Red-hot penalty kill keeping the Flames afloat

Despite a slow start to the season points wise, the Flames have been excellent when down a man early in the season. While the power play has really struggled, and the Flames have struggled to keep up in the standings, the Penalty Kill has helped the Flames to avoid a disastrous start and keeps them in striking distance of the top of the standings.

Practice Makes Perfect Pretty Good

The Calgary Flames’ penalty kill has not been perfect, but it has been excellent to start the season. The Flames are lucky this has been the case because they have been penalized a league-high 61 times. Admittedly, they are tied for most games played so far, but their discipline has been a problem all year. Their penalty kill goes to work often, sitting at eighth highest in the league being deployed with an average of 6:12 per game.

In those minutes, the Flames have been the fourth best team, allowing just 4.56 goals per 60 minutes this season. In terms of expected goals against, the team is 11th, with 5.76 xGA/60 mins. The discrepancy between the two shows that goaltending on the kill has been excellent, but as the old adage goes, the goalie has to be your best penalty killer right?

This is true, and David Rittich and Cam Talbot have been really solid on the kill so far. However, a goalie is only one player and the rest of the unit is comprised of many additional key players. What have the rest of the Flames penalty killers looked like this year?

Forwards

The Flames use a number of different forwards on the penalty kill, with six forwards already having played over 20 minutes shorthanded so far this season.

Player PK TOIGAxGA
Elias Lindholm41:4545.13
Mark Jankowski39:3744.21
Mikael Backlund38:4832.87
Derek Ryan 34:5112.75
Michael Frolik25:1621.98
Tobias Rieder20:4601.84

While those numbers are helpful, it is perhaps more telling to look at the rates these players post per sixty minutes. Doing so shuffles the deck of players and xGA, and shows who really has been the most effective.

PlayerGA/60xGA/60
Mark Jankowski6.066.38
Elias Lindholm5.757.38
Michael Frolik4.754.69
Mikael Backlund 4.644.44
Derek Ryan1.724.74
Tobias Rieder0.005.32

The most eye popping numbers are the excellent results for Mikael Backlund, Michael Frolik and Derek Ryan. For reference, of the 116 NHL forwards who have played at least 20 minutes on the penalty kill, Backlund ranks 19th best in terms of xGA/60, with Frolik coming in 23rd and Ryan in 26th. For whatever it’s worth, Flames fans would be curious to know that Garnet Hathaway leads the league by a long shot in xGA/60 of just 2.30.

By those same metrics, Elias Lindholm is actually well below average, coming in 85th among forwards. Mark Jankowski ekes it out to float right about league-average, ranking in the middle at 67th.

It could be argued that the greater ice time for Lindholm and Jankowski changes the sample size, but it is not clear in looking at numbers across the league that playing more changes xGA/60 for the better or worse. There is a very real argument then that Jankowski and Lindholm should see their ice time come down, with more going towards the trio of Backlund, Frolik, and Ryan.

What might be a more relevant argument is whether all of these forwards need to be in the lineup given that many of them offer limited upside. The obvious example is Tobias Rieder who has had well documented struggles offensively.

Given that the other forwards have done such a great job, is there really need to have him in the line up? The options are slim, but Bill Peters might be well served trying to inject some offence into the bottom of the line up over more penalty killers.

Defense

Defensively, the Flames consistently rotate four defensemen when shorthanded. Mark Giordano and Travis Hamonc play the lion’s share, while T.J. Brodie and Noah Hanifin contribute the additional time.

In fact, with the Flames being penalized so often, Hamonic is second in the league in penalty kill time on ice, and Giordano is fourth. It should be noted that both players have been relatively quiet offensively and the time they spend on the kill might be a contributing factor.

The stats on the PK:

PlayerPK TOIGAxGA
Travis Hamonic66:2266.9
Mark Giordano60:2867.3
Noah Hanifin41:0012.6
T.J. Brodie35:4033.1

Hanifin is the name that really sticks out in this group. In considerable ice time he has only surrendered one goal, which actually came in the last game against Washington. That being said, Hanifin’s numbers, while still strong, do not look quite as special when you look at the rates per 60 minutes.

PlayerGA/60xGA/60
Travis Hamonic5.426.57
Mark Giordano5.956.85
Noah Hanifin1.464.49
T.J. Brodie5.054.41

Per 60 minutes, it is actually Brodie who posts the best xGA of the group. Now it is worth noting that as Giordano and Hamonic usually start the penalty kill, they face their opponents’ first units, a much more significant challenge. Still, Brodie and Hanifin rank 12th and 16th respectively among NHL defensemen who have played over 20 minutes on the kill this season. Giordano ranks 76th in the same metric while Hamonic is in 69th position. These numbers are somewhat surprising considering the PK has been excellent in general, yet the two most used defensemen end up below average.

Final Thoughts

The Flames have been very good on the penalty kill this season, although they might not be quite as good as their raw percentages suggest. The difference between their actual goals against vs the xGA shows that they have probably been having good luck and that their goaltending has been excellent when down a skater.

However, the numbers also show that the Flames have a deep crew of forwards who are all proficient on the PK, and they have depth on defense to ensure that the second power play unit almost never scores for opposing teams. Specifically, Frolik, Backlund, Ryan, Brodie, and Hanifin have been superb when they go down a man.

Again, there may be some luck involved, but the PK has been a big reason why the Flames have had even a decent start. With shaky offensive efforts continuing, the club will need the work of the penalty killers and the goaltending to continue at a high level.

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