Special Teams Evaluations & Trends, Part Two: Penalty Kill
The second part of our two-part series examining the historical context of the epic collapse of the Predators' special teams units this past playoff run (with some suggestions for improvement).
In part one of this series, we examined the Predators' power play performance in the playoffs in all of its putrescence. If you haven't read part one of this series, you might want to do that first.
Today we will take a look at the other half of the Preds' special teams: the penalty kill. While the Preds power play was busy wasting opportunities, scoring only four goals in 46 opportunities, the penalty kill did a terrible job at preventing opportunities for opposing power plays. The Preds allowed 12 goals during the 46 times they were shorthanded (73.9 percent) in the playoffs. This ranks second-to-last among teams that made it past the first round (Dallas, 73.7 percent).
Even though special teams only account for around 20 percent of a hockey game, those numbers are staggering. It's not unreasonable to assume that the lack of production on the power play and the inability to kill off penalties during the Sharks series was a major contributing factor to the Predators' early exit.
But let's return to the questions at the heart of this analysis: Do the Predators have a special teams problem? Do changes need to be made?
Again: Some Historical Perspective
In part one, we mentioned some interesting analysis by other hockey folks on the value of special teams in the playoffs. I strongly recommend checking these out as they provide reasonable precedent for what we are trying to examine with the Preds special teams. To recap:
- The power play can be essential to winning in the postseason because power play goals are rare. Scoring them gives an exponential increase to your teams' goals/game in the playoffs.
- Some data shows a possible connection between PK% and success in the playoffs./
There are plenty of anecdotal examples of Cup winning teams doing so with leaky penalty kills. The most notorious was the 2014-15 Blackhawks, who allowed 13 goals in 62 times shorthanded (79.0 percent). In fact, the Blackhawks have won two of their recent three Stanley Cups (2010 and 2015) with substandard penalty kills. If not for their ref-friendly style of play (HAHAHAHAHA), they might not have even made the Cup Finals those years. Here are some other notably messy penalty-kill units that somehow won a Cup:
Stanley Cup Champions since 1990, Ranked by Worst PK%
|2013-14||Los Angeles Kings||17||102||83.33%|
Improvement vs. Efficiency
Much like we suggested in part one, perhaps a team's penalty kill efficiency isn't as important as how much that efficiency improves going into the playoffs. A number of teams have found their way to a Cup, even though their regular season penalty kill unit was fairly weak.
Stanley Cup Champions since 1990, Ranked by PK% Improvement (Regular Season vs. Playoffs)
|1993-94||New York Rangers||84.60%||91.26%||6.66%|
|1994-95||New Jersey Devils||81.21%||86.49%||5.28%|
|2011-12||Los Angeles Kings||87.03%||92.11%||5.07%|
(rPK% = regular season; xPK% = playoffs)
The far right column shows the percent improvement in efficiency from the regular season to the post season. You'll notice that a number of these teams had red-hot goaltenders, including the likes of Mike Richter, Martin Brodeur and Jonathan Quick. But it takes more than just a hot goaltender. It takes a major increase in intensity on the penalty kill. The team must be willing to work harder than they have all year just to get the puck out of the zone.
Think about the penalty kill for a second. Just think about it. Picture it in your mind. What do you picture?
You probably picture a tight square of forwards and defensemen, swinging their sticks around on the ice, always moving their feet, always anticipating the next pass, and always, always pressuring the puck.
But when the playoffs roll around, this scene changes. The penalty killers play as if they have recently received a meth-infused habanero-flavored enema diluted with Surge™. Penalty killers go absolutely berserk in the playoffs. They are as desperate to get the puck out of the zone as they are to save their own children, it seems.
I mean, how else do you explain this:
Penalty Kill Improvement Among Successful Playoff Teams
Most successful teams experience a significant improvement in penalty killing success from the regular season to the playoffs, with Stanley Cup winners seeing the most significant improvement. This is an interesting contrast with the power play efficiency comparison we saw in part one, where we saw that most successful teams don't improve their power play much in the playoffs. Now we see why.
Almost every Cup winner since 1990 didn't just have an above-average penalty kill going into the playoffs, it was progressively better in April, May and June. And while a mere 2.14 percent difference may not seem like a lot, that means letting in two fewer goals for every 100 times shorthanded (teams that reach the Cup Finals are usually shorthanded around 100 times by that point in the playoffs).
So what you are seeing on the ice more or less translates in the numbers. Teams are killing penalties within the exact same amount of space on the ice, but with more frenzied desperation, resulting in an improved efficiency. This basically stays true among all of the final four teams. Meth-habanero enemas, man.
Conclusion: Do the Predators need to fix their penalty kill?
Nashville finished with an 81.2 penalty kill percentage in the regular season, good for 16th in the league. This is, obviously, below average. While a lot of that was because a certain Finnish goaltender was having a not-so-great season, it was also because the penalty-killers were a hot mess in their own end -- leaving guys wide open for multiple seconds, losing sight of the puck for absurd amounts of time, not clearing the puck when given the opportunity (this seemed to happen a lot in the playoffs as well) and a lot of other badness.
The problem compounded in the playoffs. Allowing 12 power-play goals in 14 games is just not good, especially in the playoffs when the refs aren't calling as many penalties.
So the Predators could use a revamping of the penalty-kill system. Maybe even a complete overhaul, from top to bottom.
As far as what changes should occur, I'd start by really considering removing Filip Forsberg from that unit. Do you really want your budding star and future face of the franchise putting in 150 minutes of penalty-kill time every year?
While you're at it, why not remove Shea Weber? He is most effective on the blue line and yet he is continually on the penalty kill losing guys in front of the net. The only two players I see as penalty kill mainstays are Calle Jarnkrok and Roman Josi.
While the power play was on everyone's mind as being a major problem in the playoffs, it's actually the penalty kill that needs the most work. As it turns out, the penalty kill is also probably the key to unlocking that elusive next level the Predators have been trying to reach for the last 17 seasons.
(Notes on data: All stats are from 1989-90 to 2014-15 and were obtained from NHL.com. In the interest of having enough data to pull from, I included all Stanley Cup winners & losers, plus the Western Conference and Eastern Conference losers since 1990. Not only did this give a lot more data to work with, but it seemed fitting to include teams that had reached a playoff event that the Predators have not yet reached. It may seem odd to call teams that lost in the Conference Finals "successful" but, hey... you gotta start somewhere.)