a·cu·men [ak-yuh-muhn] noun: keen insight; shrewdness

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Sunday, 11 September 2011

09/11/11 61.0 Penalty Killing Essentials

Last time we looked at some of the key characteristics of the best and worst powerplay teams of the 2010-11 NHL season. Today we'll delve into some of the attributes that make up an effective penalty killing unit. The Oilers were 29th on the PK last year, so what made them so bad?

First, here are the numbers for the best penalty killing teams in the league last season:

TeamFO% RankSA/GTotal PK TimeBlocked ShotsGoalie 1 SV%Goalie 2 SV%
Pittsburgh (1st)21st in NHL5th in NHL29th (2nd most in NHL)24th in NHL0.9180.922
Los Angeles10th3rd10th27th0.9180.913
Nashville (5th)18th15th11th28th0.9300.915

It seems logical to assume that the best penalty killing teams should be good in faceoffs, not allow a lot of shots (shorthanded or otherwise), block a lot of shots and have good goaltending. It would also make sense that the less time a team spends on the PK, the better off they will be. Some of these numbers support those assertions, and some do not.

Pittsburgh was in the bottom third of faceoff winning percentage as a team, but had the best penalty kill in the league last year. Three of the top five PK teams were good on draws, and two were below average. The top three penalty killing teams were shorthanded a ton last year, and none of these teams were especially adept at shotblocking except for Washington.

The key stats here are the total shots each team allowed per game, and the save percentages of their goaltenders. All of these teams were good at limiting their opponents' shots on goal each game, despite the fact that most of them weren't great shotblockers. Also, none of these teams had a goaltender who played more than 20 games with a save percentage worse than 0.913. The old saying that your goaltender has to be your best penalty killer really is true. The fact is illustrated by the numbers of the bottom PK teams last year:

TeamFO% RankSA/GTotal PK TimeBlocked ShotsGoalie 1 SV%Goalie 2 SV%
Phoenix (26th)7th in NHL28th in NHL15th26th in NHL0.9210.909
Colorado (30th14th23rd20th14th0.897**0.895

* Toronto had Reimer (Goalie 1), Giguere (Goalie 2) and Gustavsson who played 23 games and had a 0.890 SV%

** Craig Anderson's SV% before being traded to Ottawa

Only two of these teams - Atlanta and our Oilers - were horrible on draws, but they all allowed a lot of shots per game. Atlanta in particular sticks out because they were shorthanded the 5th fewest times in the league last year and yet they were 23rd on the PK. This despite the fact that they were also very good at shotblocking.

Again the key lies in the number of shots these teams allowed and the way their goaltenders handled them. The ranking of the penalty kills of each team corresponds directly to the save percentage of their goaltenders. The one exception is Toronto, which got good goaltending from Reimer toward the end of the year, but started with Giguere and Gustavsson, whose numbers (0.900 and 0.890) correspond to the team's PK ranking.

What the Oilers need in order to improve is some veteran experience on their penalty killing units. The fact that the top teams limited their opponents' shots without having to block them suggests that they were simply smart hockey players who bought into solid systems. Most of these bottom penalty killing teams - the Oilers included - were some of the youngest teams in the league last year, which means that their experience killing penalties was as limited as their effectiveness. Eric Belanger alone should help greatly in giving the Oilers some PK experience, and so will Andy Sutton.

But the team will also need a bounce-back year from Nikolai Khabibulin if they are to have any hope of competing on the PK. None of the top teams had a below-average goaltender. Edmonton's best option in Devan Dubnyk had a good enough save percentage to match 3 of the starters on the top five PK teams, but Khabibulin will have to be north of .900 for the Oilers to improve. If he doesn't give the Oilers some consistently stout performances, it will be absolutely necessary for the coaching staff to ride Dubnyk throughout the year and hope for the best.

It remains to be seen how much the new skaters will help the Oilers' PK, but the most important factor in penalty killing, goaltending, remained untouched in the off season. It may be asking for a lot to simply hope that the goaltending will be good enough, and if it isn't the PK will continue to struggle.

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