Who are the Canucks’ best penalty killers?

Spoiler warning: this guy’s one of them.

While the Canucks have been a mess on the powerplay this season and have been inconsistent defensively at even-strength, the one area that has been a strength all season long has been the penalty kill. The Canucks have allowed more than one powerplay goal in a game just three times this season and haven’t done so since February 24th against the Detroit Red Wings.

Once the Canucks had some actual centres in Ryan Kesler and Derek Roy, the penalty kill got even better, going seven straight games and 25 opportunities without allowing a goal against. As a result, the Canucks finished 8th in the NHL in penalty kill percentage at 84%. It’s been one of the most consistent areas for the Canucks, killing off 86% last season and 85.6% the season before.

It’s sometimes tough to tell who on the Canucks is most responsible for their shorthanded success. Goaltending obviously plays a big role and it’s assumed that coaching is vital, but which defencemen and forwards have been the best on the penalty kill for the Canucks?

It’s harder to figure out than you’d think.

First of all, it’s tough to single out individual players on the penalty kill, since it requires carefully orchestrated actions on the part of all four penalty killers on the ice. One player blowing his coverage costs all four penalty killers a goal against. Of course, a player that consistently blows his coverage on the penalty kill won’t spend much longer on the ice shorthanded.

There are certain players on the penalty kill that pass the eye test: Jannik Hansen’s tenacity, particularly on the forecheck, can bring Canucks fans to their feet. Ryan Kesler wins faceoffs and blocks shots, Mason Raymond’s speed gets him into shooting lanes faster than anyone else on the team, and Chris Higgins is pure effort. But our eyes can sometimes deceive us, so I wanted to take a look at the statistics.

That’s when I ran into another problem. No one really seems to know which statistics matter on the penalty kill. The best that most people can do is point at how much a forward or defenceman plays on the penalty kill and how often he’s on the ice for a powerplay goal against and leave it at that.

That doesn’t seem all that thorough to me. Sure, preventing goals is the point of the penalty kill, but what is it that prevents goals? Few enough goals are scored on the powerplay that just looking at goals scored suffers from the small sample size problem and isn’t necessarily predictive of how well a player will do in the future.

At even-strength, we’ve found that Corsi gives us a fuller picture of a player’s effectiveness by expanding the plus/minus statistic to include shots on goal, missed shots, and blocked shots. It seems to me that Corsi isn’t quite the right statistic to use on the penalty kill, however.

Corsi is essentially a proxy for puck possession: any shot against, whether it hits the net, misses, or is blocked, is considered a negative because the opposition has the puck. When you’re killing a penalty, it’s pretty much unavoidable that the opposition will have the puck. While players can, at times, hold the puck in the offensive zone or clear it repeatedly by not allowing the opposition to set up, killing a penalty is, for the most part, about how you limit the opposition’s scoring chances when they already have possession in the offensive zone.

You could, instead, just look at shots against, since preventing shots is key on the penalty kill. Or, you could look at Fenwick, which includes shots on net and missed shots, but excludes blocked shots.

So, I decided to take a look at what correlated the most with goals against on the penalty kill in the past. I looked at every single player in the NHL who played at least 20 games and averaged at least 30 seconds per game on the penalty kill. I compared shots against, Corsi, and Fenwick with goals against for each player.

Shots against had only a very small correlation with goals against. While Corsi was more strongly correlated with goals against than just looking at shots, the strongest correlation came with Fenwick.

Normally we look at a high number of blocked shots with suspicion, as it doesn’t necessarily mean that a player is good at blocking shots — it just means that a player is on the ice for a lot of shots against. The best teams in the league, season after season, have low numbers of blocked shots.

This is a difference between the micro and the macro: at the micro level, blocking shots is good. We can all think of situations where a blocked shot has saved a sure goal in the dying seconds and we all cheer players who lay their bodies on the line to prevent a shot from reaching the goaltender. The problem comes when we expand “blocking shots is good” to the macro level and assume that lots of blocked shots are good. It’s good to block a shot, but ideally a team should have to block as few as possible because they spend as much time as possible in possession of the puck.

On the penalty kill, however, the opposition already has the puck and blocked shots become far more worthwhile to look at on the macro level. Fenwick views blocked shots as a positive, so it makes sense that it correlates best with goals against.

So, which Canucks this season have had the best Fenwick on the penalty kill? It might catch you off guard.

There are a couple things to keep in mind as we look at this:

1. This is just a preliminary look at what advanced statistics might be useful for judging the penalty kill and it’s certainly incomplete.

2. The shortened 48-game season may give us some small sample size problems, which may be particularly the case for Ryan Kesler, Manny Malhotra, Andrew Ebbett, and Andrew Alberts, who weren’t in the lineup for the entire season.

3. The players who played more minutes on the penalty kill were likely facing the opposition’s first unit on the powerplay more often, which is why I included the time on ice.

Still, this gives us some surprising results. Dale Weise comes in at second on the team in Fenwick on the penalty kill, right behind Chris Higgins. Seeing Higgins so high on this list may give us some more insight into why the Canucks were so eager to re-sign him: he’s useful in pretty much every situation on the ice.

Chris Tanev is a boss. Not only is he one of the best Canucks in terms of Fenwick on the penalty kill, he has also been on the ice for the fewest goals per 60 minutes on the penalty kill of any Canuck. He’s the only Canuck under 3 goals against per 6o minutes, with Jannik Hansen coming closest at 3.21, which makes him the only other Canuck under 4 goals against per 60 minutes.

Right behind Alex Edler and Chris Tanev comes Andrew Alberts as the third best defenceman in Fenwick on the penalty kill. Before you say that it’s all because of the small sample size, he led all Canucks’ defencemen in that statistic last season. It just so happens that the penalty kill plays to Alberts’ strengths — size, reach, physicality, and positioning — and away from his weaknesses — foot speed, skating through the neutral zone, puckhandling, and passing.

For people wondering why Alberts keeps getting in the lineup over Keith Ballard, consider that Alberts is a reliable fixture on the penalty kill.

Kevin Bieksa is not having a particularly good season, though it has still been clear that the Canucks need him in the lineup. He has the worst Fenwick on the penalty kill of any Canucks defenceman, right behind Ballard. He was far better last season, however, while Ballard was still at the bottom in 2011-2.

With Kesler out of the lineup, Maxim Lapierre was relied upon more than usual on the penalty kill and he didn’t fare so well. He was far better last season when playing fewer minutes and likely facing opponents’ second powerplay unit more often.

Finally, there’s Kesler himself. He appears to be one of the outliers when looking at Fenwick. His Fenwick on the penalty kill isn’t particularly good this season and wasn’t last season either, but both seasons he is one of the best Canucks by goals against on the penalty kill. While Fenwick strongly correlates with goals against when looking at the league as a whole, it’s certainly possible that individual players might defy that correlation in some way, allowing significant numbers of shots and missed shots against while still preventing high quality scoring chances.

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  1. zolltan
    May 1, 2013

    It seems like zone clears would be the statistic to have. It’s not being kept by anyone that I know, but just offhand it seems like it would be easy to keep (not much subjectivity) and you’d not need a huge sample size before being able to see some patterns…

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    • Zach Morris
      May 1, 2013

      Number of zone clears woud be good, but it doesn’t tell the whole story on its own. Some players definitely enable others to clear the puck, you know?

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  2. Blueliner
    May 1, 2013

    “..which makes him the only other Canuck under 40 goals against per 60 minutes.”

    Wait. 40?!? Am I reading that correctly?

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