In a recent ‘random notes’ post for my Daily Cup of Joe, I wrote about the fourth line, the possibility that the positive eye test did not necessarily line up with results and also touched on the fact that Marcus Kruger and Joakim Nordstrom were surprisingly not faring that well on the penalty kill.

Today’s Daily Cup of Joe takes a deeper dive into the Carolina Hurricanes penalty kill with what I think are some surprising results.


Recent history of the Carolina Hurricanes’ penalty kill under Steve Smith

In recent years, the Carolina Hurricanes penalty kill has been a strength even during a couple down seasons. The Hurricanes have finished fourth, sixth and sixth in the entire NHL in penalty kill proficiency for both 2014-15, 2015-16 and 2016-17 respectively since Steve Smith joined the coaching staff (along with Bill Peters of course) and took the lead on the penalty kill. The rankings are even more impressive when you consider that the down days for the team have forced significant changeover in personnel both to start the season and also at the trade deadline.

Basically, Steve Smith was able to build a top six penalty kill for three consecutive years despite having to change out personnel regularly. That is impressive.

The 2017-18 Carolina Hurricanes’ penalty kill nearing the halfway point

In familiar fashion, Coach Steve Smith entered the 2017-18 season needing to reconstruct the penalty kill. Lost at the trade deadline were key players Viktor Stalberg, Jay McClement and Ron Hainsey. Hainsey and McClement in particular had been regulars over the entire three-year run with Smith at the helm.

Stalberg and McClement were replaced by Marcus Kruger and Josh Jooris who are both NHL veterans with significant penalty kill experience. On defense, the hole left by Hainsey’s departure would need to be filled by some shifting of responsibilities within the existing group. While Smith did have a decent set of players to work with, he also had significant turnover and new players who would need to get up to speed with his system and strategies.

The Hurricanes started slow with a modest 80 percent success rate for October and landed in the bottom third of the league. The penalty kill was actually worse before it was better. Into late November and early December, the penalty had fallen into unfamiliar territory as one of the bottom teams in the league.

But starting with the December 9 games against the Los Angeles Kings, the Carolina Hurricanes penalty kill has been perfect in 11 of 12 games with the lone exception being a 0 for 3 effort in the matinee debacle in Toronto in a game that saw absolutely nothing go right. Even counting the Toronto game, the penalty kill has killed 25 of 28 in those 12 games for an improved and impressive 89.3 percent.

With the recent success, there is reason to believe that though it took awhile for new players to settle in the penalty kill is rounding into form for the second half of the 2017-18 season.


Interesting player-level statistics

In doing some research awhile back, the statistics were actually a bit surprising and counter-intuitive to what one might expect. The players who one might have expected to be the stronger players were actually the weaker links, and a couple of the part-timers fared better.

Important to note is that the sample size for penalty kill play is somewhat limited since only a small portion of each game is played shorthanded. In an ideal world, I would spend more time reviewing video of all of the penalty kill ice time to consider along with the basic statistical information.

Disclaimer considered, I still think it is interesting to look at the basic success rates with different players on the ice shorthanded.

The numbers suggest that the Hurricanes fare best on the penalty kill with ice time leader Jordan Staal on the ice, but behind him three part-timers in Josh Jooris, Brock McGinn and Derek Ryan fare better than mainstays Marcus Kruger and Joakim Nordstrom. On the surface, Kruger’s goal allowed per each 4:01 of penalty kill ice time. That would suggest that on average opponents are scoring a goal for every two full penalty kills that Kruger plays.

The numbers for the defensemen are similarly surprising. Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce who are the blue line ice time leaders by a wide margin are also the two worst in terms of goals allowed by ice time, and it is by a significant margin. Consider that Jaccob Slavin has been on the ice for 18 of the 20 power play goals that the Carolina Hurricanes have allowed in 2017-18 and also that Brett Pesce (not surprisingly since they usually play together) has been on the ice for 14 power play goals against. Their sample sizes are much smaller as part-timers but all of Trevor van Riemsdyk, Haydn Fleury and Justin Faulk have fared better in their penalty kill ice time.


Context to consider

Worth noting is that the players whose statistics are lower are also regularly the first players on the ice which means that they are more often than not playing against the other team’s best power play unit. In addition, by taking the first shift they very often start their shift in the defensive zone versus coming over the boards with the puck dumped into the offensive zone.


Considering the possibility that the results are not driven by other context

The snapshot provided by the statistics is definitely not the complete picture, but that does not mean it should not be considered.

Is it possible that the players thought to be the team’s best penalty killers simply are not? I think that is a possibility that should at least be considered.

And is it possible that Steve Smith should consider at least trying some of the part-timers on a more regular basis to see if they can hold their numbers playing a bigger role and more shifts against other teams’ top penalty kill units? I would at least pick spots to do so and gauge results.

Interestingly, during the team’s recent run of 11 perfect games for the penalty kill out of 12 games, there does appear to be some adjustments partly due to Marcus Kruger missing a few games due to injury. Whereas early in the season, Marcus Kruger primarily played with Joakim Nordstrom, Smith has recently shifted to playing Nordstrom with Staal and Kruger primarily with Lindholm. Granted all three power play goals against during the 12-game stretch occurred in a single game (the Maple Leafs loss), but Kruger was on the ice for all three of them, and his primary partner, Lindholm, was on the ice for two of those as well. The other noticeable differences during the upswing was that Staal has been receiving an even bigger helping on penalty kill ice time and that McGinn has again been receiving a regular helping of penalty kill ice time. Neither Staal nor McGinn have been on the ice for a power play goal against during the 12-game stretch.

The statistics from the 12-game stretch are similar for the blue line. Jaccob Slavin was on the ice for all three of the power play goals against in the Maple Leafs game, and regular partner Brett Pesce was on the ice for two of those.


As the penalty seems to be rounding into form, it will be interesting to see if the gains are a matter of Smith making adjustments peronnel and pairing-wise or if the improvement is more just the current players and pairings finding a higher gear.


What say you Canes fans?


1) Are you a bit surprised to see the ice time leaders for the penalty kill as the players having the most trouble keeping the puck out of the Hurricanes net?


2) To what degree do you think the results match level of play based on what you have seen versus possibly being better explained by some of the context and situational disclaimers noted above or even just small sample size variation?


3) Would you consider doling out more ice time to the penalty kill part-timers who thus far have fared better on the penalty kill?


Go Canes!

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