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How a weakness became a strength

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A look at how the penalty kill has become one of the best units in the league.

NHL: Columbus Blue Jackets at Philadelphia Flyers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

At this point in time there aren’t many things to complain about when it comes to the Philadelphia Flyers’ play on the ice. General manager Chuck Fletcher’s moves in the offseason look to be paying off, the first- and second-year players on the roster are outperforming expectations, and Carter Hart looks legitimate. Perhaps a lot less exciting than those things is the fact the Orange and Black’s penalty kill is one of the best in the league.

Going into Thursday night’s action the Flyers’ penalty kill is tied for third in the NHL at 85.9 percent. With how the team’s shorthanded unit has performed over recent years some people will assume the spike in recent success is all about Hart’s play or that the team is playing more disciplined. Considering the fact Hart ranks 41st out of 46 goalies with 50 minutes or more played at 4-on-5 with an .829 save percentage and that the team is ending up on the penalty kill at the same rate as last season (2.89 times shorthanded per game in 2018-19 compared to 2.78 this season), these may not be the best guesses.

Something that helps to explain why this Flyers’ penalty kill is thriving is their shot suppression numbers. Since most of the time that a team spends shorthanded is 4-on-5 looking at how well the Orange and Black have defended in these situations over the last few seasons compared to this season serves as part of the explanation as to why they’ve done well denying power plays goals against. Below are the overall penalty kill percentages as well as the rates of which opposing power plays are throwing the puck at the Flyers’ net from the 2014-15 season (the first season the penalty kill became a huge issue with the club) to this season.

Flyers’ 4-on-5 numbers since 2014-15

Season Penalty kill % Corsi against per 60 Fenwick against per 60 Shots against per 60 Expected goals against per 60
Season Penalty kill % Corsi against per 60 Fenwick against per 60 Shots against per 60 Expected goals against per 60
2014-15 77.1 (27th) 95.65 (17th) 69.72 (12th) 47.69 (9th) 6.34 (14th)
2015-16 80.5 (20th) 95.13 (15th) 67.4 (7th) 48.35 (9th) 6.07 (13th)
2016-17 79.8 (T-19th) 90.84 (9th) 65.88 (6th) 44.75 (5th) 5.53 (7th)
2017-18 75.8 (29th) 95.09 (7th) 67.32 (1st) 49.66 (4th) 6.08 (5th)
2018-19 78.5 (26th) 89.49 (9th) 67.32 (9th) 49.77 (13th) 6.39 (22nd)
2019-20 85.9 (T-3rd) 71.43 (1st) 52.71 (1st) 38.42 (1st) 5.89 (11th)

This penalty kill’s ability to suppress overall shot attempts (also known as corsi: shots on goal, missed shots, and blocked shots), unblocked shot attempts (also known as Fenwick: shots on goal and missed shots), and shots on goal in 4-on-5 situations is not only substantially better than recent Flyers’ teams: it’s better than everybody else in the league at the moment and are better than most teams in the advanced stats era (from 2007-08 until now).

As of this writing Philly’s rate of 71.43 shot attempts against-per-60 is the lowest in the NHL with the St. Louis Blues sitting second at 80.59. It’s also the second-lowest rate since 2007-08 behind only the 2007-08 Detroit Red Wings who allowed 67.84 shot attempts-per-60. Philly’s 52.71 unblocked shot attempts against-per-60 rate is trailed by the Washington Capitals’ second-place rate of 59.42 and the lowest for any team in a full season since 2007-08 (in 2013 the New Jersey Devils held opponents to a rate of 48.35). Last but not least is the Flyers’ 38.42 shots against-per-60, which is the only rate under 40 in the league at the moment as the Nashville Predators sit second with a rate of 43.39. The only team since 2007-08 to have a lower shots against-per-60 rate over a full season is the 2011-12 Montreal Canadiens with 37.52 (again, in 2013 the Blues were first with a rate of 35.46 and New Jersey was second with 36.27).

Clearly this year’s unit is better than your average penalty kill when it comes to just erasing shot attempts. These numbers show that they aren’t just blocking more shots or lucking out with the opposition missing the net more than in previous seasons. It shows that these units are pretty damn good in using more aggressive tactics to take away time and space from opposing power plays. It’s something fans have been talking about for seasons, Fletcher’s ability to add more talented penalty killers to the team along with changing the approach from passive to aggressive has helped improve the unit.

via Hockey Viz
via Hockey Viz

In case you didn’t hear the Flyers added the trio of Kevin Hayes, Justin Braun, and Matt Niskanen to the roster over the summer. All three players were considered defensively responsible before they became members of the organization and the team might be benefiting the most from their defensive abilities on the penalty kill. After Ivan Provorov’s 2:15 of 4-on-5 ice time per game these three are logging the most time while opposing teams’ power play units are on the ice and they’re making a difference.

Hayes ability to take away passing and shooting lanes in the defensive zone and holding onto the puck for extended stretches of time in all three zones has played a hand in the penalty kill’s success. Being one of the 65 forwards in the NHL who have played 50 minutes or more at 4-on-5 this season Hayes ranks seventh with 81.32 shot attempts against-per-60, fourth with 56.3 unblocked shot attempts against-per-60, and first with 35.45 shots against-per-60 (Nick Bonino on the Nashville Predators is second with 38.73). On the back end Braun is posting similar numbers. Braun is one of 85 d-men in the league to see 50 minutes or more at 4-on-5 this campaign sitting first in shot attempts against-per-60 with 63.68 (Anaheim’s Hampus Lindblom is second with 69.99, which technically speaking is #nice), unblocked shot attempts per 60 with 43.21 (Nick Jensen of the Caps is second with 54.59), and 30.7 shots against per 60 (Nashville’s Roman Josi is second with 36.84).

Niskanen’s individual numbers at 4-on-5 aren’t quite at the top of the ranks like Hayes or Braun, but he and Provorov are one of the better penalty-tandems in the league right now. Out of 27 pairs of d-men that have played 40 minutes or more together down a man Niskanen and Provorov have a 80.36 shot attempts against-per-60, 58.93 unblocked shot attempts against-per-60, 44.2 shots against-per-60, and 2.68 goals against-per-60 which all rank second in the group of 27.

The penalty kill doesn’t matter to most fans until it’s one of the main reasons your favorite team can’t take the next step. It obviously wasn’t the only problem the Flyers had over the last few seasons, but the team’s penalty kill played a role in a lot of losses. With some of the best shot suppression numbers over the last 13 seasons and a promising young goalie who will become the team’s best penalty killer over time the nightmare of being down a man is finally over.

*All stats courtesy of NHL.com and Natural Stat Trick