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Killing Time Pt. 3: An Analysis of the DeBoer Era of the 14-15 Devils Penalty Kill

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From November 11 through December 23, 2014, Peter DeBoer coached the New Jersey Devils before his termination. Their Salvador-less penalty kill got hot and had an amazing success rate. This post analyzes the PK to see what else improved in this installment of the 2014-15 Killing Time project.

Right: the goalie who helped the Devils' PK concede only 7 goals from 11/11 to 12/23. Left: the defenseman who played ~83% of all of that PK time.
Right: the goalie who helped the Devils' PK concede only 7 goals from 11/11 to 12/23. Left: the defenseman who played ~83% of all of that PK time.
Chris LaFrance-USA TODAY Sports

This is Part 3 of Killing Time, an analysis focusing on the New Jersey Devils penalty kill from last season, from amount of time spent keeping the puck out of their own end to who on the Devils was clearing the puck.  In Part 1, I explained my intentions, plans, and goals for this project, including how I was splitting up 2014-15 for analysis  In Part 2, I posted up the results from the first sub-group, which I called the Salvador Era as Bryce Salvador was active and a featured player on the PK when he was on the roster.  This is Part 3, which I have dubbed the DeBoer Era.  While Peter DeBoer was the head coach with Salvador active, this covers the part of the season which ultimately led to his dismissal from the Devils.  As his firing marks the end of the timeframe for this group, it made sense to me to name it after him. This group covers 21 games from November 11, 2014 through December 23, 2014.

In retrospect, I could have called it The Best Case Scenario Era.  The Devils' PK had an astonishing low success rate of 64.4% in their first fifteen games. In 59 shorthanded situations, they conceded 21 goals - 40% of the entire season's number of power play goals allowed.  In these twenty-one games post-Salvador, pre-DeBoer-firing, the Devils PK became remarkably successful.   In 71 shorthanded situations, they only allowed seven goals for a success rate of 90.1%.  Those seven goals were scored in six different games, so there were fifteen games where the Devils successfully killed all of the penalties they took.  It speaks to how awful the PK was for the first five to six weeks of the season that the team's PK was still rated so low with respect to the league, but they were legitimately great for most of November and December in this regard.

Intuitively, one would think that this meant the Devils were able take more time off the clock and get more clears than they did in the first fifteen games of the season.  It turned out to be true, but it may not be as significant of a different as you may think.

Overall Team Summary

As with the last post, let's start with a game-by-game breakdown of how much time the Devils kept the puck out of their end, both in terms of time and a percentage.

Killing Time DeBoer Era Charts

In the first set of games I tracked, the Devils managed to kill 38.47% of all shorthanded ice time.  In this set, they did manage to take more time off the clock; an improvement of 1.4%.  I'm not sure that's really a significant increase, though. I was expecting a bigger gain.  Especially after the first five or six games or so.  Despite the one where the opposition spent about 75% of all of their power play time in their end, the Devils were great. Eventually, some more of those games happened and they had to weather plenty of storms.   Overall, between both sets, I'm starting to think a successful PK may not necessarily be able to kill off more than half of the shorthanded ice time they have in a game.  It also speaks to the old adage that the goaltender is your best penalty killer, since all of this time spent in New Jersey's end will inevitably lead to shots against.  It may seem simple, but it appears that strong goalie play and some puck luck drives big changes in a PK's success rate.

This isn't to say that the skaters did not make more clears or take more time off the clock.  Again, the Devils did manage to kill more shorthanded ice time as a percentage than the first group.  Further, the Devils' shorthanded situations yielded an average of 3.18 clearances per situation. That's an improvement.  In this timeframe, the Devils had 21 situations where they killed more than half of the time to kill. There were four games where the Devils killed off over half of the shorthanded ice time they had in an entire game.  Both are improvements over the first set.  One of the biggest improvements was the reduction in what I've called "zero exit" situations.  The Devils had nine goals allowed on situations where they didn't get the puck out of their own end even once in the first set.  In this group of 21 games, that only happened once. That's a big improvement.  While it's true that this set had more games and more opportunities to kill; the Devils' average number of shorthanded situations dropped from 3.93 to 3.38.  So there was an improvement in terms of discipline as well.  While I expected bigger gains in terms of time killed, there is evidence the Devils in these 21 games did better than their first fifteen.

That's really impressive when one recalls that the Devils were pretty beaten up by injury and health issues at this point in the season. I recorded events for more players involved on the PK than I did in the first group and for players I did not really expect or desire to see on a PK. There was significant ice time for Seth Helgeson (#25) and Peter Harrold (#10) on the penalty kill, often by necessity.  Mike Sislo (#32) and Tim Sestito (#12) got some shorthanded shifts when they were called up. When Scott Gomez (#21) joined the team, he also joined the PK.  Tuomo Ruutu (#15) even got some shifts.  With that in mind, let's break down the events by players.

Exits, Entries, and Time Killed

Let's start with the exits made by the Devils.  For the total number of exits, I subtracted the times they were denied on a clearance, so that would explain why there are two Devils with zero exits included.

Killing Time DeBoer Era Charts

The most common type of exit is that clearance into the opposition's end, what I've called (I)cing.  While there were more games played and more shorthanded situations, they made up a larger proportion of exits in this set.  (D)enied clearances follow up in second, with only ten more than the first set I did.  (C)learances into the neutral zone also increased and remained in third, but carried e(X)its - exits where a Devil carried the puck out - made a big jump in this set.  There was a decline in (U)nforced outs, events where the Devils got the puck out of their end but not because they did anything.  The biggest decline was with goals against (GA), of course.   (F)orced outs and (P)asses out of the zone remained about the same.

Killing Time DeBoer Era Charts

Per this request in the comments in the last post by Ryan, I've added minute rates for exits for this post.  I've followed yaydevils' basic formula to do per 2 minute (most shorthanded situations are two minutes long) and 60 minute (originally requested) rates. I've settled on exits per minute for the exit/entry type breakdown based on this suggestion by Petter on Twitter; but I've done all three for overall exits.

All I can say about Andy Greene is wow.  Out of 130 and a third minutes, Greene played over a hundred and a half of them. That's roughly 83% of all shorthanded ice time. #6 was heavily leaned on in this part of the season. He was (and is) a boss.  He was the constant on the penalty kill - and the blueline - when Salvador left the roster, Adam Larsson stepped in before mumps took him out, Damon Severson had a role before his ankle was fractured, and guys like Harrold and Helgeson had to be a part of the units.  While other players had superior exit rates by minute, it should be no surprise Greene led the way in the total number of exits.  I fully expected it after seeing #6 not only in so many situations, but pouncing on loose pucks and wasting little time to attempt to get the puck out of New Jersey's end (he also led in denials).  Again, he was head and shoulders above the rest of the defensemen in terms of exits.

What's different is that there were far fewer exits from player zero - an unforced exit.  So Greene was the true leader and three forwards followed behind, with two just behind #0.  Stephen Gionta tends to focus too much on the puck, but in this run of 21 games, it was largely for the better.  As you'll see in the breakdowns by exits, he was able to carry it out several times.  Travis Zajac and Patrik Elias were two more who were unable to play at points in this timeframe. When they did, they were active enough to generate zone exits.  This made sense as either was frequent on the penalty kill in addition to playing against tough competition.  Jacob Josefson and Mike Cammalleri were the two behind player zero; Josefson stood out early on before he was rendered unable, Cammalleri was a regular but didn't make a whole lot happen.

Before jumping into entries against defensemen, I want to highlight Adam Larsson here.  He got plenty of deserved praise he got last season for improving as a player.  Often times, this will come with a statement stating this happened after DeBoer was fired.  While plenty of that improvement was on display, I realized during this tracking project that he was showing the same improvements in November.  Despite playing less on the penalty kill than Salvador, who he replaced when Salvador left the lineup with injury, he managed more exits.  He handled them mostly like Greene would; without hesitation and strong out of the zone.  When Greene would be the one to get to the puck, he often held position like Greene.  Had Larsson not get the mumps, I think most Devils fans would just state that Larsson got better as a player instead of tying it into the coaching change.  Those improvements were on display before the coaching cerberus took over after Christmas.  It wasn't all Scott Stevens' coaching.  Of all of the non-Greene defensemen, I'd say he was a bit better than Jon Merrill - who wasn't bad either - from what I saw and definitely further along than the rest.

Anyway, let's move onto entries made by the opposition and the defensemen on that side, who were targetted.

Killing Time DeBoer Era Charts
Killing Time DeBoer Era Charts

Let's go over the players first.  As Greene played a ton of minutes, he was targetted the most. As with the first set of fifteen games, Greene was switching sides depending on his partner, which only increased the number of targets he would get.  Additionally, I think it's possible opposing players would go at the side of the defender who continues to stay on the ice, thinking they can get after a more fatigued player, as opposed to a fresher one.  That said, notice who's behind him.  Jon Merrill came in second, but Helgeson is the surprise in third. Despite playing less than half of the shorthanded minutes than Merrill, opposing players went after the rookie more than a few times.  Much more than other defenders like Severson, Larsson, and Peter Harrold (who really wasn't challenged much).  Maybe it shouldn't be much of a surprise, in addition to being a rookie, he wasn't particularly quick and his lack of any successful exits make him a more desirable target.

