Special teams deserve a closer look than they have been. I will admit this. On this very site, whenever I delve into stats, analytics, and analysis, it is primarily about even strength play. The 5-on-5 situation is the most common in hockey and so it should demand quite a bit of attention. Someone who doesn't play well at even strength is a liability; someone who excels in it is a valuable asset to a team looking to win games. So that emphasis will remain for the most part. However, that seems to give the impression that special teams do not matter so much.
This could not be further from the truth. In a game situation, a power play or a penalty kill can absolutely make a difference between a win or a loss. Getting creamed at evens but making the most of special teams situations can keep a team in a game, if not take it outright. A power play getting hot or a penalty kill on a streak of success makes a squad that much harder to beat. As far as I know, teams have coaches that focus on either aspect of special teams. Every NHL team specifically assigns personnel and runs tactics to work a man advantage or disadvantage. All of this together means that special teams matter. Coaches and teams certainly act as though they do.
Therefore, I believe they deserve a closer look. And I've decided to take a closer look at the penalty kill from last season. While hockey very much a results-oriented business, if we've learned anything from the thousands of words written about even strength play, then it's that there's a difference between performing well and succeeding. The same applies for a penalty kill. Not conceding a goal is the objective. However, the performances vary. I think you'll agree that a penalty kill that clears the puck several times and keeps the opposition away from the zone is far superior to getting pinned back and hoping the goalie stops all the pucks coming his way for the better part of two minutes. That's what I want to dive into and the Devils' penalty kill last year is a good one as any to start.
In order to do that, I will be reviewing every single penalty killing situation the New Jersey Devils had last season. According to NHL.com, I will be re-watching and tracking 268 shorthanded situations. I'll be focusing on looking at time, specifically the time the puck is outside of the Devils' zone. The main question that got me thinking about the penalty kill was this: how much time does the Devils' penalty kill actually kill? I'm curious about that, and that's why I'm doing this whole project. We know that icing is allowed for a shorthanded team. We know penalty killers often throw the puck down the other end of the rink. How much time does that really take off the clock? What's the difference in terms of time killed between a Devil carrying the puck out of the zone, a Devil firing the puck into the other end of the rink, and a Devil just getting it out but only as far as the neutral zone? These questions are driving the main focus for this project. I will be primarily recording the type of zone exit and approximately when the puck left the Devils' end.
Conversely, since I'm looking at time killed, I will be looking at the zone entry by the opposition. The time that happens will give me how much time the Devils' zone exit took off the clock. I will also be recording the type of zone entry - a carry-in, a pass-in, a dump-in, an error by New Jersey, or a ruled faceoff - by the opposition player. Additionally, I will note which defenseman the entry was targetted at. The Devils' penalty kill has two defensemen on it, so it's either one side or the other. This will be good to know who draws more carries than dump-ins by the opposition.
I will also be noting if there is a failed clearance. It's a bit harder to identify, but when a Devil attempts to fire it up the boards or launch a puck, I will generally look to see if the puck gets out and when. If this entry is blocked or retrieved by the opposition, then it counts as a "denied clearance." In addition to finding out who on the Devils' PK makes the most types of clearances, I can find out who's been denied the most. This will be counted among the zone exits, though it won't count for the amount of time killed as the puck never left the zone and got picked up by the opposition.
By recording the time, I can be able to find out at least some fun facts about the Devils' penalty kill. I can tell you how much of a penalty by percentage was outside of the Devils' zone. I can tell you how much time in a game the Devils killed. That's ultimately what I want to sort out. On average, how much time does a certain clearance by the Devils kill? What's average based on last season? Is there something they could be doing differently? This is what I will find out.
I will admit that there are flaws to this way of looking at the penalty kill. I'm not really accounting for what goes on in the Devils' zone. I am working on the assumption that it doesn't matter much. Time spent in one's end is pressure at a minimum and an offensive blitz at a maximum. We can already look up the shots against per sixty minutes rate for the Devils' shorthanded situations for a general idea of how that piece went anyway. Maybe next season, I'll do something more along in that vein. I'm also only doing this for the 2014-15 Devils. 268 shorthanded situations is a lot to go through as it is. If I wanted other teams to be tracked, then the 2015-16 season would likely be close to over by the time that's done and I can go through the data. So I won't be comparing the Devils' PK to others.
My current plan is to deliver the results in three separate posts. The first will go over the first fifteen games of the season. That's the part of the season where Bryce Salvador was available and a constant presence on the PK. The second will go over the time between Salvador's last game and Peter DeBoer's last as head coach. This will reveal how it functioned with different defensive personnel as a season became lost. The third will go over the PK under the two head coaches. I suspect most of that PK improvement was on the goalie, but this deeper dive will prove if that's true or not.
At a minimum, I hope to learn a lot more about how the Devils' penalty kill performed from a timing and clearance standpoint. If this isn't the best way to look at a penalty kill's performance, then I can try something different for next summer. If it proves fruitful, then it's something to keep tabs on for next summer or possibly this season. I can't promise when the first post will be up - this won't be done weekly like a goal against review - but it'll be up when it's done. I just want to state what I'm doing now and I hope that this will lead to more attention paid to special teams.
I'd like to thank Ryan and Brian for helping me out behind the scenes with respect to how to do the tracking and suggesting that I count denied clearances and targeted defenders. I'd also like to thank Timo Seppa, who thought it was a good idea when I first brought it out. For the sake of disclosure, I'd like to thank the NHL for providing NHL Gamecenter log-ins to all SBN managers way back; I will be using Gamecenter for all tracking purposes. Lastly, thank you for reading as we continue to put out Devils-related content in the offseason. I know, Devils-related content on a Devils blog? What a concept. Much better than a safe space where little is learned or challenged. Anyway, I will work to give you all the results sooner rather than later; so be patient, it will be done and we will learn.