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New Jersey Devils 2021 Season Preview Part 5: The Penalty Kill

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The penalty kill was one of the few things that the 2019-20 New Jersey Devils were really good at. This post is a preview of the PK for 2021 from what they did last season, who is coming in, and potential options to fill in the holes left by Greene, Coleman, Rooney, Anderson, and Mueller.

Dallas Stars v New Jersey Devils
Travis Zajac: The remaining veteran to return to the Devils penalty kill.
Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

The 2019-20 New Jersey Devils excelled in very few areas compared with the rest of the National Hockey League. One of them was their penalty kill. The Devils were among the most successful in the league at preventing power play goals against them. They were even better in the run of play while shorthanded. Despite being a bad team defensively in 5-on-5, they were able to limit opposition offenses better than the vast majority of the NHL when they were down at least one man. While this did not make the Devils a good or even mediocre team as a whole, at least their PK was not routinely beat on.

Assistant head coach turned interim head coach Alain Nasreddine has overseen the penalty kill since joining the Devils in 2015. It is the main reason why he was retained as an assistant coach. And the penalty kill has been rather good for most of his tenure with the Devils. However, the Devils are entering 2021 without some key players for their penalty killing units. What could the penalty kill look like for this upcoming season? Should we still expect it to be good again? Let us go over the data we have and then make an educated guess.

The 2019-20 Devils Penalty Kill Stats

Under Nasreddine, the Devils primarily employed a wedge-plus-one formation. The general idea is that three of the four players would set up and hold position around the slot near the net. The “plus one” would go and apply pressure on the puck carrier. This is typically a forward. The Devils would rotate who the plus one would be. This pressure would force the opposition power play to move the puck. If they were fortunate, this pressure could force a bad pass, lead to a steal, or lose the puck. If the play goes low and a defenseman wants to engage, then the plus one can drop back and that defender would become the plus one. It is a common tactic against 1-3-1 power play formations.

It has been an absolutely effective approach for the Devils. We can pick and choose specific games and find fault with the Devils’ penalty kill. No penalty kill is perfect. Over the course of a season - or a near-season as 2019-20 ended early for the Devils - you could not complain with the results of the Devils’ PK.

Devils team penalty kill stats in 2019-20. Green means top 10 in NHL. Red means bottom 10 in NHL.
Devils team penalty kill stats in 2019-20. Green means top 10 in NHL. Red means bottom 10 in NHL.
First five stats are from NHL.com; last seven are from Natural Stat Trick.

Look at all of the top-ten rankings. The Devils’ overall success rate of 82.4% finished in the top ten. Their on-ice against-rate stats were among the very best in the NHL last season. A shorthanded team will always give up a high rate of shooting attempts, shots, scoring chances, and goals just by the nature of being down a man. But the Devils allowed a much lower rate than the vast majority of the league. On top of that, the Devils did get some offense out of their penalty kill. Their 9 shorthanded goals were also among league leaders. It helps to offset the 39 goals they did allow, which is a fairly low number itself.

The only downsides to the PK last season was that they were on it as much as they did and their goaltending was not all that hot. The team save percentage finished below the league median, but at least stayed out of the bottom third of the league. It did improve as the season went on, thanks to Mackenzie Blackwood getting hot (more on that in a bit). Even with the less-than-good shot stopping, the Devils were stingy enough against shots that they still yielded the 11th fewest amount of power play goals last season.

The larger concern was that the Devils had to kill 221 shorthanded situations last season. As great as the Devils’ penalty kill performed, the best penalty kill remains not having to kill a penalty. While they drew more calls than they took, there were some players that forced the Devils to go to their amazing shorthanded. I will touch on that in a bit.

Still, I think most fans would rather see the team pay those taxes in exchange for the gains the penalty kill provided. New Jersey was legitimately a defensive stalwart when shorthanded and they scored a relatively large amount of goals with it. Out of all of the parts of a team’s performance, the Devils penalty kill was easily the best part of the 2019-20 team.

