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The Devils Penalty Kill has Improved Dramatically

The Devils PK in the first 15 games was historically inept. It’s been among the best in the NHL. What changed and will it continue?

NHL: JAN 10 Devils Training Camp Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In February 25th, the Devils beat the Sabres, but their penalty kill gave up two PPGs. These were the 9th and 10th such goals in a 5-game span and it made the Devils not just the worst penalty killing team in the league, but, at the time, the worst in the analytics era (post-2007). The calls for Nasreddine’s head had reached fever pitch two games prior when the Devils lost 3-4 to Washington on the backs of THREE failed kills, so after the Buffalo game, folks were in “okay I guess we just don’t care if we’re ever good again” mode.

In the 10 games since then, the Devils have given up just 3 PPGs. As of this writing, the most recent games were 3 contests with the Islanders in which the Devils had to kill 25 minutes worth of penalties, and were 100% in doing so (I’m living dangerously by writing this before we play a Buffalo team who has a PPG in every game they’ve played against us).

It’s difficult to describe just how night-and-day the Devils PK has been in this recent stretch of games vs the start of the season. The chart below shows the Devils performances across several metrics in the first 15 games of the season as opposed to the last 10.

In terms of actual goal rates, the Devils have gone from allowing 16.52 goals per 60 to 3.07 goals per 60. For some context, the worst full-season GA/60 in analytics era is the 2018-19 Blackhawks who allowed 10.2 goals per hour and the best was the 2011-12 Devils at 3.82. So the Devils have not only gone from worst to first in the NHL, they have gone from the worst team on record by 6 goals per hour, to the best team by 34 of a goal per hour. That is sheer madness.

And, while some of that is, no doubt, goalie-driven — Wedgewood has saved 1.74 goals above expected, Blackwood has stopped 1.35, both of which are top-10 in the NHL — a lot of it boils down to genuine improved play. In particular, the shot numbers indicate that the Devils are making it difficult for opponents to get set up at all (though it seems they do still struggle in limiting chances once in the zone).

So what has changed? In my opinion, it boils down to three things 1) personnel, 2) time, and 3) luck/goaltending.

Let’s talk about personnel first. The Devils made a major correction on the blueline and a tweak to the forwards. The graph below is from Hockeyviz and shows the Devils PK usage over time.

The presence of Sami Vatanen (of all people) has actually been a major boon to the PK. This might be surprising to people who know Sami Vatanen as the guys that always seems out of position on DZFOs and is pretty poor overall defensively at 5v5. But if you know Sami the Devils PKer it’s not actually that surprising. According to both xGAR and GAR (via Evolving-Hockey) Sami Vatanen has been an above-average PKer with the Devils in 2019, 2020, and 2021. He has replaced Severson as the PK1 RD. In addition, Murray (who had some high-profile miscues that Bryce Salvador actually highlighted on MSG during the aforementioned 10-goals in 5-games stretch) was demoted in favor of Kulikov as the PK1 LD. So, the entire PK1 defense was replaced. Sal also talked about how pairings need to have great chemistry (like he and Volchenkov had) in order to operated in a PK system and — between the new faces and the condensed COVID schedule — that chemistry has not been able to develop. But, after experimenting enough, it seems Alain Nasreddine has finally found his anchors in Vatanen and Kulikov.

Among the forwards, we started the year out with Zajac-Zacha and Palmieri-Sharangovich. There was no reason, historically, to think that top pairing wouldn’t work, but it didn’t (shrug emoji). And Palmieri had put up strong even-strength defensive numbers a couple years in a row so, as a veteran, was a reasonable shot to take on the 2nd unit alongside Yegor who had been a top PKer in both Binghamton and Russia. That bottom pairing VERY didn’t work lol. Like “worst in the NHL” didn’t work.

Among the adjustments Nas made, the biggest was to remove Palmieri who now only shows up on PK2 if one of the top 4 was penalized and. Zajac anchors the PK1 with either Zacha or Sharangovich. I think playing Yegor with Zajac at 5v5 has also allowed them to develop chemistry at a quicker rate than they may otherwise have. The other forward will likely join Bastian on PK2, but if McLeod is playing, he and Bastian will often pair up there and, despite it’s depth chart position, that is my favorite pairing.

When McBastian is off the ice, the Devils PK is allowing 8.66 expected goals per hour and with them on, it goes down to 4.93. High-Danger Chances go from 26.33 to 13.97. They are allowing chances at HALF the rate of all other Devils. Their numbers are even more impressive than Kulikov and Vatanen’s in this respect. And if you watch them play, it’s IMMEDIATELY clear how that is happening — they are relentless. Here’s a clip of them tormenting the Capitals to get a taste.

Kulikov gets the puck with some physical play which allows a tired Zajac and Sharangovich (who were hemmed in the first 1:20) to get off and McLeod and Bastian to come on. After that, it’s just beautiful...

Kulikov throws it around the boards to Bastian who was immediately gunning down the side for that play as soon as he came off the bench. McLeod then supports, allowing Bastian to get a head start on the ensuing wrap to empty ice from Washington. Bastian gets to the boards and wins the puck battle over to McLeod and then immediately skates to a position that gives McLeod an area of the ice to put the puck to which Bastian has the quickest route. McLeod sees it, dumps it, and Bastian fights off 4 Capitals for another 10 seconds. Washington tries to break out, and one final stick check from Severson allows the Devils to get 3 of the 4 PKers back in the DZ with only 5 seconds left on the penalty. That was 30 seconds of penalty kill spent ENTIRELY in Washington’s end of the ice.

McBastian just feels most like the Devils kills of the last decade or so. So, as long as Zajac+X can prevent the other team’s PP1 from scoring the first minute, I think our PK2 unit whether it’s Bastian, McLeod, Yegor, or Pavel; could be fun to watch.

I mentioned that there were three things that helped the Devils turn their PK around. Nas (or Ruff) made some key changes to the personnel, specifically promoting Kulikov over Murray, getting Vatanen back, and McLeod and Bastian in over Palmieri. Over time, keeping many of the same guys on the PK despite early struggles has allowed them to develop chemistry. And, lastly, Wedgewood and Blackwood have been either significantly better or significantly luckier because they’ve stopped far more pucks during the last 10 games as well.

Is the PK fixed? Who knows. But we certainly have a glimmer of hope that it will not be the nuclear waste dump that it was to start the season. Now, the powerplay? Well, let’s hope that my article next week will talk about how that finally got turned around too. I’m not optimistic...