-ice shooting rates aren't bad at all but they do stick out poorly in comparison to others. However, they have not looked bad because Brodeur and Schneider have been massive behind them.
Those who usually play in the third (and sometimes fourth) set intrigue me the most. The shooting rate differentials for Stephen Gionta and Ryan Carter are the highest among forwards. They're also not facing scrubs either and they play well over a minute per game on average. But Carter looks much better than Gionta. That's because of their on-ice save percentage. The goalies have been great behind Carter and terrible behind Gionta. Gionta may have something to do with that as not being in the right position or not getting a clearance can lead to a goal against. I'm sure some of his errors will show up in a goal against review. With these numbers, it may be worth easing up on complaints when he's out there, though. He's not at all a disaster. Likewise, Jacob Josefson could use a better shake. While he has not faced tough power plays regularly with his limited action, the opposition doesn't shoot all that much. Yet, the goalies behind him have not helped him out. Again, he may have had a hand in some of those goals allowed like Gionta. Yet, in this bigger picture, I don't see icing Josefson or Gionta on a penalty kill as a big deal or a mistake given their 4-on-5 stats. I wouldn't want them to replace the top four (Henrique, Elias, Zubrus, Zajac) but continued minutes wouldn't be a bad thing. It actually helps keep guys fresh and adds depth to that situation, which can be useful depending on who takes the call.
On the flipside, Andrei Loktionov has been receiving spot duty on the PK. It has not blown up in his face but the initial results aren't so encouraging. Maybe it will get better over time, though. At least he's playing not much. He could fill in what Rostislav Olesz did, which also wasn't all that much.
If there's one real concern I have about the penalty killing, then it's in net. It's not that Broduer and Schneider have been bad. They've been excellent. In all shorthanded situations, Brodeur has a very good 88.2% save percentage and Schneider has an astounding 93.9% save percentage. My issue is that both will not likely last. Schneider's real good but keeping up a save percentage above 90% in shorthanded situations is really difficult to do. It's been done - both goalies did it in 2011-12 - but I think expecting him to maintain that level of shot-stopping success is asking way too much. Brodeur's percentage is likely to slip over time as well. If both can stay above league average, then we should see a lot more success. If not, then the success rate will fall even though skaters in front of them have done a great job limiting attempts and shots against them. Of course, it'll take plenty of failure for that to happen. It won't be immediately apparent after one game or even a week or so.
For now, there really can be few complaints about how the Devils do in 4-on-5 situations. It is rare they get a 3-on-5 situation; the goalies have been great; and both the defenders and forwards have helped themselves by not being sieves for shots and attempts. I could see some tweaks could be made in terms of deployment, but the total result has been excellent for now. It may help them in the long run if (more likely when) the goalies are not as hot. What would you like to see the Devils do with their penalty kill? Or are you satisfied with the way things are now? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the PK in the comments. Thank you for reading.