The 2019-20 Devils Penalty Kill Player Stats - Production

A penalty kill is not where one would want to see or expect a lot of production. Being shorthanded limits offensive opportunities. The primary goal is to get through the shorthanded situation without giving up a goal. That stated, the Devils did score nine shorthanded goals. Here is the short list of who provided them:

2019-20 Devils penalty killing scoring stats.
2019-20 Devils penalty killing scoring stats.
Data from Natural Stat Trick

The offensive machines that were Pavel Zacha, Blake Coleman, Kevin Rooney, and Travis Zajac provided the lion’s share of shorthanded points last season. OK, Coleman being called an offensive machine in 2019-20 is not ironic. Still, those four scored eight of the team’s nine shorthanded goals; those four took at least 14 shooting attempts of which at least 10 were scoring chances; and those four were the only ones expected to get at least one goal. It speaks to the effectiveness of Nasreddine’s system plus these player’s skills in shorthanded situations that they could get some actual production beyond an occasional shot here and there. The forwards rotating as “plus ones” along with the forward staying back still being higher up in the zone than the defensemen means they will most likely take the infrequent shorthanded offensive opportunities.

It is here that you may recognize that two of them are no longer Devils - Coleman and Rooney - and you can see how this is a gap be made up. I would not expect or demand that the 2021 Devils need to replace the five shorthanded goals that Coleman and Rooney combined for last season. I do think it is worth noting.

The 2019-20 Devils Penalty Kill Player Stats - Taken Calls

Also worth noting is who took the calls that would lead to shorthanded situations in the first place. Again, the Devils had the eighth most in the NHL last season. The 2019-20 Devils at least drew more calls as a team than the ones they took. However, some players were more guilty of fouls than others. Here is a list of every Devil who took at least one penalty last season:

Penalties taken and drawn in all situations by the 2019-20 Devils.
Penalties taken and drawn in all situations by the 2019-20 Devils.
Data from Natural Stat Trick

The bad news is that P.K. Subban might as well called himself Penalty Kill Creator Subban. His 30 taken penalties was the seventh most in the entire league last season. He will be on the blueline for the 2020-21 Devils. We can only hope that a better season by Subban also includes him being in the box less often. While it is an improvement on past season, seeing Damon Severson among the top five on the team with 19 penalties taken shows room for improvement as well. Again, the best penalty kill is not having to kill one at all.

I could include Miles Wood in the above hope for better discipline, but that would be like expecting Miles Wood to play well enough defensively to be on a penalty kill. I do not. Besides, how he plays to draw calls tends to lead to taking calls as well. He was a net positive in that respect last season whereas Subban and Severson were definitely not. Given what I wrote about the power play yesterday, I’ll take 30 drawn calls if it means he has to take 25.

The good news is that three players who finished in the top five in Devils for penalties taken are no longer Devils. Wayne Simmonds and John Hayden signed elsewhere in the offseason and Coleman, who took a lot of penalties for a regular penalty killer, was dealt during last season. That’s 60 penalties taken that are not returning to this season’s team. Further, several of the team’s most prolific players We could see the Devils have fewer shorthanded situations provided the returning players maintain or improve their discipline (I’m looking at you, Subban and Severson) and the new players acquired or who make the team take a lot of penalties. I could see the Devils having a lower shorthanded situations per-game rate than they did last season. That would be an improvement.

The 2019-20 Devils Penalty Kill Player Stats - On-Ice Rate Stats

The Devils’ penalty kill was fantastic when it came to the team’s on-ice rate stats. Whether it was expected goals against (xGA/60), shots against (SA/60), scoring chances against (SCA/60, high danger ones only - HDCA/60), or just shot attempts against (CA/60), the Devils were among the league’s best last season. What is more impressive is that the Devils players all contributed to this level of excellence.

At least until February 16, 2020 they did. That was a big day in the 2019-20 Devils season as the team traded Andy Greene and Blake Coleman. This had a big impact for the Devils’ penalty kill. The Devils’ penalty kill for the last three seasons was led by three players: defenseman Andy Greene, center Travis Zajac, and forward Blake Coleman. While others had their time to shine, these three were the most common penalty killers on the Devils since 2017-18. On February 16, 2020, only Zajac remained among the trio. One of the looming questions for the 2021 Devils is figuring out who should fill in for Greene and Coleman on the team’s primary power play unit. The Devils played 12 more games since those deals were made until the Coronavirus Pandemic ended the season in March. Perhaps that can provide a clue, or at least answer who was utilized for the remainder of last season. To do that, we need to see how the Devils players were performing before and after February 16.

By the way, to provide further context for these rate stats, I did a quick comparison with the Devils’ on-ice rate stats with the rest of the league at Natural Stat Trick. 330 players played at least 40 shorthanded minutes last season until February 15. Stats in the top 110 are colored in green and stats ranked 221 through 330 (the bottom 110) are colored in red.

Devils on-ice rate stats in all shorthanded situations before February 16, 2020 (minimum 40 minutes)
Devils on-ice rate stats in all shorthanded situations before February 16, 2020 (minimum 40 minutes)
Ice time from NHL.com, on-ice rate data from Natural Stat Trick

Before the two trades, the Devils’ penalty killers were sensational across the board. There are some really pleasant surprises here. The first is the Celebrity Devil himself. Other than the high rate of goals allowed, P.K. Subban was one of the very best performers in shorthanded situations last season. And you should not fault the defenseman for the goaltender giving up goals. For example, only 12 players in the league had a CA/60 rate below 70 and only two had a lower rate than Subban’s 61.6. Subban was not on the primary penalty killing unit, but he played enough to be a regular on a secondary unit when he was not in the box itself. And he was brilliant. Seriously, P.K. should be on a PK and not the cause of them.

The second is seeing Mirco Mueller put up some remarkable on-ice rates when he was used in shorthanded situations. While he did not play as many games, you can not really find any fault with what happened when he was out there. The third is seeing Nico Hischier make the cut off in terms of minutes. If you want some evidence why he should be on a penalty kill and why some expect him to develop into a very good two-way center, here it is. The fourth is seeing the regulars all rank highly. Pavel Zacha, Zajac, Coleman, Severson, and Kevin Rooney played quite a bit as indicated by an average of over two minutes per game. Look at all of the green numbers. Even the regulars on the first PK unit that would see the other team’s best power play unit and play more than the others ended up limiting their opposition exceedingly well compared to others. The fifth positive surprise are Andy Greene’s stats. While they did not rank among the top 110 players, they were consistently above the league median. This is an achievement for someone who played a lot more on the penalty kill than most anyone in the league and would then be at risk of getting lit up on it. No, Greene more than handled his heavy shorthanded work load well. There is so much to like here.

The only real downside among the pre-February 16 Devils penalty killers is in the last column of goals against per 60. Everyone had a higher actual goals against rate than an expected goals rate. Why was that? In a word: goaltending. Goaltending on special teams is subject to a lot of variation, so it does fluctuate wildly from season to season. Generally, the league median is between 86% and 87% and as of February 15, 2020, it was 86.6% per NHL.com. Only two games and seven shorthanded saves of Gilles Senn surpassed that number, also per NHL.com. In summary: Mackenzie Blackwood allowed 24 goals out of 149 shots for a really low PK save percentage of 83.7%. Louis Domingue allowed 6 out of 43 for a closer-to-respectable 86% save percentage. Cory Schneider allowed 6 out of 23 for a further-from-respectable 81.3%. In short, the Devils goaltenders did not excel anywhere near the level of their skaters. The penalty killers in front of the goaltender really did the heavy lifting to kill penalties.

As much as I would love to continue to praise the Devils’ penalty killers before February 16, let us look at what happened after Greene and Coleman were traded. With Alain Nasreddine as interim head coach and his past experience in running the penalty kill, his staff made the following roster decisions:

  • Mirco Mueller would essentially play with Damon Severson on the first unit’s defensive pairing.
  • Call up Joey Anderson would essentially replace Blake Coleman’s role on the first unit and play alongside Travis Zajac.
  • Call up Dakota Mermis would get regular shorthanded shifts.
  • Kevin Rooney, P.K. Subban, and Pavel Zacha were maintained in their roles.
  • Sami Vatanen (who was hurt and later traded) and Nico Hischier would not be used or be used sparingly (Hischier received 7:16 on the PK).

How did this go for the 12 games they did play after those two deals? It did not go nearly as well as the on-ice rates before February 16. Again, for context, I compared these rates stats with the rest of the league (after February 16, minimum 20 minutes) at Natural Stat Trick. 359 met the criteria. Rates in the top 120 were colored in green; rates in the bottom 120 were colored in red.

Devils on-ice rate stats in all shorthanded situations after February 16, 2020 (minimum 20 minutes)
Devils on-ice rate stats in all shorthanded situations after February 16, 2020 (minimum 20 minutes)
Ice time from NHL.com, on-ice rate data from Natural Stat Trick

The Devils skaters were not nearly as exceptional in terms of on-ice rates in these 12 games. The decision to replace Greene with Mueller really did not go well. Zacha and Rooney were present for a lot more offense against them; they seemingly struggled. While Subban’s rates did not decline to the bottom third of the league, they also increased in a unfavorable way. The same happened to Damon Severson. And everyone saw a lot more high danger scoring chances against them. Which is odd since the Devils’ HDCA/60 was one of the few rates in 5-on-5 that was decent last season. There were some positives though. Zajac’s on-ice rates did not balloon badly. Joey Anderson and Dakota Mermis provided some solid rates. Enough to make you think they could be contributors to a penalty kill for the future.

