In terms of the penalty kill, we know that the New Jersey Devils were really, really good last season, one of the few really bright spots in an otherwise forgettable season. As has been dissected before on here and something we will touch upon again, between the two, the forwards were more influential in that excellence than the defense, although the latter were not bad by any means.
However, Natural Stat Trick lets us dissect stats and information when broken down by defensive pairings, which is a great tool to see how specific pairings influence events as opposed to single players. Since some pairings get put out on the ice together in key situations for lots of minutes, it lets us see how well they perform there.
In terms of the penalty kill last season, all across the NHL, 86 pairings spent at least 40 minutes together on the ice. Three of those 86 pairings were from New Jersey. In all three of those pairings, one of the two skaters was Andy Greene. He spent just over 167 minutes with Ben Lovejoy (6th most minutes of any pairing in the NHL last season), just over 82 minutes with Damon Severson (35th on that list), and another 41+ minutes with Sami Vatanen (83rd).
First off, man was Greene leaned on heavily on the PK. To be on each of the top three NJ pairings on the PK by minutes played is really intense. In fact, he was the most used skater on the PK by a significant margin. The second most-used player on the PK, Esa Lindell, had 70 less PK minutes than Greene did. That speaks to why he is on all three of those D-pairings in the other list.
In terms of those three pairings, sadly, Greene worked best with the one d-man that is no longer on the team. Him and Lovejoy were the 18th best pairing in the NHL in terms of Corsi Against per 60, sitting at 85.78 (with PK minutes > 40). However, in terms of pairings with at least 100 minutes of PK time together, of which Greene and Lovejoy were, they were the 2nd best pairing. The best, Mike Matheson and Aaron Ekblad of Florida, had a CA/60 of 83.69, not too much better than Greene and Lovejoy. That speaks to how good they were together at preventing attempts against while down a man or two.
Greene’s pairings with the other two skaters were not as productive. However, they were not necessarily terrible either. With Vatanen, their CA/60 sat at 96.23, and with Severson, it was at 101.56. The extra 18 Corsi events per 60 minutes going from Lovejoy to Severson as a partner is not ideal, those could matter over the course of a season. But given they played less minutes together, more time to acclimate as a pairing could help moving forward.
When we look at just the Devils pairings last season with at least 10 PK minutes together (not a high bar, but only 8 pairings make the list. When I up it to 20, only 4 pairings make the list. Again, just goes to show you how much Greene was leaned on last season), the best pairing was Severson and Mirco Mueller, who only played 13:09 together. Their CA/60 was 31.94, an excellent number, but again, with such a small sample size, what does it mean? Hard to tell. Next, Greene and Steve Santini pulled at 56.75 CA/60 over 16:55 of PK ice time. Vatanen and Mueller, with 26:13 of ice time together, were at 70.95, already getting close to Greene and Lovejoy’s 83.69 over their 167 minutes.
What does it all come down to? Well, while the forwards might have been more diverse last year on the PK in terms of their shared effectiveness, when it came to the defensive pairings and skaters, John Hynes and Co. basically just gave the reins to Greene and said do what you can to kill penalties. And despite playing with multiple defenders for large amounts of minutes, he was fairly effective across the board. He might not be as mobile anymore, or as effective 5v5, but as a penalty killer, last year he was still a great option for this team, and perhaps could be again this season.
What we need to see, hopefully, is improved numbers for Greene playing with one of the current defenders. No one is particularly upset that Lovejoy is gone, me included, and we all agree that overall, Severson and Vatanen are the better defenders to have hands down. But on the PK, at least one of them will need to improve their game with Greene. I think there is a good chance that Greene and Severson end up playing significant minutes together, given they already have over 82 minutes of PK experience together from last season alone. If they can grow as a pairing in those situations, it will go a long way to continuing NJ’s penalty kill excellence this season. However, there still is a good chance that another defender ends up taking Lovejoy’s role this year, be it Vatanen or one of the others, and if so, they will need to gel together.
In the end, unless something major changes this season, the defense on the PK is still Greene’s to live and die with, and considering how his pairings performed last season with allowing Corsi attempts against, we should feel good about how that should go. Do you agree? Or, do you think he skills might diminish enough with age to the point where Hynes and Co. should be relying on others more? If so, who? Please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading.