Near the beginning of September, John wrote a post asking if the Devils upgrade at goaltending should be enough to improve the penalty kill. Additionally, he posed a few questions about PK asking if the approach or personnel might differ in some way. Well, we are still in the very early stretches here, but it's pretty clear how awful the power play is. How about the penalty kill? Can we make any obvious claims at this point in the season about their outlook? Well, yes and no. I think we can answer some of the questions John posed before training camp, but certainly its still too early to make some determinations at this point. Still, it will be interesting to see how the team has fared in the early stretch on the other half of special teams play.
Power Kill No More?
Two seasons ago, not only did the Devils give up the least power play goals (27) in the NHL, they also scored the most shorties (15). The phrase "power kill" was coined, appropriately so, as their remarkable season ended with a staggeringly low -12 differential over 82 games. The Devils penalty killers again led the league in shorthanded goals last season, but were not nearly as effective in keeping the puck out of their own net. Was their aggressiveness hurting them in some ways? Perhaps. Or, it was also just a lack of execution in other areas of the ice leading to goals. Either way, with Mike Foligno taking over for Dave Barr, it seems that the Devils have, indeed, scaled back the aggressiveness of their penalty killers to some degree. Although the approach is similar, it does not appear as if the Devils are attempting to get as many pucks on net. In their power killing glory days, the Devils traditionally were near the top of the league in lowest shots against. But, they were also near the top of the league in generating shots while shorthanded. Last season, they generated 12.3 shots / 60 while shorthanded, good for 3rd in the league. This season, they are 29th out of 30 teams, creating shots at just a 2.6/ 60 pace. Although it is very early in the season, this is a huge difference from what we have seen in previous seasons. It's possible that this rate could improve or the Devils could attack more once they are more comfortable, but if things stay as they are, I wouldn't expect nearly as many shorthanded goals as previous seasons. I'm not sure if this is a result of the players the Devils have on the ice killing penalties, or a change in strategy with a new penalty kill coach.
Volchie and Sal all day
Will the Devils be comfortable relying heavily on the usual suspects once again to kill penalties? The answer so far is an overwhelming yes. It's a 'yes' to the point that if they don't find someone else to start using more, this is going to become a serious problem at some point. Granted, the Devils have not been shorthanded all that many times so far this year, but these numbers are very concerning. Look at the gap between Salvador, Volchenkov, and the third man, Andy Greene. I don't understand why Greene isn't seeing more PK time, except maybe for the fact that they can't find anyone to put back there with him.
That point was exactly John's third question posed in the pre-season, and it's one that the Devils still have not answered. Who will pair with Andy Greene on the penalty kill? Mark Fayne filled that role last night and was on the ice for the power play goal against. Needless to say, he is probably a better option than anyone else the Devils have at this point. There is no way that the Devils penalty kill will continue to be successful in the long term if they do not find a worthwhile second pairing option on defense. The team must answer this question soon, and Andy Greene must take a bigger role in killing penalties.
So, how 'bout that goaltending improvement?
Well, I would say so far the save percentage is playing out pretty much as expected. In a shocking turn of events, having a better goaltender = having a better save percentage! Cory Schneider has offered a significant upgrade in this area so far. I wouldn't count on him to continue to operate at a .920 pace, but we'll see how things develop. Brodeur is up to about .850 which is an improvement over last season. It's probably not very reasonable to expect Brodeur to operate at a much higher level than this, given his history.
Where Does that Leave Us? What can we expect?
The overall success rate of the penalty kill is certainly at an acceptable level so far, but we are at a point in the season where every goal against still has the effect of moving the percentage down by probably as much as 4 - 5 %. Needless to say, 84% has the Devils at 10th place overall in the league right now in this department.
The penalty kill is in an ok place right now, but is really walking a dangerous line with their deployment so far. The house is going to crumble at some point if a reasonable second defensive pairing isn't developed. The forward pairings seem fine, for the most part. The Devils are relying heavily on Adam Henrique, as they should. Right behind him is a pretty even sprinkling of Travis Zajac, Patrik Elias, Dainius Zubrus, Stephen Gionta, and Ryan Carter. This is just fine, as there are many capable penalty killers among that bunch.
So, we have a penalty kill that remains great at preventing shots, currently third in the league in SA / 60 with 42.4. They are not generating shots, so it's doubtful they will continue to score shorthanded at the rate they have previously. Their goaltending and save percentage is improved so far, as expected. Although this is a number that can also change drastically this early in the season, it's good to see Schneider operating at a high level so far. Everything seems to be falling into place, except for on the defense. Sal and Volchie will wear down during the season and down will not be able to take all those minutes. It is imperative that the Devils figure out who will play with Andy Greene on the PK, and get them out on the ice more often. To summarize: so far so good, no more power kill, figure out a way to not give Bryce Salvador all the minutes.