However, that will not happen. Joey Anderson was dealt for Andreas Johnsson back in October. Dakota Mermis, Kevin Rooney, and Mirco Mueller were allowed to hit the free agent market and will not return. So these 12 games really did not provide a lot of help to guess who the Devils could use regularly in 2020-21. At the least, it confirmed that Zajac, Severson, Subban, and Zacha could be regulars. It is a start.

By the way, if the Devils’ skaters had worse on-ice rates after February 16 than they did before them, then did their penalty kill get lit up? No. That is because of the goaltenders. They were a source of pain before February 16. After February 16, they did the heavy lifting for the Devils’ penalty killing success until the season was cut short by the Coronavirus Pandemic. Blackwood was on fire at the time and out of 7 games, he allowed only one power play goal out of 38 shots on net. Anything above 87% on a penalty kill is generally a good save percentage and Blackwood was out of this world with a 97.4%. Domingue was perfect in his one appearance in these 12 games with 3 saves on 3 shots. Schneider was quite good with just two goals allowed on 18 shots over four games. The variation of save percentage on special teams is real. Fortunately, it worked in the PK’s favor after the Coleman and Greene trades.

Penalty Killing Stats of Incoming Devils for the 2021 Season

The Devils did acquire three skaters in this offseason that are new to the organization. Technically, they acquired four but Sami Vatanen, who was signed last week, was on the team and the penalty kill last season so I do not include him here. The three I do are forward Andreas Johnsson, defenseman Ryan Murray, and defenseman Dmitry Kulikov.

2019-20 penalty kill on-ice rate stats for incoming Devils
2019-20 penalty kill on-ice rate stats for incoming Devils
Ice time from NHL.com, data from Natural Stat Trick

Of these three, only Murray and Kulikov played at least a regular role on their team’s penalty kill. Johnsson’s time went quite well, but with fewer than 10 shorthanded minutes for Toronto, I have little confidence it means much.

Kulikov and Murray are both defensive-minded defensemen and so I am not surprised they were used more often on Winnipeg and Columbus, respectively. Winnipeg’s penalty kill was not that great and Kulikov did not witness or contribute to a lot of offensive prevention for the Jets penalty kill. Low SA/60 and HDCA/60 rates speak to that. His average ice time of 1:22 per game suggests Winnipeg used him on a secondary unit. It seems that would be the best, if he is used at all. Murray, on the other hand, was a stud. Columbus’ PK success rate was not as high as the Devils but they had some fantastic team on-ice rate stats. When he was healthy, he was frequently on Columbus’ top PK unit and they did quite well. His on-ice against rate stats were among the better penalty killers in the league. They would fit right in with the similarly great stats of the pre-February 16, 2020 Devils PK skaters. When healthy, he really should be a part of the Devils’ penalty kill. And it just so happens there is a spot available on the first penalty killing unit.

As for the other stats covered, they really do not warrant a chart. None of them contributed any shorthanded points last season. Kulikov just had one shorthanded shooting attempt. Murray only took four shorthanded shooting attempts, also all on net. Based on last season, I do not think they will be a major concern in terms of discipline based on the penalty counts at Natural Stat Trick. Kulikov might hurt the cause a little as he did take 16 penalties in all situations (and drew only five) last season. Murray was very safe on defense with just two penalties taken (and drew three) in 27 games and Johnsson took only seven calls (and drew 11) in 47 games with Toronto. The net gain of penalties taken between departing and incoming Devils should still be in the Devils’ favor unless one of the three (or a Binghamton player making the team) just attracts a lot of whistles.

A Guess at the Penalty Kill for the 2021 Devils

Like the power play, there is not a lot to really pull from training camp so far. They did not utilize penalties until their recent scrimmage on Friday and even then the players were split up such that I could not tell you who the Devils would keep together. Unlike the power play, I can be more confident in telling you what to expect since Alain Nasreddine is on the bench to run the penalty kill again. You will likely see a wedge plus one formation. You should expect to see Travis Zajac and Damon Severson play quite a bit, likely on the team’s first power play unit. You should also expect to see Pavel Zacha, P.K. Subban, and Sami Vatanen involved based on their usage last season.

