Going into the 2013-14 NHL season, there were few concerns regarding the Philadelphia Flyers' penalty kill. After all, they returned nearly all of the key pieces of a unit that ranked fifth in the NHL the previous season.
Ruslan Fedotenko was let go, but he would be replaced by a full season of Adam Hall. Also, the continued development of shorthanded anchor Sean Couturier seemed to bode well for the success of the unit moving forward.
Three months into the season, and the Flyers penalty kill has been solid at first glance. They currently rank 10th in the NHL with an efficiency rate of 83.3%, despite facing the second-most power plays in the league.
But their PK% is down a bit from last season, when they succeeded at a 85.9% clip. Has the trade of Maxime Talbot caused a slight decline in the penalty kill? Is it simply season-to-season variance that has caused the dip? Or is it something else entirely?
Shot Prevention: Key to An Elite PK
There are two main methods of producing an elite penalty kill. The first, and most obvious, is to prevent goals via a high save percentage. In the short term, top notch goaltending and strong goal prevention defense can result in a strong shorthanded save percentage. Over the course of a single season, a team may have simply found a way to prevent high quality power play chances, and also received lots of timely saves from their goalies.
Unfortunately, abnormally high save percentages on the penalty kill are generally not sustainable over the long-term.
Last season, the top five teams in terms of PK save percentage were the Ottawa Senators, Chicago Blackhawks, Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins and Edmonton Oilers. As a direct result, each team ranked in the top-10 in overall penalty kill efficiency in 2012-13. But with the exception of the Bruins, no team has been able to sustain their percentages this season, and their penalty kills have struggled accordingly.
|Team||12/13 SV% Rank||13/14 SV% Rank||12/13 PK Rank||13/14 PK Rank|
The second way to build a great shorthanded unit is to focus on shot prevention. Whether via a team-wide commitment to shot blocking, repeated defensive zone clears, or a disrupting neutral zone presence, the fewer shots on goal by the opposing team, generally the fewer goals that will be scored.
Top-tier shot prevention PK units tend to find themselves near the top of the PK% leaderboard, just like goal-prevention units. But teams that focus on shot prevention on the penalty kill are more likely to sustain their success over multiple seasons than teams that depend upon high save percentages.
|Team||12/13 SA/60 Rank||12/13 PK% Rank||13/14 PK% Rank|
For example, only Toronto has seen a dramatic decline in their penalty killing statistics among 2012/13 top tier shot prevention units. The other teams that ranked in the top-five in shots allowed per sixty minutes of shorthanded play continue to ice above average penalty kill units this year.
A Top Shot Prevention Penalty Kill
To understand how the Flyers stack up to the rest of the NHL in terms of PK shot prevention, it's better to look at rate statistics rather than raw numbers, as Philadelphia spends more time shorthanded than any team aside from Ottawa. When the numbers are normalized, the Flyers do not just have a great shot prevention penalty kill - they are only a hair behind the best unit in the NHL.
When taking into account both blocked shots and missed shots in addition to shots on net, the Flyers actually rank first in the entire NHL in attempt prevention, ahead of Vancouver in both categories. No matter how you slice it, Philadelphia has been stellar so far this season at preventing opposing power plays from generating shots at Steve Mason or Ray Emery.
Sean Couturier: Penalty Kill Stud
The commitment to shot prevention truly has been a team effort. The Flyers have six players that rank in the NHL's top-30 in 4v5 shots allowed per twenty minutes - Sean Couturier, Nicklas Grossmann, Matt Read, Kimmo Timonen, Adam Hall, and Luke Schenn.
Still, one player does stand out above the rest - the Flyers' youngest skater, Couturier.
Couturier allows only 13.027 shots per twenty minutes of 4v5 play, good for 10th in the league. But where the Flyers center truly separates himself from the pack is in his shorthanded shot generation. While Couturier is on the ice, the Flyers take an average of 4.65 shots per twenty minutes of 4v5 play. That ranks him 4th among all penalty killers. Couturier is the only player in the NHL to rank in the top-10 in shot prevention and shot generation at 4v5.
To put this in perspective, on a two-minute power play, opponents are taking on average less than one shot more than Philadelphia does with Couturier on the ice.
Flyers fans can stop waiting for Couturier to become a truly dominant penalty killing force. At age 21, it's already happening.
Explaining the Decline
So if the Flyers are the best team in the NHL at preventing shot attempts while shorthanded, why do they only have the 10th best penalty kill in the NHL this year?
The Flyers rank 25th in the league in shorthanded save percentage, at 86.1%. This is down from last season, when Philadelphia finished at 88.0%, the league's sixth-best percentage.
Steve Mason has undoubtedly underwent a dramatic improvement this season at even strength, and his numbers while shorthanded have been solid as well. Mason has a 0.890 save percentage against opposing power plays, so he is not to blame.
Instead, Ray Emery has been the primary cause. His save percentage while shorthanded is a horrific 0.800, as he has allowed 12 goals on 48 power play shots. He leads only three goalies who receive regular playing time - Scott Clemmensen, Evgeni Nabokov and Corey Crawford.
Also, in a classic example of the erratic nature of 4v5 save percentages, Crawford ranked 6th in the category last season.
But could the Flyers' low save percentages while shorthanded be caused by poor defense more than goaltending or variance? Maybe the decline has been the result of blown assignments and defensive breakdowns - certainly not the sign of a top-tier penalty kill.
During a three-month period, it's entirely possible that poorly-timed defensive breakdowns are the primary culprit. In the end, the results - simply killing the penalties - are all that matter.
But Philadelphia's shorthanded save percentages could be on the way up. Mason's 4v5 SV% is actually right in line with the 2013/14 league average of 87.68% - it's Emery that is dragging the team's percentage down.
If the Flyers can sustain even a league-average PK SV% over the final 41 games and their shot prevention rates stay the same, Philadelphia would post an 87.89% efficiency rate - trailing only the Vancouver Canucks and Pittsburgh Penguins.
Combine an improved shorthanded save percentage with one of the best shot prevention units in the NHL? If all breaks right, the Flyers just might have a truly elite penalty kill in the second half of the season.