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New Jersey Devils 2014-2015 Season Preview Part 4: Penalty Kill

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The fourth part of the In Lou We Trust 2014-15 season preview for the New Jersey Devils focuses on the penalty kill. Last season's PK unit was excellent, but will the Devils be able to repeat that level of success?

The penalty kill: The one area where Bryce Salvador isn't a statistical albatross and the one area where Cory Schneider ruled - last season.
The penalty kill: The one area where Bryce Salvador isn't a statistical albatross and the one area where Cory Schneider ruled - last season.
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Not killing a penalty is the best kind of penalty kill.  However, penalties can never be fully eliminated.  It is rare that a team plays an entire sixty minutes without fouling anyone whatsoever.  Referees vary in how they decide what is and is not worth a whistle from night to night.  Players try to get away with as much as they can - and get caught with something egregious either out of necessity, lack of awareness, or even malice.  Discipline is always preached but it is rarely perfect.  Therefore, it is important for any successful team to have a functional penalty kill.   The New Jersey Devils were one of the best at it last season.  As goals may be tough to come by, it will be to their benefit to be one of the best at it again.  Will they be?  Let's look at what to expect from the PK units in 2014-15.

Last Season's Results

Let's begin with exactly how good they were.  The Devils' success rate on penalty kills was 86.9%, the best rate in the league according to NHL.com. They conceded the third fewest number of power play goals, 36.  In terms of how many times they were shorthanded, the Devils were ahead of the league median with 264 shorthanded situations, the twelfth fewest in the league. In terms of how many shots they allowed, War on Ice lists the Devils fourth in shots against per 60 rate with 43.89 in all shorthanded situations.   It's fair to say that the Devils truly were among the best in the NHL on the PK last season.

The Goaltending

There are many old cliches in hockey, and the common one for penalty killing is that your goaltender is often your best penalty killer.  After all, the opposition has an extra man on the ice and usually has their best offensive players out there. They are running formations and plays designed to create dangerous shots.   For the penalty to be killed, the goalie will have to make those tough saves.  Last season, the Devils' save percentage on the PK was near the top of the league at 89.6% based on the team numbers at NHL.com. Given that the league average was 87.7%, that's absolutely excellent.  Per NHL.com, Martin Brodeur was very good with a shorthanded save percentage of 88.1% and Cory Schneider was excellent at 91.9%.   Not only did the Devils not allow many shots while shorthanded, but the goalies made plenty of important stops.

This leads me to highlight one of two major concerns about the penalty kill.  How likely are Schneider and the backup goaltender able to repeat that?   Keith Kinkaid is an unknown, as he has been exclusively an AHL goaltender. Scott Clemmensen posted a dreadful 77.6% in his limited time with Florida last season.  However, I'd be more worried about Schneider.  This article by Left Wing Lock makes two key points as to why better than I really could. The first is that penalty killing save percentage is not repeatable. The second is that Schneider has been ahead of the league average by over three standard deviations.  This means either Schneider is super special when it comes to being a goaltender in shorthanded situations, or he's been so fortunate that some regression is likely.  Since the goaltender's job really doesn't change between 5-on-5, 4-on-5, or 5-on-4 situations, I am not convinced of the former conclusion.

What makes it so worrying is that this may happen not because Schneider did anything worse.  This is a game where a bounce or a chance deflection can make the difference between a shot on net, a missed shot on net, a blocked shot, or a goal.  Schneider can play exactly the same way he did last season and post a lower penalty kill save percentage due to bounces and so forth.   He's got these awesome penalty kill save percentages in part by not playing a lot in general. If he faced more shots, then we'll get a better handle on how good he is.  He could still beat the league average.  The problem is that the Devils' success on the penalty kill last season was driven in part by Schneider's save percentage being relatively amazing.   Less amazingness combined with uncertainty from what the #2 goalie does means it should be no surprise if the Devils give up more power play goals in 2014-15.  The team should try to do what they can to minimize that increase in addition to trying to score more goals so it doesn't undercut them outright.

The Penalty Killers

The New Jersey Devils lost two defensemen this summer.  Mark Fayne signed in Edmonton as a free agent while Anton Volchenkov was bought out.   Both played significant minutes on the penalty kill last season.  According to NHL.com, Volchenkov, Bryce Salvador, and Andy Greene averaged over three minutes of shorthanded ice time per game, while Fayne was close to two to lead the defense.   When Salvador and Volchenkov were active, that was the top four used on defense.   Injuries and penalties to Salvador and Volchenkov forced some changes, which meant Peter Harrold, Adam Larsson, and Jon Merrill got some not insignificant minutes on the PK throughout last season.   On paper, the departures of Fayne and Volchenkov should mean more shorthanded ice time for Larsson and Merrill.  Harrold is not likely going to be a regular I don't think anyone wants to see Marek Zidlicky or Eric Gelinas in a shorthanded situation unless there is no other choice.

