Back in July, I wrote about the regular forwards who played on the penalty kill for the New Jersey Devils. The 2018-19 Devils were bad but their penalty kill was not. It was one of the most successful kills in the league with an 84.3% success rate (215 out of 255) with only 40 goals allowed. In looking more closely at the forwards’ stats, it turned out that all six of the Devils’ regulars ranged from performing well by on-ice rate stats to being downright amazing. Especially Pavel Zacha. While there will likely be one regular spot to fill at forward for 2019-20 (hint for John Hynes: Pick Nico Hischier), the Devils should be more than fine with their forwards for the penalty kill. Today, I want to focus on the defensemen, which will force the Devils to do some more work.
The Regular PK Defensemen for the Devils in 2018-19 and the Near Future
For the defense, the PK was largely run by Andy Greene and Ben Lovejoy. That seems like an understatement. Greene led the entire league in shorthanded ice time last season as per NHL.com. No one came close to his 4:06 of shorthanded ice time per game. Second in the entire league in SH TOI/GP as per NHL.com was Ben Lovejoy at 3:24, which includes his time with Dallas. These two have been mainstays of the Devils’ PK since Lovejoy was brought into the organization.
Following those two in terms of minutes were Damon Severson (122:37 total), Sami Vatanen (95:37), and Mirco Mueller (82:35). I consider these three plus Greene and Lovejoy to be the Devils’ regulars on defense. No other Devils defenseman averaged a minute per game and played in at least 40 shorthanded minutes last season. Steve Santini missed the mark on both and Eric Gryba, of all players, met the per-game ice time filter but not the total ice time filter.
I forgive you if you forgot one or all three of them since Greene-Lovejoy was heavily leaned on for most of last season and for seasons prior. They received more minutes by default after Lovejoy was sent to Dallas last season. With Lovejoy not returning, there is an opportunity for more PK shifts for right-sided defensemen. Further, Greene will be turning 37 in October. I think it is fair to question whether he will continue to be able to log a lot of shorthanded minutes and do so with some effectiveness. Greene is also entering the last season of his current contract. The Devils would be smart to start identifying who among the left-sided defensemen for the future.
In order to help with that as well as to highlight how well the Devils defensemen performed on the penalty kill last season, I decided to compare their on-ice rate stats with their peers in the league. Just like with the forwards.
Background for the Following Analysis
Using the data at Natural Stat Trick, I decided to compare all of the Devils defensemen who averaged at least a minute of shorthanded ice time per game and played at least 40 shorthanded minutes against all other NHL defensemen who met those ice time requirements in the NHL. 175 defensemen met those marks last season. The thing about PK (and PP) on-ice rate stats is that they’re going to be high in one direction so comparisons to others helps identify what actually is and is not good.
Since this is about penalty killing, all of the on-ice stats are per-60 minute rates against the Devils: Corsi (attempts, CA/60), shots (SA/60), scoring chances (SCA/60), high danger scoring chances (HDCA/60), expected goals against (xGA/60), and goals against (GA/60). Since this is dealing with defensemen, I kept it to those stats. There is not much of a reason to compare offensive stats. After all, Coleman and Zacha were bringing it anyway.
Just as with the forwards, ranks in green mean that the player was in the top-88 in the NHL in that category. (I rounded down from 87.5) This means they finished in the top half of the league among defensemen in that stat. Ranks in yellow mean that the player was in the top 10% in the NHL in that stat, or the top-18. (I also rounded down from 17.5) Ranks in bold mean they were in the top-10 straight up. For Lovejoy, he has an asterisk as he only played part of last season in New Jersey. I individually ranked his stats as a Devil compared with others instead of including his Dallas stats or splitting everyone’s season by team. His total season ranks were different, although still quite good.
