One of the areas that went right for the New Jersey Devils last season was the penalty kill. Let’s breakdown how well they did last season.
A Successful 2015-16
After a mix of results in 2014-15, the Devils were simply better in 2015-16 in most available measurements. Their success rate improved from 80.6% to 83%, which ranked eighth in the NHL last season according to NHL.com. Their Corsi against (all shooting attempts) per 60 minute rate in 4-on-5 situations (the most common shorthanded situation) improved from 87.79 to 80.81 per Corsica. That 80.01 CA/60 was the fourth lowest in the NHL last season. The total number of shorthanded situations showed improvement, too. Per NHL.com, the team had four fewer situations - from 268 to 264. The latter meant the Devils had an official NHL.com count of nearly nine minutes less ice time to kill.
But, wait, there’s more. This past summer, I continued the Killing Time project, where I tracked every zone exit by the Devils’ penalty kill in 2014-15 and 2015-16. In lieu of a series of posts this year, I put a presentation together for the RIT Hockey Analytics Conference. Due to technical difficulties, there’s no video of me rushing through in 18 minutes. Fortunately, I made a more casual, slower paced video.
Rather than just assuming you watched all of that, I’ll summarize the findings here. The Devils killed an additional 15 minutes and 26 seconds in 2015-16 over 2014-15. That meant the Devils spent 43.56% of all of their shorthanded time outside of their zone, an improvement from the 39.54%. The Devils were more than just more successful in killing penalties, they were more efficient with their zone exits and took more time off the clock. Again, the 2015-16 Devils penalty kill were better than what they were in 2014-15. Given how they ranked by 4-on-5 CA/60 and total success rate, they were a good penalty killing team in the NHL.
However, there are good reasons to be concerned for the 2016-17 campaign.
Personnel Usage and Departure in 2015-16
Last season, John Hynes and his staff decided to continue utilizing the wedge plus one formation that the 2014-15 team often used. They also leaned on several players to play shorthanded minutes. On defense, the first pairing was often Andy Greene and Adam Larsson. Both played the most and both were very effective at generating zone exits and maintaining coverage. John Moore and David Schlemko followed. While Moore and Schlemko weren’t wildly successful, they supplanted a menagerie of defenders in 2014-15. Basically, Greene and Larsson were good at their jobs; Moore and Schlemko were acceptable; and the spot minutes by other defenders weren’t disastrous.
At forward, the coaches gave more minutes to Travis Zajac and Adam Henrique as the primary pair of forwards. They were often followed by Stephen Gionta, Lee Stempniak, and Jacob Josefson - in that order of ice time. Kyle Palmieri would receive a decent amount of ice time, more than a menagerie of forwards who received spot duty. Both Zajac and Henrique were very good at making exits. They both made some improvements compared to 2014-15, which was helpful as they received increased ice time. While he did not play as much as those two, Gionta was very efficient in his role on the PK. Given his tendency to focus on the puck carrier and his quickness, Gionta was a great fit as the “plus one,” applying pressure to a point man or an opposition player along the perimeter. He was rarely denied on an exit, which meant when he got the puck, an exit soon followed to give the Devils some relief. Only Henrique had a better rate of exits per minute among forwards who played regularly on the PK. If nothing else, Killing Time shows that Gionta did have value to the team last season. Stempniak and Josefson weren’t as good, but they weren’t holding anything back. Palmieri wasn’t so effective either when his role increased after Stempniak was dealt last season.
Between the two groups of players, you can identify that several regulars from last season’s successful penalty kill are elsewhere. Larsson, who played a lot of tough minutes with Greene, is now an Oiler. Schlemko signed with San Jose. Gionta, who has been very good on the Devils’ penalty kill, is now with the Isles on a tryout basis. Stempniak was traded last season and is now a Cane. These players played a good amount of shorthanded minutes last season and so Devils will have some big spots on the PK to fill both on defense and at forward. This alone is a cause for concern for the 2016-17 campaign. Especially the cases of replacing Larsson and Gionta.
Incoming Personnel to Fill the PK Gaps
Ray Shero’s big unrestricted free agent signings do address this to a degree. It’s charitable to call Ben Lovejoy, Vernon Fiddler, and Kyle Quincey “big,” but they were the main unrestricted free agent signings the team made.
Lovejoy is a right-handed defenseman who played the third most shorthanded minutes among Pittsburgh’s skaters last season per NHL.com. Lovejoy played the fourth most shorthanded minutes among skaters and the second among defensemen during Pittsburgh’s Cup run, too. Lovejoy should be expected to play significant minutes on the penalty kill. Given his usage in Pittsburgh, his handedness, and his reputation for being a defensive-minded defender, he could line up next to Greene on the first penalty killing unit.
