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Will the Devils Penalty Kill Survive This Transition?

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The Devils historically excellent penalty kill suffered two big losses in Andy Greene and Blake Coleman. Will it survive those losses?

NHL: FEB 08 Kings at Devils Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Devils are the best penalty-killing team of the analytics era. Since 2007, the Devils shorthanded play has produced about 72 goals (or about 25 standings points) of value — beating #2 Boston (64 GAR) and crushing #3 Tampa Bay (50 GAR). If we look at xGAR, the dominance is even starker — their 24 goals of value are transcendent in a league in which no other team is worth 9. And crunching these numbers down into their components helps find out just where that comes from. When adjusted for competition, score, venue, and rest; the Devils in the analytic era are the #2 team in goals for, #2 in goals against, #5 in expected goals for, and running away with #1 in the NHL in expected goals against (beating #2, Boston, by over 20 goals).

This is remarkable. When these metrics were initially produced I commented about how impressive it was and what the implications are for such sustained success. It makes you wonder if the institutional memory dates back to the likes of Stevens, Daneyko, and Madden. It’s really interesting to think about the legacy of Devils greats and if there is lingering impact of their tutelage on the current roster. But if that legacy existed, may be evaporating.

Someone who had been on the team almost the entire analytics era (though not always on the PK) was recently traded captain, Andy Greene. Greene is the 3rd most valuable shorthanded defender of the analytics era in GAR, and he and Ben Lovejoy made, likely, the best PK pairing during that time. But there was plenty reason to believe that what made the Devils PK great was their overall unit play. For instance, Andy Greene was actually not that special in terms of relative danger rate allowed on the team — Lovejoy, Zajac, Coleman, Elias, Henrique, Salvador, and others all were more “impactful” per minute. Even recently forwards like Pavel Zacha have been among the most effective players in the NHL on the PK. So maybe we would be able to suffer the loss of Greene. Maybe even the loss of Greene and Coleman. Is there enough magic in the system to pass the torch to the next era of great Devils PKers?

Up until Greene and Coleman were traded, the Devils were allowing expected goals at the 2nd stingiest rate in the NHL, propelled by their #1 best high-danger chance prevention. Since then, they’ve been league-average at in xGA, and below league average in high-danger prevention. Damon Severson has the lowest HDCA/60 over the past 3 seasons on the penalty kill, and I’ve mentioned already that Zacha and Zajac are very good penalty killing forwards, so iIt wasn’t unreasonable to think we could withstand this exodus of PK talent. But that’s not happened so far. So far, the lone area of strength for the Devils has been thrown into question.

Mackenzie Blackwood has been routinely bailing the team out lately with some of the best goaltending in the NHL, but make no mistake, the Devils historically elite penalty kill is struggling and looking for new names to step up. Will one of the D prospects ascend to the throne abdicated by Greene? Kevin Bahl? Nikita Okhutyuk? Will forwards rise to fill in for the departed Coleman and aging Zajac? Hischier? Zacha? Anderson?

For a team whose identity early this season was “spiraling” — it seems that avoiding a suddenly cratered PK unit with new forwards, new defenders, and new coaches would be desirable. Look at what moves they make this offseason for an indication of whether or not they have faith in the guys in the system to return the PK to its former glory. If not, we will have truly witnessed the end of an era.

What do you guys think? Have you noticed Blackwood getting more attention than usual on the PK? How bad will we miss Greene? Coleman? Are one or both of them irreplaceable? Leave your thoughts to these and any other quesitons in the comments below, and thanks for reading!