As for the entries, carry-ins (X) led the way in this set - even more than no entry at all (NA).  From watching these kills, the biggest variation with respect to taking time off the clock was a result of a team's breakout.  More often than not, the opposition breaks out with the intent to have possession over the blueline.  So if they take an extra three seconds to find the gap to skate it into or make a pass up-ice to get it over, then that's fine from their perspective. I can understand that; they're on a power play, they shouldn't lose control if they can help it.  Keep in mind, some of these carry-ins led to immediate passes or dump-ins, so it's not as if 115 times the opposition were able to skate it in with ease.  If it's possessed over the line by a player moving forward, I counted it as such.  That said, it's what opposing teams tried to do, regardless of any hot streaks of the Devils PK.  (D)ump-ins and (P)ass-ins followed, but not in any massive increases compared to the last month.   There were no entries by (F)aceoffs and there were only two errors: one by Scott Gomez, the other by Adam Henrique.  Both were situations where they skated the puck back to their zone and lost it to the opposition.

How much time was taken off the clock between exits and entries? In order to make comparisons consistent, I removed events that ended with the end of a period or the end of a penalty and calculated the range, average, and standard deviation of time before re-entry for each of the common types of exits.  This is in the same format as the prior post.  The conclusions are similar:

Killing Time DeBoer Era Charts

There were a handful of really quick re-entries and a number of examples of extensions of time out of the zone. The former was the result of a player just making a quick pass to get back into the zone; not a common play as opposing power plays preferred to re-set for a breakout play.  The latter was the result of the Devils denying an entry on their breakout for another clear (not recorded, since there was no re-entry) or the opposition making a mistake (e.g. an errant pass, going offside) before gaining the Devils' zone.  The averages are more instructive.  Carry-outs were more effective on average in terms of taking the most time off the clock, though throwing the puck into the opposition's end was only about a second and a half worse on average. Both were much better at taking time off the clock than the exits generated from clearances, forcing the puck out with a deflection or a physical play, or an unforced exit.  Still, all exits were good for at least getting the opposition out of New Jersey's end for at least eleven seconds, or about 9% of the standard two-minute shorthanded situation.

Exit Types by Player

I've removed the bar graphs and will provide just charts for the breakdowns.  Starting off the exit types by player, here's how it broke down  among (I)cings, or clearances into the opposition's end of the rink.

Killing Time DeBoer Era Charts

Greene led the way in terms of gross number of icings. Zajac had the best rate by minute.  Greene's heavy usage on the PK and Zajac's limited availability helped those rates. Larsson was Greene-like until the mumps came along, and plenty of forwards were able to put the puck to distance - moreso than the other defensemen.  Fun fact: this is the only chart that will feature Ruutu (#15).

Killing Time DeBoer Era Charts

As far as pucks exiting the Devils' zone and recovered in the neutral zone, Greene was a leader here as well but not by much.  Elias was almost as common and, again, he has a superior rate by time.  Larsson and Gionta did it more than a few times as well.  Typically, the idea is to get the puck cleared as far as possible, so there's not going to be as many of these compared to icings or icing-like plays.  Here's another fun fact: this is the only inclusion of Michael Ryder in terms of an exit. Since he didn't even play a full minute on the PK, his rate looks more spectacular than he actually is in his own zone. I think you'll agree that DeBoer and his staff were right to keep #17 away from shorthanded situations.

Killing Time DeBoer Era Charts

After only one in the first fifteen games, Gionta was able to maintain puck possession over his blueline elevn times in these games.   Again, in this timeframe of tracking, Gionta and Larsson were standouts for how they played.  That #11 was able to get into space and try to get something going was quite helpful in those situations. Ten of these exits put him well ahead of the others, which had a similar breakdown to the first fifteen games I tracked.  Forwards would be expected to have the majority of these kinds of exits given their positioning on the ice.  Larsson and Severson each had a carry-out, they were exceptions.

Killing Time DeBoer Era Charts

Force-outs weren't that common as the other exit types, but Jacob Josefson was able to do it more than more.  He would either get a deflection, get his body, or apply the pressure that yielded an exit more than the rest.  It speaks to his aggressiveness, which can be a good or a bad thing depending on the opposing player he's marking. Again, forwards are expected to have more of these than defensemen given their positioning on the ice.  Still, Greene and Merrill were able to get a deflection each that they didn't necessarily intend for an exit, but got one anyway.

