I have always had a theory about middling 5-on-5 hockey teams, and how the teams in that tier tend to separate from one another. Since they’re all virtually interchangeable at controlling play at 5-on-5, they generally need something separate from even-strength puck possession to move north in the standings.
Ideally, if you’re a team in this position with playoff aspirations, you’re hoping for the big X-Factor: great goaltending. A team like Montreal, who is as ordinary as any at controlling play territorially, has one of the best netminders in the world. Carey Price’s ability to stop pucks above the league average rate is, of course, worth a bunch of points in the standings.
If you don’t have the great goaltending (and remember, we are looking for repeatable skill – not variance fueled runs), there’s always the chance you can turn to special teams for a slight advantage. In 2012-2013, the Washington Capitals parlayed the league’s deadliest power-play into a playoff berth. Last season, they fell just three points short of a spot, again riding the wave of a vaunted 5-on-4 attack.
There’s one other area where a team can quietly pick up a few points in the standings, and that’s on the penalty kill. Here, it’s unexpectedly the Winnipeg Jets who have developed one of the league’s most impenetrable units.
Hold the thought on the Winnipeg kill for just a moment. Away from it, we know what Winnipeg’s good for – mediocre 5-on-5 play, and substandard goaltending. Despite Winnipeg’s gigantic even-strength save percentage bounce this year, there’s simply too much data on starting netminder Ondrej Pavelec to bet on it continuing. And as such, if one’s trying to forecast what happens with this team over the rest of the season, the reasonable bet is on regression – not sustainment. This table, I think, speaks plenty about what we do know:
Winnipeg Even Strength
|YEAR||SCORE-ADJUSTED FENWICK%||RANK||EV SV%||RANK|
If Pavelec and backup Michael Hutchinson post league-average save percentages the rest of the way, we’re likely already talking about some level of goal differential improvement (and, consequently, wins) in the standings. The only problem is, that’s a big if.
That’s where the penalty kill comes in. Winnipeg’s new group has been stellar. They’ve killed off 86.7% of penalties this season. The good news is that kill rate seems sustainable.
There’s truth that the goaltender is the most important piece of a team’s penalty kill, but I’ve always thought that quip undermined the importance of the four-man units in creating favorable situations for the goaltenders to stop pucks. One of the best ways to help out the goaltender, of course, is to not allow a ton of shots. Here’s where Winnipeg’s group shines:
Declining Shot Attempts
|YEAR||Shot Attempts Against/60||Rank||Corsi%||Rank|
Whereas Winnipeg’s even-strength save percentage seemed very much like noise based on prior performance of the same players, their penalty kill has exhibited consistent improvement over the years.
The table lends credence to Winnipeg’s ability to kill penalties at an above-average rate. They are simply stifling the opposition – no team allows fewer shots against on the penalty kill, and only two teams have a better shot-attempt differential (Anaheim and San Jose). It’s simply difficult to score goals against a penalty kill when (a) they’re not yielding relatively anything; and (b) there are portions of the power-play when you’re forced to defend.
How, exactly, is Winnipeg going about this? Let’s pull out the individual player data for the regular skaters, which should provide some descriptive value in how the Jets have fared down a man. I’ve also included the league averages by position for a quick benchmark.
Winnipeg Jets PK Breakdown
|FORWARDS||Shot Attempts Against/60||Corsi%|
Even if you hadn’t watched a single Winnipeg game this season, you can pretty quickly pick up which four-man group is crushing things. It’s Andrew Ladd and Bryan Little up top, with Zach Bogosian and Tobias Enstrom on the back.
But, maybe the most notable development here is that of Jacob Trouba, who also has sterling penalty kill numbers. He’s the most frequently used penalty killer on the team at 3:27 minutes per night, and assuming this trend continues, it gives Paul Maurice the requisite flexibility to use guys like the aforementioned Bogosian/Enstrom at 5-on-5 and on the power-play.
At forward, it’s a bit more by committee – seven skaters are getting at least a minute a night down a man. Maurice has decided to burden some of his better forwards with penalty kill time, and inserting specialists like TJ Galiardi and Jim Slater as necessary. Interestingly, Michael Frolik hasn’t been used much (0:41/GP).
The big question, ultimately, will be if Winnipeg can uphold its newfound reputation as one of the league’s premier penalty kills. The quick math, based on last year’s data, has a power-play conversion rate around 18%, with total penalty kills around 268. If Winnipeg can keep conversion rates to about 13% against on the same number of kills, that’s worth 13 or 14 goals over a full season.
Or, another way to look at it: a couple of extra wins in the pocket.