According to War on Ice's metrics, the loss of Volchenkov could be rather important for this part of the team (and arguably only this part of the team).  The Devils were among the best teams in terms of shots against per 60 minutes in shorthanded situations.  Volchenkov was the best defenseman among the blueliners in that stat, posting a 40.18 shots against per 60 rate.  It was one of the best player rates in the league, in fact. This tells me that he was particularly effective in his role.  The rates for Greene, Harrold, Fayne, Merrill and Salvador were within the top 60 in the league so it's not like when they were out there, things went completely awry.   I understand the sample size was small - it is a special teams situation and not everyone played 82 games - but the larger point was that these guys were at least pretty good at shot prevention.  Larsson (and Zidlicky), not as much.  Still, the Devils lose two players who played significant minutes and conceded relatively strong rates of shots against and will replace them with less experienced penalty killers.  That's essentially my second concern: whether the Devils can absorb the losses of two good penalty killers without giving up a lot of shots on the regular.   The combination of more shots against and a penalty kill save percentage likely to go down is a bad one.

What should mitigate the damage are the forwards.  Provided Ryan Carter is signed by the Devils, all of the forwards who averaged at least a minute of shorthanded ice time per game last season will return.  The Devils utilize three sets of forwards, often switching them up frequently to keep guys fresh.  Travis Zajac, Patrik Elias, and Adam Henrique have been strong two-way players throughout their careers; they are very responsible in their own end.  Stephen Gionta and Carter have been effective despite Gionta's annoying tendency to just lock his attention onto the puck.  Jacob Josefson has been decent in spots, though his inexperience has led to a few errors; that he has received PK time at all speaks to his skill set regardless.   The one concern at forward is Dainius Zubrus.  Sample size issues aside, it's not a surprise that Zubrus' shots against per 60 rate was higher than the other common forwards last season according to War on Ice. It's not a bad rate by itself.  Yet, it's another piece of evidence that his usefulness as a player may be fading.  If he continues to slow down, that could affect how he positions, communicates, and (more importantly) react to the play that goes on.

I do think the Devils forwards really help make the penalty kill really successful.  The Devils' style on the PK tends to be the typical box formation you see from a lot of teams.  It's the personnel that makes the difference.  They communicate well with the defense, they understand the importance of defensive play, and they don't take a lot of risks in their own end.   As the defense will be more inexperienced in 2014-15 and there is a real potential risk in goaltending performance, the forwards will have a bigger role to help the PK effort along.

The Discipline

Going back to the beginning, the best penalty kill is not to take one to begin with. The Devils weren't a horribly undisciplined team last season. They were ahead of the league median in terms of the number of shorthanded situations.  Still, they could improve.  Jaromir Jagr was great at a lot of things last season for the Devils.  Unfortunately, he took more minor penalties than all but one forward.  That one forward his linemate, Zubrus.  Both led Devils forwards with 23 minors according to NHL.com. This isn't to say that Zajac, Carter, and Damien Brunner shouldn't watch themselves; but 68 and 8 were ahead of the pack by a good margin.     On defense, the concern wore #2: Marek Zidlicky.  Zidlicky led the team in minor penalties with 30. One would expect big minute-playing Greene and Fayne or the more physical and slower Salvador and Volchenkov to lead the team in minors.  Playing more, getting beat with speed a lot, and/or playing the body more lends itself to more calls.   Nope, Zidlicky was a stick-fouling machine. As those three are veterans and not getting younger, I would not expect all three to suddenly take less than ten minors.  However, I do think it's more achievable to them take a few less penalties while everyone else holds steady or gets better.  Given what the goaltending and defense could be, that could save a few goals against over the season.  We'll see whether that happens.

Conclusions

Again, the two big points of concern are in net and with who will be on defense. The second concern is something the team may be able to address.  I think Merrill and Larsson could become better on the PK over time.  They'll have Greene and Salvador to draw experience from and those two could take the major minutes while Larsson and Merrill are built up to playing more often shorthanded.  They'll also have the help of forwards who largely know what they are doing and how to do it well.  The first concern may be out of the Devils' hands.  Schneider has been so above the average that I think it is unlikely to expect him to post a save percentage around 91% over a whole season.  Especially since he'll be playing more, he'll have more opportunities for that percentage to take a hit.  Brodeur was bad last season except on the PK.  The new #2 may be better than Brodeur overall, but matching or exceeding 88.1% in shorthanded situations is no easy feat.  Nothing Clemmensen has done recently makes me confident he could do that.  And while Kinkaid is an unknown coming from the AHL, I doubt he's going to exceed the NHL average in shorthanded save percentage right away.    All signs are pointing to the New Jersey Devils not being as successful on the penalty kill as last season.

This isn't to say they are definitely going from the penthouse straight to the cellar.  It'll be contingent on how big of a hit Schneider's save percentage takes, how much of a drop off the new #2 following the old #1A, and the skaters maintaining to do their job.  If the Devils are about the same discipline-wise, the skaters are still quite good at limiting shots on the penalty kill, and the goalies are at least average, then the penalty kill could still be a strength.  It may be more likely that the success rate will be closer to the league median than the league's best.  If one of those aspects drop off significantly, though, then it will be worse.

Your Take

That's how I see the penalty kill heading into the 2014-15 season.  What do you think of it?  How much of a drop off will there be in terms of the goaltending? The defensemen?  Will the forwards be as solid as they were last season?  Can Jagr, Zubrus, and Zidlicky take fewer calls this season or is that foolish?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Devils penalty kill in the comments. Thank you for reading.