Killing Time DeBoer Era Charts

Now here's the list of failed exit attempts, denials.  As with icings, Greene was the clear leader of this more dubious distinction.  Plenty of attempted exits were just denied by an opposing player in one way or another. Again, Greene played a lot and since he was active at getting onto loose pucks - he did have more events than any other Devil skater - it would stand to reason he'd be denied more than most.  Still, it was concerning in some situations that Greene would not be able to get it out.

That said, while there's a more even distribution beyond Greene, the sheer number of players who had an exit attempt denied at one point or another made up the majority for the team.  While the number of each player's denials were low, that it happened at least once to fifteen other players (including Cory Schneider) does build up.  So while it would be smart for Greene to be more efficient with his attempts since he's doing it so much, having other players make their attempts account would also help.

Entry Types by Targeted Defensemen

Since Greene played a lot, I will immediately say he was the most targeted by the three entry types tracked, carry-ins, pass-ins, and dump-ins.

Killing Time DeBoer Era Charts

Greene was targeted quite a bit for carry-ins.  As noted earlier, Helgeson being targeted this much is notable given how little he played in shorthanded situations compared to the other defensemen.  It speaks to the notion that he was specifically targeted when the opportunity presented itself.  Merrill and Severson were targeted quite a bit, but they were also more regular on the PK when available.  Harrold and Helgeson really came into the picture for fill-in purposes.

Killing Time DeBoer Era Charts

As for pass-ins, plenty were close calls with carry-ins, but they were not as frequent. Still, opponents liked to do it on Greene's side more than more, then Helgeson's, then Merrill's, and the rest.  Again, Helgeson sticks out like a sore thumb knowing his low shorthanded ice time.

DE Target Dump In Chart

Dump-ins are interesting.  Most of the time, I saw it from opposing teams in these twenty one games when they struggled to get a carry-in or they had no other option.  Not a lot of cases where someone would come up on the breakout and do it initially.  Still, opposing players dumped it in more against Greene than anyone else.  Severson and Merrill had it happen second and third most behind him, but nothing really out of the ordinary here either.

Conclusions So Far

This set of twenty-one games was rather interesting to track. I expected more events, more clearances, and more time taken off the clock.  While that happened even when accounting for six more games played, I expected a larger improvement.  As noted earlier, there were absolutely better signs, but I was expecting a big jump in time killed from the 38.4% from the first set given how successful the Devils were on the penalty kill in terms of allowing goals.  Maybe a 1.4% increase is rather large, I don't know.  But between a set of games where the PK got lit up and another where they didn't, I'm more suspicious that a PK killing 50% of a shorthanded situation by way of keeping the puck out of the zone may be a bigger success than I originally thought.

As for players, I came away impressed with three in particular.  Andy Greene remains a boss if only for playing as much as he did and still doing as much as he did, denials aside.  Stephen Gionta really stood out with his carries, though it helped given some of his partners weren't all that good (e.g. Dainius Zubrus, Tim Sestito, Mike Sislo).  Adam Larsson was really good and I think that Larsson-Greene pairing excelled during that hot streak of kills in November.  Again, if it wasn't for the mumps, I think more fans would associate Larsson's improvement with Larsson actually improving and not attributing it to a coaching change.   In terms of negatives, Seth Helgeson getting picked on seems understandable in retrospect.  Peter Harrold was just making up the numbers if only so we didn't have to see Marek Zidlicky or Eric Gelinas have a regular PK shift.   The injuries and illnesses really tested the forward depth, too.

Players got healthier under the new coaching regime, so I'm interested to see how that works out.  Larsson and Greene will be heavily featured.  Josefson, Zajac, Zubrus, and others will return. We await a Mark Fraser sighting for better or (mostly) worse.  And after the PK hit a nadir and peak under DeBoer, I want to see what changes happen under the coaching crew.  I know it's not an easy split with 45 games under the new coach, but it should provide more than enough data to see what did or did not change in terms of exits, entries, and time taken off the clock.  It'll be quite some time before that post comes up, but it should definitely be done within this month.

In the meantime, as usual, I want to know what you think. What have you learned from the results of these twenty-one games, where the PK had an astounding success rate?  Are you surprised to have seen the Devils still kill less than 40% of the total time of these shorthanded situations? Did you expect more exits and more time (both as a percentage and gross) taken off the clock like I did?  Do you come out of this post thinking more or less of Andy Greene doing so much? What about Larsson and Gionta, among other players?  Is there something else you want to see in these posts based on what I'm tracking?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the DeBoer Era of the Devils' penalty kill from last season in the comments.  Again, the next post will be up in a few weeks, which should provide some sort of middle ground between this awesome set of games and the horrid first set of games.  If you appreciate this post and others we do here at this site-yet-to-be-renamed, then please share it with others you know. As always, thank you for reading.