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The Penalty Kill is Killing the Devils Right Now

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The Devils have been disastrous on the penalty kill this season. What is causing these struggles and how can they fix it?

New Jersey Devils v New York Islanders Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Through four games, the Devils have surprised people by looking relatively competent and competitive on their way to a 2-1-1 record to open the season. They took three of four points from last year’s President’s-Trophy-winning Bruins before splitting a pair of games between the Rangers and Islanders this week. At even strength in particular, the Devils have been holding their own, only allowing one 5v5 goal against in three games before last night’s rough showing against the Isles. Overall, they’ve still only allowed three goals at even-strength in four games (while scoring eight of their own). Yet, they have given up 10 goals total anyway because, on special teams, they have allowed an additional seven goals (1 SHGA, 6 PPGA).

So, through four games, over half of the total goals scored against the Devils have come while killing a penalty. Through a lack of discipline, the team has been providing teams with ample opportunity to do so, but they are allowing opponents to convert at a truly unfortunate 37.5% rate on top of it. For a team that has traditionally been — even in their recent down times — a top penalty killing unit across the league, it is jarring to see them so off the rails while killing off penalties. The team is not letting in a lot of goals just due to a few really good shots or failures by the goalie, they are being hemmed in and obliterated by opposing power play units. To wit:

2021 Penalty Kill: Bad! (xG +43%)
Probably not ideal.
from HockeyViz.com

We’re not talking about an enormous sample here, but it’s still pretty staggering to see a Devils team this inept a killing off penalties. A few strong games could easily bring this back to Earth but, for now, they are yielding 43% more expected goals shorthanded than the average NHL team. They have simultaneously been poor at pressuring teams into turnovers at or near the blue line and poor at coverage around their own net. They’re getting the worst of both worlds on the penalty kill right now and teams are basically just lining up and blasting away on their goalies. Compare this to last year, when the Devils were one of the better units in the league:

2019-20 Penalty Kill: Good! (xG -13%)
NJ penalty kill xG heat map 2019-20
from HockeyViz.com

Now, one might be inclined to blame the personnel shakeups for the penalty kill dissolving into what we’ve seen thus far in 2021. After all, arguably the Devils best penalty killing forward and best penalty killing defenseman went out the door at last season’s trade deadline. The Devils, now without stalwart blueliner Andy Greene and general menace-to everyone-else-on-the-ice Blake Coleman, could reasonably be expected to take a step back on the penalty kill this season, even with much of the other personnel (and the coach running the unit) remaining the same. But it’s not like the Devils were an immediate penalty killing disaster when those two left the ice last season. Check out the xG threat levels without each in 2019-20:

2019-20 PK xGA without Greene
from HockeyViz.com
2019-20 PK xGA without Coleman
from HockeyViz.com

So the Devils didn’t collapse into a helpless mass of incompetence on the penalty kill when those two guys left the ice. And it’s not even a one-covering-for-the-other situation; according to the Natural Stat Trick line tool, the team had a lower 4v5 xGA rate with neither of them on the ice than with either one individually or even both. Part of that may be due to other teams’ second units being more likely to face other Devils, but even if that has some impact, the data shows out that the Devils were far from helpless when those two left the ice. Certainly not to the point that we should be experiencing the current disastrous run for the team’s penalty killing unit.

So what can the Devils do to fix this issue (other than just play better)? For now, with such small samples for all players individually, it’s hard to isolate an issue, though I do think the team should consider dissolving the Palmieri-Sharangovich pairing for the time being. Among the four main penalty killing forwards (Kyle Palmieri, Yegor Sharangovich, Travis Zajac, and Pavel Zacha), those two are markedly worse than their counterparts in both xGA and GA rates so far in this young season. Whether it’s just shaking up the pairings or swapping one or both out for other players, I’m not sure, but those two together have not worked out to this point.

On defense, it’s a bit harder to isolate an issue. Dimitry Kulikov has had the worst xGA and GA rate thus far, but he has also only been the fourth most used defenseman. Severson and Murray have been the big minutes-eaters so far and while their goals against rates haven’t been good, they’ve also been better to this point than the other two players getting minutes (Kulikov and PK Subban). With limited other options the Devils are likely to have to stick to some version of the current rotation on the back end.

Hopefully, Alain Nasreddine and Lindy Ruff are starting to look at shaking up this unit to get it operating at a respectable level. It seemed like they started to do that last night with Nathan Bastian, Mike McLeod, and Janne Kuokkanen seeing some time. It didn’t work out great for Bastian, who was on for two goals against in his 1:42 of 4v5 time, but the team is at least trying out some new combos. The Devils might want to consider splitting up their two best penalty killing forwards, Zacha and Zajac, to see if they can stabilize a second forward pairing and start to see a bit more success as a group. No matter what they choose to do, though, the Devils need to fix their penalty kill fast.