Fiddler is a veteran who was signed to bolster the bottom six forwards. He has considerable experience on the penalty kill. Last season, he played the third most shorthanded minutes among skaters on Dallas both in the regular season and in the playoffs. Since he did not - and does not figure - to play much at even strength, Fiddler likely received top pairing minutes with the Stars many times. His faceoff prowess wasn’t so hot last season as he only won 50.7% of all draws and 45.8% of all shorthanded draws in the regular season per NHL.com. That’s on par to Gionta’s faceoff success rate on the PK and it’s better than Zajac’s’ in the same situations , so we could see Fiddler taking shorthanded faceoffs in New Jersey. Fiddler’s experience gives the coaches flexibility at forward should they want to split Zajac and Henrique, although based on last season’s result,s they probably should not.
While he was a late one, Kyle Quincey’s signing could also fill in a gap on D. Even assuming Lovejoy can replace Larsson’s contributions - which is a big assumption - the role Schlemko filled remained open until last week. Before Quincey signed, the role was really up in the air. Jon Merrill has the third most ice time across the last two seasons among Devils defensemen. But he has not fully earned the trust of the coaches or played like he deserved more shorthanded minutes. Damon Severson showed some promising results in limited action, but he has to earn more minutes in general. The remainder of defensemen aren’t even NHL locks, much less someone to place in a shorthanded situation. Enter Quincey. Quincey may have played on his off-hand in Detroit, but he did play over a hundred minutes on the PK last season. While this was only fifth most among Detroit defensemen last season, Schlemko played around the same amount of minutes. Schlemko’s contributions weren’t many, but he was not an albatross in shorthanded situations. If Quincey can just be decent, then he can effectively take that spot. I think he will, leaving the other defensemen to
Lovejoy, Fiddler, and Quincey should be expected to play significant roles on the penalty kill this season. Quincey’s signing eliminates the concern of who can play on the penalty kill. The larger one remains: will they be as effective as who they are replacing? Larsson did a lot of good work alongside Greene. Lovejoy will have be aggressive and effective in winning pucks and ensuring those clearances get beyond the blueline. If he can, then great. If not, it will only hold back to the PK, much less Greene. Can Fiddler be a good “plus one” like Gionta was or will someone else have to do that? He’s got experience, but I don’t know enough about Dallas’ penalty kill whether he would fit in the Devils’ scheme. Can Quincey be decent on a second defensive unit on the penalty kill, even on his off-hand? This all remains to be seen. Until there are promising signs, it will affect how effective the 2016-17 Devils penalty kill can be.
Related to this, can the Devils who are returning maintain a similar level of performance? Greene, Zajac, and Henrique played the most minutes at their respective positions on the PK 2014-15 and 2015-16 and all three made marked improvements when it came to creating successful zone exits. Great as they were, can they keep it up? Just as a rising tide lifts all boats, if the players who play the most suffer in performance, then the unit suffers as well. Depth is a concern, which will be called upon when a regular takes a penalty and/or a regular can’t play. The Devils don’t really have a reliable “backup” defender beyond Greene, Lovejoy, Moore, and Quincey at the moment. They don’t have much in the way of forwards given that Kyle Palmieri was not all that effective, the coaches didn’t use Mike Cammalleri much at all, and no one else among the group was really used much beyond Zajac, Henrique, Gionta, Stempniak, Josefson, and Palmieri last season.
In the Net
An old adage regarding the penalty kill is that the goaltender has to be the team’s best penalty killer. Of course. Most of the ice time during a shorthanded situation is going to be the defensive zone and the goalie has to do his job: stop the puck. Fortunately for the Devils, they have Cory Schneider. His penalty killing save percentage actually went down to 88.4% in 2015-16 from 89.2% in 2014-15. However, both were still good save percentages for a goaltender. While there’s a lot of variation inherent with shorthanded save percentages, Schneider is as good as anyone in the net. He won’t be a concern. The non-Schneider goaltenders were better in 2015-16. Scott Wedgewood’s four games were fantastic and Keith Kinkaid was considerbly better with a 88.6% PK Sv% after a not-good 83.1% posted in 2014-15. The hope is that whoever follows Schneider can be successful in spots. By and large, Schneider will play a majority of the games and so he can be relied upon to be successful in the crease regardless of situation. Goaltending should not be seen as a concern for the 2016-17 Devils penalty kill.
