Ranking the Top Penalty-Killers Among NHL Defensemen Today

Rob VollmanContributor INovember 3, 2013

Ranking the Top Penalty-Killers Among NHL Defensemen Today

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    Who are the league's top defensemen when playing shorthanded? As great as Shea Weber and Ryan Suter are, don't look for them on this list, because we've identified 10 blueliners who are even better at killing penalties.

    Defensive talent is admittedly quite hard to quantify with analytics. Looking at the data over the past three seasons (2010-11 through 2012-13), we're looking for players who were assigned the lion's share of the team's penalty-killing duties and yet kept the number of scoring opportunities to a minimum.

    The metric of choice here is the number of attempted shots allowed per two minutes. Suter and Weber, for example, have allowed 2.72 and 2.83 attempted shots per two minutes, respectively (minus their team's own shorthanded shot attempts).

    Any player who can match or exceed that level, while still taking on the top power-play units, deserve strong consideration for inclusion in this list. All but one succeeded in doing that, including the leader, who allowed just a miserly 2.14 shot attempts per two minutes.

     

    All advanced statistics are via writer's own original research unless otherwise noted. 

     

10. Barret Jackman, St. Louis Blues

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    Penalty-Killing Minutes Assigned: 54.9 percent (16th)

    Attempted Shot Differential per Two Minutes: -2.58

     

    Elite penalty killer Jay Bouwmeester has been assigned a whopping 60.2 percent of available penalty-killing minutes over the past three seasons, but when he arrived in St. Louis at last year's trade deadline, he joined one of the few teams with someone even better.

    Ranked as the league's fourth-best penalty-killing defenseman by the folks at NHL Hot Stove three years ago, Barret Jackman has helped guide St. Louis to a top-10 finish in penalty-killing in five of the past six seasons.

    "To succeed on the penalty kill a defensemen must be fearless," writes the Hot Stove staff. "Barret Jackman certainly has no fear. Game in and game out he battles in the trenches to clear forwards and block shots."

    My interpretation of the data agrees with that assessment. Jackman has been the engine behind the Blues penalty kill, which is typically among the league's better units.

     

9. Mike Weaver, Florida Panthers

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    Penalty-Killing Minutes Assigned: 59.9 percent (fifth)

    Attempted Shot Differential per Two Minutes: -2.79

     

    Florida's penalty kill jumped from 23rd in the NHL to sixth in 2010-11, Mike Weaver's first season with the team. The tremendous struggles since then have certainly been despite the best efforts of who coach Kevin Dineen calls the team's best penalty-killer.

    Weaver was recently described as a workhorse and Florida's unsung hero by Mike Lewis of Rant Sports. Lewis went on to write that "Weaver has also been the Panthers most reliable penalty killer on the ice each season, mostly stemming from his ability to block shots and his lack of fear of doing it."

    Being relatively small for an NHL defenseman at just 5'10" and 180 pounds, Weaver is the type of player whose true value is often overlooked. His cap hit of $1.1 million per season would easily triple if he had the exact same numbers but was a more average-sized competitor.

    Not only is Weaver a great penalty-killer, but he's also a prototypical "moneypuck" value player.

     

8. Paul Martin, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Penalty-Killing Minutes Assigned: 46.9 percent

    Attempted Shot Differential per Two Minutes: -2.19

     

    Paul Martin joined the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2010-11, the year they finished first overall in team penalty-killing. They finished third the following season before an injury to Martin, along with some other setbacks, chased them down to 25th last year.

    Unlike the majority of the league's other top penalty-killing defensemen, Martin is a do-it-all defenseman who works the power play as well. It's amazing that he can kill penalties at an elite level when it's not his primary focus.

    Michelle Crechiolo picked up on this in a recent profile for NHL.com. "What’s especially notable about his work on special teams is that since Martin practices on the power play at team skates, he doesn’t get any work on the penalty kill. He has to rely on his knowledge of opposing players he’s accrued over his career as well as the coaching staff."

     

7. Josh Gorges, Montreal Canadiens

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    Penalty-Killing Minutes Assigned: 58.0 percent (seventh)

    Attempted Shot Differential per Two Minutes: -2.60

     

    While Josh Gorges may have benefited from playing with partners like Hal Gill through most of 2011-12, it's hard to argue with the results. The Habs killed off 88.6 percent of their penalties that year, second best in the league, and Gorges was the team leader in penalty-killing minutes. He won the Jacques Beauchamp Trophy for being the team's unsung hero that year.

    He was acquired by Montreal from San Jose in 2007, along with the first-round choice used on Max Pacioretty, and is known as Josh "the Boss" Gorges. He is repeatedly praised for his leadership and his work ethic, two qualities that go a long way when killing penalties.

    Though still somewhat of an unknown around the league, his talents are very well established in Montreal. Gorges currently leads the Canadiens in shorthanded ice time, just as he has every year since 2009-10 (minus his injury-shortened 2010-11 campaign).

     

6. Francois Beauchemin, Anaheim Ducks

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    Penalty Killing Minutes Assigned: 60.9 percent (third)

    Attempted Shot Differential per Two Minutes: -2.65

     

    Francois Beauchemin's solid defensive play was finally recognized last season when he finished fourth in Norris Trophy voting and received the Rod Langway Award from the Hockey News as the league's best defensive defenseman.

    Though he never seems to find himself on a defensively strong blue line, with the obvious exception of his 2007 Stanley Cup run alongside Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger, Beauchemin always manages to keep his team's penalty-killing rate competitive.

    Re-acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs late in the 2010-11 season for Joffrey Lupul, Jake Gardiner and a draft pick, Beauchemin is fast closing in on the Ducks' all-time record for games played by a defenseman. His offseason knee ligament surgery has fortunately not appeared to have slowed the 33-year-old defender down.