One more thing: I decided to add the Face of the League, P.K. Subban. As the Devils have a spot open on the right side of the defense for the penalty kill, it only makes sense to consider the right side defenseman the Devils acquired in a blockbuster deal. Surely he will at least be considered. So why not look at how he did last season in Nashville, who had a successful PK of their own? He has recently entered beast mode in the gym, but was he a beast when his team had to kill a penalty? His stats and team ranks were from his time in Nashville last season. They are in italics just to highlight the addition.
The Regular Devils PK Defensemen Compared with Other Regular NHL PK Defensemen in 2018-19
I’m not sure why the per-game ice time rate stats are a little different at Natural Stat Trick than NHL.com but it does not seem to be a significant difference. In any case, the five Devils defensemen rank really well compared to their peers. Everyone finished in the upper half of the league among defensemen in every stat. That’s 30 ranks, all above 88th for the top half of the league. Some were not as impressive as others. However, no one was truly bad or even below league median in a particular category. I find that to be quite impressive. Especially since this was nearly the case for the forwards. There is a lot to takeaway here. Mirco Mueller surprised me with his excellence in particular.
Seriously, look at those rate stats for Mueller! Even though his usage was the least among the trio of Severson, Vatanen, and Mueller, he did the best. Five of this rate stats ranked in the top 10% of all defensemen last season. His CA/60, SCA/60, and HDCA/60 rates ranked in the top ten. He was not that far off from doing so in GA/60. Whatever Mueller was doing on the PK was certainly working very well for the Devils last season. The big caveat is that Mueller put up these numbers mostly on the second unit and when he was even available. It is possible that those rates may not hold up with more shifts and more difficult matchups. Yet, these are very encouraging signs that it may be viable for Mueller to play a larger role on the penalty kill.
Sami Vatanen also showed up quite well. While his stats were not so consistently up near the top, his stats for CA/60, SA/60, and xGA/60 all ranked in the top 30 out of the entire NHL. When Vatanen was on the ice, the Devils were fantastic at high danger changes - even just edging out Mueller. The only stat that seems low is his GA/60 but that is only by rank. Even so, it is well inside the upper half of the league. His rate stats for attempts and shots were much better than Severson’s. While the expected goals model suggests that either would be good options on the right side, it is those two rate that stats that make me prefer Vatanen at the moment.
What about the big-minute players? Let’s start with the departed one first. Lovejoy’s stats with the Devils are astounding to me. None of his stats in New Jersey ranked lower than 41st out of 175 defensemen, which is impressive on his own. He finished in the top ten for SA/60, with a supremely low 36.78 in shorthanded situations. His CA/60 and GA/60 rates are also quite low on their own - and amazingly not even near the lowest the Devils. Given that Lovejoy played a lot on the PK in New Jersey and often faced the other team’s primary power play unit with Greene, he was able to contribute to some really, really good rate stats speaks to his talents. Lovejoy is 35 and currently an unrestricted free agent. If a team is looking for a depth defenseman and needs to improve their power play, they can do a lot worse than taking a flier on Lovejoy.
As far the captain of the team and the league leader in shorthanded minutes, his on-ice stats are not as incredible as Lovejoy. However, keep in mind the situations. Greene was the first choice on the penalty kill for 82 games of a team that just sputtered out to the depths of the league by Christmas. With loads of shifts means loads more opportunities for the opposition to light things up and that can happen for a penalty kill. Greene managed to have his stats across the board finish in the upper half of the league even with these additional opportunities and minutes that the vast majority of the defensemen in the league did not get. That is still quite good. And Greene did all this at the age of 36. Lovejoy may have been better, but even Lovejoy did not get used nearly as much as Greene. That should be considered along with the just the simple fact that Greene was better than over half of his peers in every category. I can understand it if the coaches keep him on the first PK unit next season. We’ll see if he can maintain it or if the coaches start to lighten his load - which may lead to even better results.
