In years past, one thing the Devils have consistently been able to hang their hat on is a strong penalty killing unit. The group has generally been one of the better penalty kills in the league the past few years, finishing number one in pk% in 2011-12 and 2013-14. But this season has seen the team victimized by opposing power plays in the first few weeks. John highlighted how the Devils are taking too many penalties earlier this week. Well, in addition to taking too many calls, those penalties are coming home to roost for the Devils this season, and it's been killing them the last two games, in particular. So, with the penalty kill floundering early on, its time to look for some explanations.
When a particular phase of play looks out of sorts, especially when it is something very structured like the penalty kill, eyes will drift to the coaching strategy as a reason for the failures. The thing about the Devils, though, is that the coach from last year's successful PK, Mike Foligno, remains in place for this season, at least to the best of my knowledge. It's hard to imagine there has been too much of a change in terms of how they are being coached, but the unit does look out of sorts and has seemed to, at least anecdotally, yield a lot of zone time in the early going.
The penalty kill has relied on an aggressive approach, in general, over the years, trying to disrupt entries in the neutral zone and having forwards pressure opposing skaters to try and force turnovers. So far this season, the team has seemed to struggle mightily to clear the zone and is allowing opponents to get set up and have time to pass and find the chance they are looking for. Maybe the coaches are employing a more conservative strategy with the turnover on the blueline? You did see a breakaway opportunity for Patrik Elias off a turnover forced by Adam Henrique just last night, so there are still flashes of that aggression there. Perhaps there hasn't been a strategy change, but the team has been hemmed in badly on a lot of PK shifts, so the coaching will have to investigate and try to figure out why they are having such issues.
The one area that the team has undergone a significant change is with the makeup of its blue line. Mark Fayne and Anton Volchenkov, both significant contributors to the penalty kill last season, have departed, leaving it up to the younger players to step in and fill roles for the unit. The concern here might be that the young players are unable to handle the minutes they are given, but in reality the issue may be that they are just not being given any minutes to spell the main PKers.
According to Puckalytics.com, the Devils have the two defensemen with the highest percentage of penalty kill minutes in the entire league. Andy Greene is second, with 66.6% of his team's 4v5 minutes, and Bryce Salvador is first, on the ice an massive 73.4% of the team's minutes on the PK. For context, only 9 players in the entire league are even cracking the 60% mark for their teams. The highest non-Devil right now is Willie Mitchell with 64.8% of Florida's PK time. The Devils are averaging almost 7.5 minutes of PK time a game and Salvador is on the ice for three quarters of it. Remarkably, this approach seemed to work last year, when three Devils were in the top-10 of PK TOI%, including Salvador's near-70% clip, but as the veterans age, is it wise to be leaning on them to this extent on the kill?
I'm skeptical of Salvador's overall PK effectiveness at this point anyway (he has been on the ice for 7 of 8 PPGA this season, after all), but it can't be a good idea to stack this many PK minutes on a 38-year-old guy, especially if you aren't really cutting his EV time. The Devils might want to reevaluate how they deploy their personnel and figure out which young players they trust when they're a man down. Salvador and Greene aren't really dominating on the PK right now, anyway, so why not reduce the burden on them?
Shot/Shot Attempt Rates
When comparing the Devils shots-allowed and Corsi-allowed rates between last season and this season, you will see a stark difference between the two years. Via Puckalytics, in 2013-14, the Devils had the fourth-fewest PK attempts allowed per 60 (84.8 CA/60) and fifth-fewest shots against per 60 (44.9 SA/60). This season, both of those totals have ballooned in the early going, with the CA/60 now being 22nd at 104.6 and SA/60 dropping to 19th at 54.3. That means the team is giving up an additional 20 attempts and 10 shots per 60 PK minutes thus far this season. It's a small sample size, but it certainly raises some red flags. It also seems to back up the hypothesis that the Devils are being hemmed in while being unable to clear a great deal more this season. Whether it is teams being allowed to enter the zone, unimpeded, or the players are just not getting in lanes and disrupting passes like in seasons past, the unit's effectiveness in limiting shots has clearly taken a hit to this point in the season, and their success, in part, has tumbled along with it.
Rarely will you kill a goaltender for a goal they give up on the power play, since the man-down situation will often lead to golden opportunities for the opponent. That doesn't mean they won't have an impact, though. Last season (again via Puckalytics), Cory Schneider had a sparkling .923 save percentage in 4v5 situations, 4th among anyone with over 60 PK minutes in net. That is a far from sustainable clip, and most would rightly expect it to fall, but it has undergone a violent correction and sped in the other direction this season, with Schneider sitting at an .811 sv% thus far. That isn't all on him, as he has certainly been hung out to dry by his skaters plenty, but there are probably 1 or 2 he'd like to have back or that he gets to when he's really on his game. If he is sharper, some of the errors his team is making in front of him (on PK and at evens) won't look as big. He got paid this summer, so the team needs him to be better going forward. Combine the dip in save percentage with sagging shot suppression, and that's how you go from first to near-worst in penalty kill efficiency.
I'm fairly confident some of these penalty kill issues will sort themselves out as things progress this season, but the team should be proactive in dissecting what is going wrong so far and trying to correct it. With Salvador seemingly slowing down with each passing second, can the team afford to keep giving him three out of every four minutes on the PK? And can Greene carry that unit otherwise, or is that asking too much from him as well? This team will have to trust their younger defenseman to handle PK minutes sooner or later, so with the top guys struggling anyway, you might as well get them more involved and give the older guys a rest every now and then. There are also a couple forwards, like Dainius Zubrus and Stephen Gionta, for example, whose effectiveness on the unit at this point can certainly be questioned. No matter what, both coaches and players need to clean up the mess on the PK, especially if the team is planning on continuing their conga line to the penalty box.
What are your thoughts on the penalty kill's futility to this point in the season? Any issues you have noticed or any numbers that jump out to you in particular? Do you think this is just a blip and the PK will bounce back or could this continue further into the season? Comment with your thoughts below and thanks for reading.