The Discipline Factor
The best penalty kill is not to take a penalty at all. The Devils made a small improvement in this area by having four fewer shorthanded situations. I will say that based on who took minor penalties and took penalty minutes in general last season, we could see a little more improvement. Adam Larsson was very good on defense but if there was a flaw to his game, it was that he took quite a few penalties. According to NHL.com, he led the team with 21 minor penalties (the most common penalty that results in a shorthanded situation) and finished third in total penalty minutes with 77. Larsson’s defensive game will be missed, but not his trips to the box. Both Jordin Tootoo and Lee Stempniak finished tied for fourth on the team in minor penalties with sixteen each; both are also gone from the team. Bobby Farnham (15) and Gionta (14) are also in other organizations. Among major departures, only Schlemko was well disciplined with only eight minor penalties all season. The Devils’ turnover in their roster saw quite a few of big PIM players go away. You may miss some of those players, but you won’t miss those calls.
What of the incoming players? Going to NHL.com shows that they weren’t exactly clean on their penalty count. Fiddler took a decent share of penalties with thirteen minors. Lovejoy took fifteen minors last season and Beau Bennett took only five minors. Quincey took fourteen with Detroit. Luke Gazdic - who may not be a regular on the Devils anyway - only had two. Accounting for some variation, I would expect the Devils to have fewer shorthanded situations just based on who left the team. I don’t think we’ll see them return to their halcyon days of leading the league in fewest shorthanded situations, though. I think they’ll be around the league median. That would still be a good thing because, again, the best penalty kill is no penalty at all.
What to Expect for the PK in 2016-17 - A Summary
So far in preseason, the New Jersey Devils have been utilizing a wedge plus one as their primary formation on the penalty kill. They will collapse as needed, but a forward has been used to apply pressure. Personnel may have dictated some shifts because I don’t believe they have been as aggressive as they were in 2015-16. But I would expect they will go back to that when the regular season begins.
The big concern is with the turnover in personnel and the play of returning personnel. The new people are replacing some significant shorthanded minutes and, in the case of Larsson and Gionta, some effective shorthanded minutes over the past two seasons. Those that are returning mostly did well last season - Greene, Henrique, and Zajac - but it is a question as to whether they can keep it up. If/when penalties or injuries require some regulars to sit out, the Devils’ depth will be tested on the PK because the coaches leaned so much on Greene, Larsson, Henrique, and Zajac as a primary unit. It even remains a question whether Lovejoy, Fiddler, and Quincey will step in like I think they will. At least the goaltending isn’t much to worry about and the discipline may see some improvement based who was turned over on this roster.
Short of some of other developments in preseason, here’s what I would expect in terms of a roster. I would expect the Devils to utilize Greene-Lovejoy and Moore-Quincey as defensmen pairings to start the season. Greene and Lovejoy are the most experienced defensemen and have played a large amount of PK minutes on their respective teams last season. I think we’ll see them starting together to begin 2016-17. Quincey’s PK experience should not be ignored; it is at least more than what Merrill and Severson did last season. Up front, I would expect Henrique-Zajac as the primary set of forwards followed by Fiddler-Josefson. Fiddler, again, has the experience and Josefson has served in this sort of role before. Following those four may be Palmieri and Cammalleri given their past usage in the last two seasons. I do hope the coaches will try out some other skaters to address the depth issue, but that will likely be done as needed in the season.
In general, I would expect the Devils’ penalty kill to dip at least a little bit. I don’t think they’re going to return to where they were in 2014-15 short of a rough outing by multiple players. I do think Larsson and Gionta will be missed and that will contribute to some less effective work on the PK unless Lovejoy and Fiddler step up right away. I could see this penalty killing unit finish somewhere around the league median. Short of an amazingly hot run in the crease, I’m not expecting them to be one of the best - especially after losing two significant skaters. At the same time, I do not think the PK units will be horrid. I do not see the penalty killing side of special teams as being total detriment to the team. With Greene, Zajac, Henrique, and most of all Schneider and assuming neither suffers a bad season, I still think the units will at least be respectable relative to the league.
I’m fine with respectable. How about you? Who do you think will be on the penalty killing units in 2016-17? Do you think Lovejoy, Fiddler, and/or Quincey will be effective additions to the Devils’ penalty kill? How much do you think Larsson and Gionta will be missed? Should the team keep their wedge plus one formation as their primary formation; and if not, what would you like to see? Most of all, how do you think the Devils’ penalty kill will perform in 2016-17? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the PK in the comments. Thank you for reading.