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Elite Penalty Killing: The Lone Survivor of a Departed Culture

The Devils used to be known for suffocating play, an elite and physical D-corps, and a Hall of Fame goalie. Almost everything has changed — except the PK.

Madden congratulated Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images/NHLI

For some reason, there are aspects of a franchise that just seem to stick around.

If the Bears are ever good, it’s always because of their front 7 — whether it’s Fridge Perry and Mike Singltary, or Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, or now Khalil Mack.

The Flyers have always been chippy every since the days of Dave Schultz and the Broad Street Bullies. In the analytics era, which began over 3 decades after Schultz last game as a Flyer, Philly has the most penalties drawn AND taken per hour.

The Yankees are the Bronx Bombers — from Gehrig, Ruth, and DiMaggio to Judge and Stanton they always find a way to piece together the brawn to blast the ball to kingdom come.

And then there’s the Devils. For the entire duration of Lou Lamoriello’s tenure with the New Jersey, it felt like they did indeed have an identity. Anchored by the most prolific goaltender of all-time in Martin Brodeur, and one of the best defensive units ever built led by Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer, the Devils played a suffocating brand of hockey in every part of the rink. From their first cup in 1995 to their twilight playoff appearance in 2012 the Devils allowed 2.37 goals per game over which time the league median was 2.8 and the 2nd best team allowed 2.49. In keeping with their stalwart defensive identity, the Devils, unsurprisingly, had the best penalty kill in the NHL. They allowed 696 goals in 17114 penalty minutes. That ratio of 4.07 goals per 100 minutes was best in the league by a lot — a margin equivalent to 30 goals over that span.

At the start of their dominance, the Devils penalty kill was led by Captain Scott Stevens and Mr. Devil, Ken Daneyko on the back end. Among the forwards were SHG savant, Brian Rolston, elite overall forward Patrik Elias, defensive specialist, Jay Pandolfo, and bulldog and Selke-winner John Madden. Those players are distant memories now, as is the overally defensive identity, but the culture of the kill that was instilled by these players has been the lone survivor of the golden era Devils.


Today’s Devils

In the analytics era, the Devils have been the best PK team in the NHL and with a fair amount of breathing room between them and the pack. Evolving-Hockey has GAR (Goals Above Replacement, an all-encompassing stat for total quality of play) for all strength situations. In their shorthanded GAR metric, the Devils have totaled a league-leading 68 goals of value since 2007. The average for a team in that span was about 8 goals of value, and the 2nd best team, is at 58.

But 2007 is leaking into the previous era of dominance right? So is that misleading? Well if we include only the Devils teams since their last playoff appearance in 2012, the Devils Shorthanded GAR per hour plummets from 1st in the league all the way to ... 2nd. Only Boston, who uses the best players on their roster on the PK, surpasses them.

I’ve made a tableau of the Devils PK Gar per hour over time to demonstrate the remarkable consistency in this aspect of the game the franchise has shown.

The Devils have, remarkably, NEVER had a negative GAR season and also just now seem to have returned to their absurd level of dominance from 2010 to 2014 during which time, the Devils inexplicably finished top 2 or 3 EVERY YEAR. That graph contains rosters with 5 different coaches, by the way so it’s not like this was just a product of scheme.

Yes, there was a dip in the beginning of the Hynes years, but it’s worth noting here, that this level of play is still very solid in comparison to the skill on the roster. During Hynes, the Devils are 9th best in SH_GAR/60, but this is during a time in which they’ve had the 5th worst record in the NHL. Even as the team has floundered, the kill has been a bright spot.

So how does it keep happening? Who are the characters in this play?

The graph below is of the Devils top killers over the years in the analytics era. You can sort by percent of penalty kill time the played and click the legend to highlight a player’s history.

For those who don’t like playing with graph toys or aren’t using a device that allows them to, the below is a chart shows the top 4 Devils by year in both PK usage (SH_TOI) and PK value (SH_GAR).

Using either of the two above viz, you can see the progression of the Devils killers move from from Paul Martin and Colin White (who played 4 years with Ken Daneyko) through Bryce Salvador and on to Andy Greene as the #1 SHD. Meanwhile, among forwards, we see Travis Zajac straddle the end of the John Madden era, and play with Elias and Henrique before ultimately mentoring Blake Coleman, whose era is imminent. Each time a unit seems to near its end, there has been a bridge member to serve as the identity liaison for the new era of killers.


Passing The Torch

The Devils defenders have been provably elite when down a man in the analytics era. In the 13 years on record, only 5 players have ever recorded an SH_GAR of 4 or more. Of those five, the bottom four produced values between 4 and 4.3. The fifth on was a herculean 5.0 SH_GAR-season by Paul Martin in 2008-2009. Looking at a more conventional stat, the best goal differential of any skater to play 200+ minutes since 2007 is Bryce Salvador who had an absurd 12:17 goal differential over 250 SH minutes. Fast forward to the current Devils where the legacy lives on — Ben Lovejoy has the highest SH_GAR in the NHL over the past 3 years. His pairing with Andy Greene (who played with both Martin and Salvador) forms the duo with the highest GAR of any pairing. These are two defenders that couldn’t spell “puck-moving” much less do it. But in this situation, the excel. Every game, we watch them channel Ken Daneyko by keeping the most dangerous players in the NHL out of the most dangerous spots.

Of the top 50 player-seasons in shorthanded expected goals produced 4 different Devils seasons are on the list (Madden, Henrique, Parise, Coleman) and 6 different seasons are in the top 50 SHG (Henrique 2x, Coleman, Zubrus, Josefson, Langenbrunner). Travis Zajac has been to the forwards what Andy Greene is to the defense — ferrying the shorthanded mentality from roster to roster. John Madden was the last true defensive specialist (<40 Pts) to win the Selke thanks largely to his elite killing. And his ghost lives on in Zajac’s partner — PK virtuoso, Blake Coleman.

And now, a quarter century after that first cup, the Devils have a SH_GAR of 9.3 — obliterating the #2 team in the league, Florida (4.9). For those not statistically inclined: the Devils PK has been almost twice as valuable as any other team’s in the NHL. And this isn’t as simple as a coach or goaltender or one or two players. This is the consequence of years of toil — refining the craft honing the pride inherent to being the best in the world at something. This is a feature of the franchise permeates forwards, defenders, and coaches alike. It is an identity.


An Identity

It’s not that the Devils had the most prolific goaltender of all time, although they did. It’s not that the success came during one of the most prolonged stretches of overall defensive dominance ever, although it was. There’s something extra. There’s something that has pervaded several dozens of players, 10 different coaches, 4 different owners, and 2 GMs. There is a tenacity that emerges from the men in the red and black when the opposition has all the power. The underdog mentality of a team that will always be 2nd best no matter how much more jewelry they own than the impotent foes across the river is evident nowhere more than when they are down a man and fighting for their lives. The legendary goalie is gone, and the Devils can’t find a new one. The historically dominant defenders are gone, and this is now a team without even one first pairing blueliner. The Hall of Fame GM that pulled all those pieces together is gone, and we’ve had only one playoff appearance since he left. All that remains are two things: the fans, and the best freaking penalty kill in the NHL.

Your Thoughts

What do you think of the Devils penalty kill? What are some of your favorite memories of the PK either now or historical? Do you think this team bares a resemblance to the old Devils killing units?

Thanks for reading and leave your thoughts below!