Who fills in the rest of the gaps? Based on last season’s data, Murray should absolutely be involved on the penalty kill and I will be surprised if he does not. Since Severson and Subban are both right-sided defensemen and Nasreddine as an assistant and as an interim head coach used Severson more than Subban, I would expect Severson to be on the first shorthanded pairing. Murray would be a logical fit as his left-sided defenseman. Joining Subban could be Kulikov or even Vatanen playing on his off-hand. It may not be as ideal but it would be with more limited ice time.

My guesses for the defensive pairings are that Murray and Severson will be on the first unit and Kulikov and Subban will be on the second unit. Should one of the defensemen take a penalty - Severson and Subban are the most at risk based on 2019-20 and prior seasons - then Vatanen can slide in as needed.

The situation is more wide open at forward. I know Yegor Sharangovich and Nathan Bastian played on Binghamton’s PK last season. Should they make the New Jersey roster (and I think Sharangovich will), then I could see either (both?) get opportunities here and there to prove themselves. Based on how he plays in 5-on-5, I really think Nico Hischier should be given more of an opportunity to kill penalties. I think he could do well. Again, I would prefer him starting on a secondary unit if the coaching staff goes in that direction. I also would understand if that does not happen right away as he has been hurt through camp. Those are three names that come to my mind as PK options to join Zajac and Zacha as forwards. I could see someone who has not been a penalty killer last season being given a chance to just to see if they can do it. Jesper Bratt (who is still unsigned) and Kyle Palmieri have both had secondary roles a couple of seasons ago, so I would start there on the basis that they at least have experience with Nasreddine’s penalty kills.

My guess for the forward pairings is that, assuming Hischier is ready to go on January 14, the first unit will have Zajac and Zacha and the second unit will have Hischier and Sharangovich. Zacha has been a very, very good penalty killer and does deserve a chance on the top unit. Hischier and Sharangovich can be eased into regular penalty killing duty on a second unit. And if it does not work out, then let the experimentation continue. By the way, if there is a 3-on-5 to defense, then I would guess Zajac and Zacha would act as the lone forwards in those cases.

Ultimately, filling in the roles that Greene and Coleman played is a massive undertaking. They both were good to great on the penalty kill for the last few seasons and they played a lot of minutes. The odd thing is that the Devils did account for their departure in 2020 by giving others more opportunities. For example, Joey Anderson would have been a shoo-in to be on one of these units assuming he made the NHL team. Ditto Kevin Rooney if he was retained. But as most of those players who received more shorthanded ice time moved on for one reason or another, the Devils still have to do some trial-and-error work - especially for penalty killing forwards. The good news is that with Nasreddine back behind the bench for penalty kills, it will likely take the same approach as in past seasons given its past success and the continuity in coaching. There will likely not be a new system for returning Devils to learn. The challenge is with personnel and not the system.

Will the Devils penalty kill be better in 2021? I actually doubt it just because the unit was so superb last season. It is hard to maintain, especially with the team’s most utilized PK defenseman and one of their most utilized PK forwards on other teams now. I do think the Devils’ penalty kill can still be one of the more successful ones in the league. I do not think the Devils’ PK will get blown up. I think they can beat the league median in most categories provided the goaltending holds up. Alex wrote about the goalies on Saturday and Crawford’s retirement makes it more of a contentious issue. And we should see some improvement in terms of the number of times the Devils have to a kill a penalty as some of the most frequent penalty takers in 2019-20 are not Devils in 2020-21. That is an improvement I expect to see.

I called the power play to be a work-in-progress aspect of a work-in-progress team. Despite the holes that need to be filled in, I am more confident in the Devils’ penalty kill being generally successful in 2021 than I am in the other special team. A good or even great PK may not be as likely and it definitely will not turn the Devils into a playoff contender alone. But I do not think it will become a weakness in this coming season.

Your Take

Now that you know what the Devils’ PK did last season, the PK performances of the players coming into the team, and my guesses at what the PK could look like this season, I want to know what you think. Who do you want to see on the penalty killing units for this coming season? Who do you think will be given a shot to fill in the roles previously held by Greene and Coleman? Do you think the penalty kill will be worse, about the same, or (somehow) better than they were last season? Please leave your answers and other thoughts in the comments. Thank you for reading.

Tomorrow: The season preview series continues with CJ taking a closer look at the team’s coaching and management ahead of this season.