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The Devils Have the Best Penalty Kill in the NHL (And Trading Henrique Helped)

On a quick survey of the relevant statistics, it’s undeniable that the Devils PK is elite. I argue it’s the best in the NHL, and the Henrique trade makes it better.

Florida Panthers v New Jersey Devils Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

First of all, let me clarify what I mean by this title. I’m sure that some people ran over to the ESPN team page and saw that the Devils PK% was 5th in the NHL and, while that may be surprisingly high, it’s not #1. So how is it that I’m making this claim?

Well, a lot more goes into explaining how good a penalty kill is than what percent of them were “successful.” First of all, those percents don’t account for shorthanded goals. A penalty in which one goal was scored for each team is labeled a failed penalty kill, despite the team successfully coming out of the penalty with the same goal differential. Also there is no degree of difference between a penalty kill that gave up 6 shot attempts in 10 seconds that led to a goal, vs 1 shot attempt in 119 seconds that led to a goal — both are failed kills. A simple way of addressing for the speed of scoring is by looking at goals against per 60 (GA). We could then address the shorthanded goal situation by looking at goal differential per 60 (G+/-60). We can also look at total shot attempts for and against (CF, CA) and expected goals those shot attempts would lead to (xG).

There are two statistical bases for my statement that the Devils have “the best PK in the NHL.” One is going to be expected goal ratio year-round, and the other will be actual goal ratio since the Henrique trade.

On the year, the Devils xGF% (expected ratio of goals for/against) is #1 in the NHL. This is due largely to the fact that the Devils have every one of the top 3 skaters in the statistic (John Moore, Blake Coleman, Jesper Bratt). Pavel Zacha didn’t qualify since he’s only played 26 minutes, but he actually is even higher than those 3 (29.56%). That is mostly our second/third PK units. Our recent first has been Zajac, Gibbons, Greene, and Santini, which means that after the opposing team gets their studs off, our next men up feast on what’s left. As an example, the Devils have only given up 3 goals while Jesper Bratt is on the ice on the PK. He also has a goal and an assist on the PK. This means that Bratt has had a hand in exactly one less goal than has been scored against him in 55 minutes of penalty kill time. Imagine playing virtually an entire game 4-on-5 and only losing 2-3. That is how the Bratt do. Pavel Zacha is unimpressed though, because he has played 28 minutes shorthanded, and, in that time, the Devils are even in goal differential (1 for, 1 against).

You would think the Devils penalty kill would have suffered after losing the #1 PK center for the majority of the year -- Adam Henrique. But you’d be wrong.

After trading Henrique, the Devils soared from an 80% penalty kill team, to a 93% one. But I just spent the earlier portion of the article railing against PK% as a valid metric, so let’s look instead at the statistics I had brought up in that passage — shot attempts, goals, and expected goals.

On the year the Devils have the best expected goal ratio. However, this doesn’t account for goaltender talent — which the Devils have. In actual goal ratio, the Devils are 3rd in the NHL on the year. But that’s mostly due to having been 8th before the trade. Since the trade, we are #1 in the league in that as well. In factm we’re either 1st or 2nd in all of the ratio stats. You see that 3.42 “Avg Rank”? That’s the highest in the NHL. The next highest is the Blue Jackets at 8.08, aka nowhere close to as thoroughly dominant as we are. If you want to see the full breakdown, you can browse the excel sheet I used for this article.

How could this be? Were we lied to about Henrique’s role as a good penalty killer? I don’t think so. I actually think that it has almost nothing to do with Henrique. I think it has more to do with who’s been given a chance since his departure.

Both Zacha and Bratt are guys that were in danger of losing spots on the kill when Zajac came back. The Henrique trade allowed them to stay in the rotation. In the games since the transaction Zacha has played 6 minutes, Bratt 16. Neither has seen a goal against in that time, and Zacha saw a shorthanded goal scored. So in the 22 combined minutes of penalty kill time since the trade, Bratt and Zacha are a +1.

There are also the guys that aren’t newt to the unit, but have continued to see their games flourish. Gibbons and Coleman have been invaluable to us. According to Corsica, Gibbons leads the NHL in shorthanded game score, and Coleman leads the NHL in penalties drawn while shorthanded. Also they are 2 of the top 3 in the NHL in ixGF (individual expected goals) -- Coleman is 1st, Gibbons is 3rd. They have been ferocious and aggressive killers. The two of them have been absolute NHL-elite when down a man. If the NHL was like the NFL and gave all-star selections for special teamers, Coleman and Gibbons would have a strong an argument as any to make it.

Greene (and to a lesser degree Santini) has been a workhorse as well. Among the 31 NHLers with 100+ PK minutes, Gibbons and Greene are 2nd and 4th in shots on goal against rate. And when your team is the best penalty killing team in the league, and one guy on that team is 7th in the NHL in PK minutes (Greene), that warrants a significant amount of praise. He’s the captain for a reason. Dependability has been a trademark of his all career, and it continues still.

Conclusion and You Thoughts

The Devils were already a pretty good penalty kill, and we have taken off after the Henrique trade. We are 1st in expected goal ratio on the year as a whole, and 1st in actual goal ratio since the trade. I should say that it’s not because of the Henrique trade that we improved. In fact, all that really happened there was that Zajac switched in after he got healthy. However, had Henrique stayed on the team, both he and Zajac would likely be regular penalty killers. Coleman and Gibbons are immovable at present, so the amount of leftover time for guys like Bratt and Zacha to do their thing would have been minuscule. What changed is that Hynes is finally settling into units that maximize the usefulness of his personnel. The difference between last year’s units of Rico/Zajac and then whoever was on the roster between guys like Kalinin, Fiddler, Smith-Pelley, and Josefson; and this year’s unit including mixes of Zajac, Gibbons, Coleman, Bratt, and Zacha is absolutely massive. Furthermore, the fact that our penalty kill is lethal again is a big reason the Devils are where they are in the league right now.

What do you guys think about the Devils penalty kill? Who are the studs? Who do you wish you saw more of? Do you think it’s one of the best in the NHL? What is working so well? Leave your thoughts in the comments below and thanks for reading!