The Calgary Flames have been excellent this season, fueled by exceptional special teams—particularly the penalty kill. The penalty kill got off to a great start to the year, and is still receiving well-deserved praise, although their most recent game against the Sharks saw the team’s struggling while shorthanded, allowing two goals to enable the Sharks’ comeback. Overall, the team has killed 67 of 79 opportunities on the year, good for fifth in the league at 85%.
Penalty kill percentage is a useful stat for describing penalty kill efficiency, but it doesn’t account for goals scored shorthanded, or kills shortened by another call being made on the ice to even the field prior to a full kill being completed.
Penalty killers should be rewarded for their offensive contributions too, especially on a team with Andrew Mangiapane and Dillon Dube taking penalty kills as opportunities to create odd-man rushes rather than to simply survive the onslaught of an opposing power play. With this in mind, a more detailed breakdown of the Flames penalty kill success seemed like a good idea.
How the Flames’ penalty kill has fared
First, some results. Data is score-and-venue-adjusted, from Evolving-Hockey.com.
|Time on Ice||Goal Differential||Expected Goal Differential||Save %||GSAx|
It’s expected that a team will have a negative goal differential on the penalty kill, and the Flames -9 count is among the best in the league, ranked fifth overall with two goals for and 11 against.
In terms of expected goals, the gap is a little smaller, coming in at fourth league-wide., The gap between expected and actual goal differential is a reflection of the elite play of Jacob Markstrom and Daniel Vladar, who have combined to stop 1.3 goals above expected shorthanded.
All that is to say, the process is working. The Flames’ are nearly the best in goal differential, and its not due to luck. The expected goals suggest the team is absolutely one of the more successful kills in the league, and strong goaltending doesn’t hurt either.
Last night’s game was discouraging, but underlying numbers that strong suggest the kill will be clicking again in no time.
Shown another visual way, this chart from HockeyViz.com is coloured purple where the Flames are allowing fewer shots per hour relative to the league average, and orange where they are allowing more.
The goal of the penalty kill is to prevent more dangerous shots from the “house” area around the net on every shift. The closer you are to the net front, the more dangerous your shot becomes. Due to the extra time and space of the power play, each shot is that much more dangerous shorthanded, too.
Clearly, based on the expected goals data and the shot rates visual, the Flames are still doing an exceptional job killing penalties, with the majority of shots coming from higher up in the zone, either at the top of the left circle (from the goaltender’s perspective), or between the right circle and blueline. The orange dot in the high slot is a bit of a concern, but Markstrom and Vladar have been up to the task.
Specific players deserve a ton of credit for the Flames success on the kill. It almost goes without saying Chris Tanev has been excellent, playing big minutes on one of the league’s best kills. Elias Lindholm and Mikael Backlund are staples of the Flames penalty kill who continue to show well, too.
But the real standouts are the unexpected heroes, Erik Gudbranson and Dube.
I’ll be the first to admit that I expected Gudbranson to be long relegated to the press box by this stage of the season, but he has been an effective contributor, mostly because of his strong penalty kill impact. The visual below, also from HockeyViz.com, attempts to isolate his impact from his teammates.
Gudbranson has allowed 2% less expected goals against per 60 minutes of shorthanded ice time by this metric, a great result. At every other strength state he has a negative impact, but he has found a role shorthanded.
Even more so than Gudbranson however, Dube has been a pleasant surprise. Known more for offence than defence, his success on the penalty kill has been a huge development for the team.
And I do mean huge. He has an astonishing 56% expected goals rating while shorthanded. That means that he has out-chanced his opponents while on the ice… while shorthanded. He has only played 24 minutes, but its still an almost unbelievable result.
Mangiapane is not far behind, at 46% in 35 minutes. No other forward on the team even cracks 20%. Their totals are good for first and third league-wide. It’s also worth mentioning that in last night’s underwhelming effort, neither Dube or Mangiapane ever got on the ice shorthanded.
Now, it’s clear that just looking at penalty kill percentages in terms of successful kills is selling the Flames penalty kill short, with chance creation a legitimate part of the team’s game plan. Combined with an excellent power play and dominant top line, it has made the Flames extremely exciting to watch this season, and fairly successful so far.
And they said Sutter hockey would be boring.
Cover photo by: Sergei Belsk/USA Today