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The Flyers have an elite penalty kill and it’s only getting better

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Fletcher improved the Flyers’ already great penalty kill at the deadline.

NHL: San Jose Sharks at Philadelphia Flyers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia Flyers made two minor, but important, additions at the deadline with trades for Derek Grant and Nate Thompson. Both Grant and Thompson have experience playing in tough situations and in the playoffs. They have been used heavily in the defensive zone and on the penalty kill.

Grant and Thompson were both immediately used on the penalty kill in their first game with the Flyers, as Alain Vigneault outlined after the morning skate. They give AV two more options to rotate in on an already pretty good – dare I say elite – penalty kill.

Through Tuesday’s games, the Flyers had the ninth-best penalty kill rate in the NHL at 81.9 percent, which is an improvement over last season’s 78.5 percent. They’ve been better recently, killing off 20 of their last 22 power plays against, and 52 of 62 since January 7.

However, if you look at the underlying numbers, the Flyers are even better than that. They are best team in the league this season in terms of limiting opponent’s shots. They have allowed the least amount of shot attempts (385), unblocked shot attempts (290) and shots on goal (208) in the league, despite being shorthanded the 16th-most in the league.

The Flyers have allowed 71.82 shot attempts per 60 minutes – nearly 10 less than the next best team – and 54.1 unblocked shot attempts per 60 minutes, nearly five less than the next best team.

That improvement starts with the coaching staff, but the group of players that the Flyers have used are a big reason for it as well. The Flyers have some of the best penalty-killing forwards in the league, and that’s not just because of Kevin Hayes and his shorthanded goals. The deadline acquisitions only add to that.

Hayes, Sean Couturier, Scott Laughton, Michael Raffl and Claude Giroux are the Flyers forwards with at least 60 shorthanded minutes this season.

They are some of the best forwards in the league in limiting unblocked shot attempts. However, their Expected Goals-Against per 60 minutes is more toward the middle of the pack due to a higher rate of high-danger chances against.

Flyers forwards’ penalty kill stats

Player TOI FA/60 xGA/60 HDCA/60 GA/60
Player TOI FA/60 xGA/60 HDCA/60 GA/60
Kevin Hayes 126:52 57.22 (10th) 6.05 (55th) 20.81 (78th) 5.67 (38th)
Sean Couturier 126:10 58.01 (11th) 6.6 (76th) 17.59 (46th) 7.61 (87th)
Scott Laughton 75:55 50.57 (3rd) 5.7 (34th) 18.96 (56th) 5.53 (36th)
Michael Raffl 67:03 49.22 (2nd) 4.56 (5th) 16.11 (31st) 4.47 (14th)
Claude Giroux 64:10 51.43 (4th) 5.41 (21st) 16.83 (39th) 4.68 (21st)

The above table shows each player’s unblocked shot attempts against per 60 Minutes (FA/60), expected goals against per 60 minutes (xGA/60), high-danger chances against per 60 minutes (HDCA/60), and goals against per 60 minutes (GA/60), along with their NHL ranking in parentheses. These rankings are among 145 NHL forwards with at least 60 minutes of penalty killing time through Tuesday.

The Flyers have a seriously impressive group of forwards in terms of limiting unblocked shot attempts. Raffl, Laughton, and Giroux are in the top four, with Hayes and Couturier in the top dozen. However, only Raffl’s success there carries over to xGA/60 due to the amount of high-danger chances against. That, combined with the Flyers’ third-worst PK save percentage of .837, brings down their GA/60 rankings a bit.

They’re still mostly in the upper echelon in terms of goals against, outside of Couturier, with Raffl and Giroux leading the way.

So, prior to the deadline, the Flyers already had an elite group of penalty killers. Grant and Thompson are going to join that faction.

While both Grant and Thompson are touted as strong penalty killers – and they both are in a sense – only one of them is up there with the current group.

Grant joins Hayes and Co. as a top-tier penalty killer in terms of limiting both unblocked shot attempts and expected goals against. He immediately becomes the Flyers forward with the lowest HDCA/60 on the penalty kill.

Thompson, on the other hand, hasn’t been nearly as successful this season. He is in the bottom 20 in FA/60, xGA/60, and HDCA/60, but has a respectable GA/60.

Grant and Thompson’s penalty kill stats

Player TOI FA/60 xGA/60 HDCA/60 GA/60
Player TOI FA/60 xGA/60 HDCA/60 GA/60
Derek Grant 127:25 60.27 (18th) 5.29 (14th) 15.07 (22nd) 6.12 (51st)
Nate Thompson 141:31 85.21 (125th) 7.99 (131st) 25.86 (127th) 7.63 (90th)

Grant adds another defensively strong forward to the penalty kill. Thompson’s numbers are questionable, but with his track record and more so his reputation as a strong penalty killer, there has to be a reason for that, right?

Well, that may be due to the fact that he brings some attack to the penalty kill. That is something the Flyers have also excelled at this season; Thompson (and Grant) will hopefully fit right in.

The Flyers are the best team in limiting unblocked shot attempts against, and they’re also one of the best teams in producing unblocked shot attempts while shorthanded. Their FF/60 of 16.42 is fifth-best in the league, and these forwards will help keep that up.

Flyers forward’s attacking on the penalty kill

Player TOI FF/60 FF%
Player TOI FF/60 FF%
Kevin Hayes 126:52 16.55 (36th) 22.44% (16th)
Sean Couturier 126:10 19.97 (9th) 25.61% (6th)
Scott Laughton 75:55 17.38 (26th) 25.58% (7th)
Michael Raffl 67:03 13.42 (76th) 21.43% (22nd)
Claude Giroux 64:10 22.44 (3rd) 30.38% (1st)
Derek Grant 127:25 17.42 (24th) 22.42% (17th)
Nate Thompson 141:31 17.8 (23rd) 17.28% (54th)

While Thompson has a high FA/60, he also has a high FF/60. He is able to keep the puck out of his own zone and help get shots toward the opposing net. That helps bring his Fenwick-For up to a respectable level on the penalty kill.

Thompson still isn’t great on the penalty kill, but he could be a not-horrible sixth or seventh option if he’s in the lineup.

Grant is up there as well in terms of creating offense on the penalty kill, and he joins Hayes as a shorthanded threat to score. Hayes is tied for the league lead with four shorthanded goals and Grant is right behind him with three on the season.

The Flyers already lead the league in faceoff percentage, and Grant and Thompson might improve that. Grant has won 51.5 percent of his faceoffs this season (50.9 percent shorthanded) while Thompson has won 55 percent of his faceoffs (53.8 percent shorthanded. Giroux (60.9 percent shorthanded) and Couturier (52.6 percent shorthanded) have been strong in the faceoff dot, but Hayes (37.9 percent shorthanded) has struggled.

Special teams are of the utmost importance during the regular season, and that only gets amped up during the playoffs. Adding Grant and Thompson gives the Flyers two more options to use on the penalty kill.

On top of that, with Grant and Thompson in the rotation, Vigneault and Co. could choose to lean more toward using bottom-six forwards on the penalty kill. That would take some pressure and defensive wear and tear off of primarily Giroux – but also Couturier and Hayes as well – to allow him to be fresh after penalty kills and in the long run.

The Flyers’ penalty kill has been a large part of their success this season. They’re getting better as the season moves along and now have a few more options to choose from.

Stats via NaturalStatTrick