     

5. Brooks Orpik, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Penalty-Killing Minutes Assigned: 57.6 percent (ninth)

    Attempted Shot Differential per Two Minutes: -2.50

     

    When you're named after Herb Brooks, you'd better be good at killing penalties, and that's exactly the case with Brooks Orpik.

    Orpik is one of the NHL's pure defensive specialists, and he's heavily relied upon on such a high-octane offensive team like the Penguins.

    His breakout season as one of the league's top defensive defenseman came in 2010, the year after he helped the Penguins win the Stanley Cup. That year he won an Olympic silver medal with Team USA and was named Pittsburgh's best defensive player.

    His Hockey News scouting report is similar to many of the players on this list, stating that he "Has excellent recovery speed and leadership ability. Plays a punishing brand of hockey, is good at keeping the game simple and adept at blocking shots. Can be used in a shutdown role."

     

4. Zdeno Chara, Boston Bruins

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    Penalty-Killing Minutes Assigned: 53.0 percent (19th)

    Attempted Shot Differential per Two Minutes: -2.32

     

    Some players are assigned a large portion of penalty-killing minutes because their lack of offensive talent leaves the coaching staff no need to spare some of their energy for the power play. That is not the case for Zdeno Chara, and yet he still works 53 percent of Boston's penalty kills.

    Chara works wonderfully on the top penalty-killing pairing with Dennis Seidenberg, moving bodies out of the way while his partner blocks shots. His long reach helps him intercept passes and clear away loose pucks and rebounds.

    A consensus among analysts is hard to come by when discussing defensive play, but Chara's status as one of the league's best is one of the enduring few. In October 2010, for example, the folks at NHL Hot Stove ranked Zdeno Chara as the league's second-best penalty-killing defenseman.

    Wherever he is placed exactly, Chara's a big reason why Boston enjoyed the fourth-best penalty kill in the league last year and was the key to shutting down both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in last year's Eastern Conference Final. 

     

3. Anton Volchenkov, New Jersey Devils

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    Penalty-Killing Minutes Assigned: 50.7 percent (28th)

    Attempted Shot Differential per Two Minutes: -2.12

     

    Anton Volchenkov, or "A-Train," has been one of the league's top shutdown defensemen ever since the 2005 lockout, with the penalty kill and shot-blocking being his two specialties. When New Jersey led the league with an amazing 89.6 percent penalty-killing percentage in 2011-12, Volchenkov was on that top unit.

    Not everyone agrees with that assessment of New Jersey's top pairing, however. A video breakdown by Darren Shelter of the Hockey Writers, for example, led to the conclusion that "Volchenkov is one of the slower defensemen that NJ has" and that "if you were to look at all the goals scored against NJ on the PK this season, you would continue to notice their mistakes." 

    Despite the well-considered arguments of his detractors, Volchenkov's reputation as one of the league's top penalty-killers persists. All the ingredients that go into a great penalty-killer can be found in the 31-year-old Russian defenseman. He is an intelligent player, is hard to beat one-on-one and uses his body extremely well to throw hits and block shots.

2. Zbynek Michalek, Phoenix Coyotes

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    Penalty-Killing Minutes Assigned: 61.1 percent (second)

    Attempted Shot Differential per Two Minutes: -2.38

     

    Zbynek Michalek spent two seasons in Pittsburgh, during which time their penalty kill ranked first (2010-11) and third overall (2011-12), and where "his penalty-killing prowess was the stuff of legends," according to the staff of the PensBlog. The Penguins ranked ninth and 25th in the seasons immediately preceding and following Michalek's tenure with the team, respectively.

    For most of his career, Michalek has played with the Phoenix Coyotes, where he currently works on the top shorthanded pairing with Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Over the past three seasons, only New York's Dan Girardi has been assigned a higher percentage of a team's available penalty-killing minutes than Michalek, but he's allowed opponents to attempt 0.61 more shots per two-minute power play.

    Unlike other defensemen on this list, Michalek's strength isn't his physical play. While he certainly blocks shots and keeps the crease reasonably free of traffic, the 30-year-old Czech defender prefers sound and disciplined positional play night in and night out.

1. Bryce Salvador, New Jersey Devils

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    Penalty-Killing Minutes Assigned: 58.6 percent (sixth)

    Attempted Shot Differential per Two Minutes: -2.14

     

    The analytics are strongly in favor of Bryce Salvador's penalty-killing play. He has been assigned 58.6 percent of penalty-killing minutes over the past three seasons, and the next (non-teammate) on the list among those who have allowed his 2.14 attempted shots per two minutes (or less) was assigned only 37.2 percent (P.K. Subban).

    Still, not everyone is sold on New Jersey's 37-year-old captain as the league best. Of Salvador and his partner Anton Volchenkov, John Fischer of In Lou We Trust wrote that "they're slow, they can get too physical at times, and if they're not in the right position, then they're pretty much done." That educated view is certainly in sharp contrast to my interpretation of the underlying data.

    Perhaps more important than either of our analyst opinions is that of former long-time teammate Zach Parise, who said that "he's been really important to us. Just the big penalty kills that he has and the patience all of a sudden he's gotten with the puck." In his ESPN interview, Parise continued by saying that "he's been playing great for us and you know we had the best PK in the league this year, hugely because of what him and Volchy [Anton Volchenkov] do. We all trust what he does and that's what's important."

     

    Rob Vollman is author of Rob Vollman's Hockey Abstract, co-author of the annual Hockey Prospectus guides and a featured ESPN Insider writer. @robvollmanNHL.