While Jacques Lemaire has adjusted and shifted his forward lines many times this season, one area where he hasn't made too many changes at forward on the penalty kill. So far this season, the New Jersey Devils penalty kill has been successful 81.8% this season, tied with Calgary for the 11th best percentage in the league. The unit has done with this with only four forwards getting a majority of the work at the top of the box: Rob Niedermayer (3:10 SH time on ice/game, leads the team); Jay Pandolfo (2:54/game); Jamie Langenbrunner (2:44/game); and Travis Zajac (2:42/game). All four have played at least 13 minutes total on the penalty kill so far this season.
Given the unit's relative success so far, I don't have any complaints about the forwards. But the extra time has added to Zajac's and Langenbrunner's workloads and it means these four need really do need to avoid penalties. Having other forwards who can play PK would help. Yet, according today's practice report from Gulitti, Lemaire has yet to find anyone:
Lemaire said Wednesday that he would be looking in today’s practice for two more players who can kill penalties because he has primarily been using only four so far—Jay Pandolfo, Rob Niedermayer, Travis Zajac and Jamie Langenbrunner—and that’s resulted in those players playing some heavy minutes. Apparently, he was unsuccessful in his search today, though.
"I think I’ll have to go on Google," he joked. "But it’s coming. I’ve got a couple of Web sites that I’ve got to check. They’ll tell me what to do."
Heh. But seriously, let's see if we can help Lemaire out in finding two more forwards who could help on the penalty kill. There are a few possibilities available, in my opinion, based on past performance. Maybe Lemaire isn't enthused with what he's seeing with them so far, but I think they could be worth considering.
While John Madden played a lot of minutes on the kill last season, averaging 3:02/game on the penalty kill last season - second most on the team - Rob Niedermayer seems to be the replacement for those minutes. But beyond Madden, the top forwards in terms of minutes on the penalty kill were Pandolfo (2:33/game), Zajac (2:00/game) , Patrik Elias (1:52/game), and Langenbrunner (1:34/game).
Yes, Elias was the fourth most used forward on the kill last season and he wasn't a negative factor. According to Behind the Net, when Elias came on the ice, the shots against per 60 dropped from 44.1 to 38.7 and overall, only 7 power play goals were scored against when he was out there. Since he's out injured, this means more time for Langenbrunner on the kill and so his workload is higher by default. So Lemaire can simply wait until Elias gets healthy and returns to his normal form. He'll have another capable forward for the penalty kill.
But Elias is still hurt and so waiting for his return isn't that good of an idea. Yet, Lemaire has a very familiar face on the roster who's played those kind of minutes before - Brian Rolston. Back in 2007-08, Rolston's last season with the Wild, Lemaire utilized the winger to play an average of 1:58 per game on the penalty kill, the fourth most among forwards that season. According Behind the Net's 4-on-5 numbers back then, the shots against per 60 dropped from 47.4 to 40.1 when Rolston came onto the ice - a positive sign, in my view. What wasn't positive was being on the ice for 15 power play goals against, the second most behind Eric Belanger. Moreover, for this idea, I'm thinking of Rolston spelling Langenbrunner or Pandolfo as Rolston isn't very good at faceoffs. In 2007-08, he took 39 shorthanded faceoffs and won only 9 - I don't think he's gotten better since then, so it's not worth the attempt in my view.
Still, Lemaire could certainly give Rolston more time on the penalty kill as he knows what he can get out the player and he's done it before. And Rolston would probably appreciate the opportunity, as Sutter gave him a mere 11:52 total on the penalty kill last season. Until Elias comes back, he'd be my best option for a fifth penalty killing forward. Maybe Lemaire's also thinking the same thing, as he's got 3:47 of shorthanded time already. It's not much, but it's something.
Lemaire can also consider center Rod Pelley for some shorthanded shifts. OK, that's a bit of a hard pill to swallow since I just said he hasn't been impressive on the fourth line yesterday. Here me out, though. Back in 2007-08, Pelley was called up for 58 games and actually averaged 1:55 of shorthanded ice time per game - a total of 111:55. He's had experience and even was out on the PK during preseason. Plus, since he is a center, if he does well, he can spell Zajac on a few shorthanded shifts and reduce his workload a bit. An additional opportunity beyond the fourth line can get help him get his game going, come to think of it.
Of course, that comes with some risk - and not just because he's still relatively inexperienced. Per Behind the Net's shorthanded stats from that season, Pelley wasn't all that great of a power play deterrant. He was on the ice for 8 power play goals against, and the shots against per 60 actually rose from 48.0 to 49.9 when he got onto the ice. He also only won 42.6% shorthanded faceoffs that season (26/61), which certainly didn't endear him to be taking faceoffs on the PK. Given that his faceoff skills doesn't seem to have improved since he's 8 for 21 (38.1%) to start the season, perhaps this isn't all that viable of an idea. Especially since he hasn't impressed in limited action so far anyway. If Lemaire wants to groom another PK-capable forward, Pelley would be an appropriate selection. For regular duty, then maybe not now.
This may surprise you, but I feel Dainius Zubrus could be a good option as a possible penalty killing forward. He's got versatility at his position as he can play center or wing. Zubrus even has past experience on the penalty kill prior to signing with New Jersey. In Washington, his average per game shorthanded ice time from 2000-01 to 2005-06 has been significant: 1:58, 2:32, 3:01, and 2:57. While kept out of the kill in 2006-07, he got some PK time in his 19 games in Buffalo, averaging 1:42 per game. Admittedly, I'm not sure whether Zubrus played well when he was a part of the penalty killing units in Washington and Buffalo. I'm not sure how to quantify it and Behind the Net only goes as far back as 2007-08. But he wouldn't keep getting minutes if he was a detriment to the penalty killing units, would he? I think that may be a fair assumption.
Yet, he has been a rare sight while the Devils are shorthanded. Like Rolston, though, Zubrus has gotten a few shifts on the kill, having played a total of 3:57 so far. Maybe Lemaire is testing the waters with Zubrus? I do worry that since Zubrus has penalty issues last season, putting him in shorthanded situations may be playing with fire. You don't want to see players on the PK take calls and that's a risk with Zubrus based on last season. Yet, he's been a significant penalty killer before; and for spelling Zajac and Langenbrunner, surely he can maintain his discipline for a few shifts.
As far as right now, the best options available are Zubrus and Rolston as additional forwards who can kill penalties namely because they have past experience as penalty killers. Pelley would be an option if Lemaire wants to groom him to become a penalty killer, but it could be another issue of his performance not justifying additional responsiblity just yet. And of course, Lemaire can simply choose to do nothing, still utilize the same four forwards on the PK units, and come back to this issue when Elias returns. At least then he'll have a better idea of what he the units are doing and have another capable forward available to step in right away.
Now it's time to have your say. Who do you want to see also killing penalties at forward for the Devils? Do any of these four strike your fancy? Should someone else be considered? Speaking of considerations, would thinking outside the box and going with three defensemen on the penalty kill make some sense, not unlike going with four forwards on the power play? Please leave your thoughts and answers in the comments.