Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Benchmarks, Part VIII -- Penalty Killing

We’re getting close to the end of this look at benchmarks, and the next specialty is penalty killing.

BENCHMARK: Ottawa Senators

Bet you weren’t expecting that as a benchmark. Ottawa finished 10th in penalty killing (84.5 percent) in the regular season. But we threw a couple of twists into this. First, we included shorthanded goals scored in the mix. The Senators finished tied for first in that statistic (17, with Montreal). Then, the total number of shorthanded situations was factored into the equation to determine which club was most efficient in penalty killing. You’re welcome to arrive at your own conclusions with your own methods, but using this one, the Senators were spit out, just ahead of Minnesota.*

What puts Ottawa at the top of the heap? Well, subjectively part of it is probably a function of their having what (at least in The Peerless’ addled mind) is the top defensive pair in the league in Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov. These guys played together consistently and were not cobbled together for purposes of special teams. Second, Ottawa employed top line players in the penalty kill, at least in a supporting capacity. Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley teamed for five of the Senators’ 17 total shorthanded goals. Having that kind of a threat on the ice might make opponents’ power plays play a bit more honestly, especially at the top of the offensive zone – fewer instances of point-players jumping down into the play. But that requires the players involved be defensively responsible players in their own right, and Alfredsson and Heatley adequately fit that mold.

On the matter of shorthanded goals, the Senators had nine different players score them. 17 teams scored fewer total shorthanded goals than the Senators had players who scored them. It was a dangerous unit.

It was a rocky road Ottawa traveled to get to this top spot. In their first 35 games they gave up two or more power play goals ten times, culminating with three in a five game stretch in December (which included giving up five goals in 11 opportunities to Columbus). But starting on December 21st, with a 7-for-7 penalty killing effort against Tampa Bay, Ottawa played their last 47 games giving up two or more power play goals only four times. They were 31-8-8 in those games.

The balance between consistent performance, depth, and a team dangerous in shorthanded situations made Ottawa the benchmark for penalty killing performance.

Capitals (projected): uhhhh…..

I have no idea who will man the top penalty killing group. The Peerless is tempted to pencil in the Pettinger-Gordon-Clark trio in the forward slots, but the defensemen are a head-scratcher. Morrisonn-Juricna? Maybe. Pothier-Eminger? Perhaps. Mike Green saw next to no time on the penalty kill last year; if he makes the squad, does he get some time there? A player to be named (that is, acquired) later?

There is a lot of work to be done here. Based on The Peerless’ rating tool, the Caps finished 24th in penalty killing effectiveness last year. Only one team ranked lower (Atlanta, and we saw how long they lasted) made the playoffs. And keep in mind, the Caps finished tied for seventh in shorthanded goals scored.

Part of the problem is getting into those shorthanded situations in the first place. The Caps were tied for 13th in the league in total shorthanded situations faced. Only three of the 12 teams higher on the list (Vancouver, NY Islanders, Pittsburgh) made the playoffs. Ottawa, by way of comparison, was 20th.

The Caps also had trouble with multiple power play goal games. 18 times opponents scored at least two power play goals. And it was a consistent kind of difficulty. In their first 32 games, after which they were 15-10-7, the Caps had seven games in which they gave up at least two power play goals. After that, in the last 50 games, they did so 11 times.

There is another element to this as well, although it can be overstated, that being that a club’s best penalty killer is its goalie. The whole issue for penalty killing is that the opponent has an extra man, and much of the effort for the opponent is to free that extra attacker for a clear shot. If a skater is left unaccounted for, or if a rebound finds itself on the stick of an unmarked attacker in scoring territory, the goaltender is at his mercy. But if the penalty killers attend to business – sound positioning, determined clearing of the crease, blocking shots without sacrificing position, efficient clearing of the puck when they gain possession – the goaltender ends up being less of a penalty killer of necessity.

Ottawa fixed a problem in midstream and the result went a long way to catapult them to the upper reaches of the Eastern Conference standings by year end. The Caps problem was more fundamental; they simply were not a very good penalty killing group last year, and they compounded it by getting themselves into too many of such situations. If they have aspirations to climbing into the playoff mix, this is one area that has to be improved.

* By the way, for the attentive reader, San Jose comes out on top of the power play ratings using this method, too.

1 comment:

Bradley said...

Nice post, a clear illustration of how much work the Caps have left to do developing this facet of their game.

Myself, I see the top PK unit as Petty-Gordo and Jurcina-Mo. Our most solid defensive pair, [probably] our most solid defensive center, and a responsible winger in Petty who can get a few shorties on the breakaway.

Who knows, maybe Backstrom will surprise us all and earn a spot there. Maybe Poti will prove a bigger asset than expected and get on the top unit.

While I don't forsee us ever matching the offensive output of the Sens on the PK, I am optimistic about our abilities to shut down our opponents. Plus, the team is a year older, hopefully a year smarter, and maybe we'll be able to cut down the penalties as well.