Lastly, let’s touch on the guest of this table: P.K. Subban. Nashville’s penalty kill was good last season. It was not because of Subban. The blueliners who carried the shorthanded load for the Preds were Ryan Ellis and Roman Josi with plenty of support from Mattias Ekholm. Except for CA/60, Subban finished fifth out of five defensemen who met the ice-time requirements in all other stats. Subban also finished in the bottom half of the league in all other stats, with really low rankings for HDCA/60, xGA/60, and GA/60. It could be argued that New Jersey’s tactics may help him reduce that HDCA/60 number and improve his overall shorthanded play. However, Subban is 30, Nashville’s penalty kill was definitely good, and coming off a season with a xGA/60 and a GA/60 each above seven really gives one pause as to whether he should become a regular on the penalty kill in New Jersey.
Going back to the Devils, none of the defensemen were bad on the penalty kill last season. Mueller is the closest to being the “Zacha” of the group in terms of having some surprisingly fantastic on-ice rate stats. But the Devils’ success from the back end seems to be more of a group being good compared to other NHL defenseman than just some real stars carrying things. It certainly worked well and helped the team put together one of the most successful kills in the league last season.
So Far, So Good, So What Now?
Based on last season’s rate stats, the Devils could put Greene with Vatanen and Mueller with Severson for the two penalty killing units. This would keep Greene as the top defenseman. He would be paired with the best right-sided defenseman of the three who played on the PK last season. Severson was not as impressive but he was better than Subban was in Nashville. Unless the coaching staff sees something else in Subban’s talents and Subban takes to the Devils’ way of killing penalties (which may be possible, camp and preseason will tell us this), I would prefer that he would not kill penalties unless the Devils have no other choice. In other words, no PK for PK please.
There are still concerns in my mind. It is not a guarantee Mueller will be in the lineup every night if Ty Smith does make the New Jersey roster out of camp. It is not a guarantee that Vatanen will stay a Devil all season; his expiring contract makes him a prime choice for being traded during 2019-20. It is not a guarantee that Father Time will not totally flex on Greene and the captain’s effectiveness will suffer. Of course, there is also the possibility of injury striking. If it is on the right side, it means hoping Subban can be better than he was in Nashville last season or hoping Connor Carrick can do it at all. If it’s a left sided defender, then the chance has to be given to Will Butcher or even Ty Smith, should he be on the roster at all.
Long term, the Devils may be wise to give some shifts to Butcher to see if he can at least take some role on the penalty kill. Two out of the four defensemen I would use right now for the PK will become UFAs in July and Mueller’s deal is just for this season and I am not sure if the Devils include him in future plans. The Devils may need to put some new faces out there for shorthanded shifts in this upcoming season because they may have to beyond this upcoming season.
Conclusions & Your Take
However, in the short term, the Devils penalty kill will likely be fine on defense. Again, their regulars last season all did quite well. Their on-ice rates were good enough to be better than half of the defensemen in the NHL across the board. Some defenders had very good stats with Mueller having some seriously excellent rates of his own. Lovejoy’s spot may not be fully filled but Vatanen and Severson have done well enough with the shifts they received last season. I think they deserve the opportunity. Likewise for Mueller, if he’s in the lineup for a game, then he should be used on the PK to some degree.
Combined with what I posted about the forwards back in July, the Devils’ penalty kill should be quite good from the standpoint of the skaters. The big wild card happens to be the most important penalty killer of all: the goaltender. Even if this is good at even strength, it does not guarantee good play on the penalty kill. Shorthanded situations are only a fraction of the game and so a smaller population size lends itself to more variation from season to season. Even teams with solid goaltending can suffer this. But there is little we can do about that.
I now turn to you for your takes on this. What did you learn in this post about the Devils defensemen on the penalty kill? Were you also surprised to see how good Mueller’s stats were? Were you pleased to see that all five Devils regulars ranked at least in the top half in all stats presented? Are you now more convinced that Subban should not be on the penalty kill? Related to that: Do you think the Devils could shape up his performances such that he could be an option if necessary? Ahead of training camp, which defenseman would you put on each of the two penalty kill units for next season and why? Who would you want to see be given a shot to be a part of the PK in the future? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the regular defensemen from New Jersey’s penalty kill in the comments. Thank you for reading.