Ranking the Top Penalty Killers Among NHL Forwards Today

Rob Vollman@robvollmanNHLContributor INovember 27, 2013

Ranking the Top Penalty Killers Among NHL Forwards Today

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    Often the difference between a good penalty kill and a great one is a forward like Jordan Staal or Frans Nielsen who can win faceoffs, block shots and win battles along the boards and in front of the net. Who are the ten best active NHL forwards at killing penalties?

    As explained in the companion piece about the best penalty-killing defensemen, it can be difficult to measure a player's defensive abilities with analytics. The two primary statistics of choice are how much they play, and how well the team does at preventing attempted shots when they're out there.

    Remember that attempted shots also approximate how frequently opponents have the puck, gain the zone, and create opportunities. A team that is reducing attempted shots is usually reducing those key success factors as well. And yes, naturally there is a team effect to this kind of analysis.

    Two players that barely missed the list are Tomas Plekanec and Patrice Bergeron. For any other great penalty killers that missed the list, remember that this is only one perspective, and not everyone shines under this particular lens. Now turn over.

    The raw data used in the author's calculations at the top of each slide is from Behind the Net and includes 2010-11 through this past week-end. 

10. Daniel Winnik, Anaheim Ducks

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    Penalty-Killing Minutes Assigned: 45.3 percent (seventh)

    Attempted Shot Differential per Two Minutes: -2.66

    Daniel Winnik is an absolute workhorse on the penalty kill, logging 580.2 minutes over the past four years, fifth among NHL forwards. A master of positioning, the 28-year-old winger gets between an opposing player and where they want the puck to go.

    He consequently blocks a lot of shots, including 21 so far this year (16th among NHL forwards) and 37 last year (22nd). While the league doesn't officially recorded blocked passes, Winnik would surely be among the league leaders in that regard as well.

    Winnik first broke in the NHL on Wayne Gretzky's Phoenix Coyotes as a penalty killing specialist. When he left for Colorado, Phoenix went from having the sixth best penalty killing percentage in the league to 26th.

    Since then Winnik has played for Colorado, San Jose and now Anaheim, each of which have included some stints carrying some truly questionable shorthanded units up on his shoulders.

9. Matt Cooke, Minnesota Wild

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    Penalty-Killing Minutes Assigned: 42.4 percent

    Attempted Shot Differential per Two Minutes: -2.42 (15th)

    Don't let their 24th-ranked penalty killing percentage fool you, Minnesota has assembled an elite shorthanded squad. The acquisition of Matt Cooke, which was broken down into incredible analytic detail over at Gone Puck Wild, was one of the keys.

    The Wild have been gradually developing their penalty killing units for years. Ryan Suter leads a blue line that includes the quietly capable youngsters Jonas Brodin and Jared Spurgeon, Zach Parise joined Mikko Koivu to provide two-way penalty killing up front, which has now been supplemented by a workhorse like Matt Cooke.

    More than just a pest, Cooke is one of those unsung heroes who can do it all. The 35-year-old winger was 15th last year with 41 blocked shots, and his 524.9 penalty killing minutes over the past four seasons is seventh among NHL forwards. 

    A long-time Canuck, Cooke played briefly for Washington before his five year stretch with Pittsburgh. Minnesota signed him to a three-year deal this summer, where he has immediately taken some of the defensive pressure off of their top forwards, allowing them to break out offensively.

8. Frans Nielsen, New York Islanders

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    Penalty-Killing Minutes Assigned: 45.2 percent (eighth)

    Attempted Shot Differential per Two Minutes: -2.54

    The New York Islanders penalty kill is led by the fantastic top forward pairing of speedy Michael Grabner and potentially the league's most undervalued player—Frans Nielsen.

    The 29-year-old Dane is a workhorse killing penalties, consistently ranking among the top ten in minutes played.

    Nielsen contributes in virtually every way possible. In 2010-11 he led the league with seven shorthanded goals, in 2011-12 he was 27th among NHL forwards with 58 takeaways and 20th with 66 blocked shots, and last year he improved to fourth with 47 blocked shots.

    The Isles may not have a reputation as one of the league's best penalty kills, and in fact are dead last with a horrible 70.3 percent penalty killing percentage right now. But those disappointments are despite the best efforts of an otherwise complete defensive forward with whom scoring opportunities are kept to a bare minimum.

7. Darren Helm, Detroit Red Wings

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    Penalty-Killing Minutes Assigned: 48.0 percent (fifth)

    Attempted Shot Differential per Two Minutes: -2.60

    While two-way superstars like Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Stephen Weiss and Daniel Alfredsson are all perfectly capable of killing penalties, their workhorse Darren Helm provides Detroit a valuable service by handling those minutes, freeing them up to focus more on scoring.

    There are many ways to be an effective penalty killer, and Helm's method of choice is with his tremendous speed and highly-disciplined skill. Five of the 26-year-old's 37 career goals have come while playing shorthanded. That's partly why an NHL Hot Stove panel selected Helm as the league's seventh best penalty killing forward back in 2010 using more traditional analysis.

    Unfortunately Helm has been out of action until very recently with a serious back injury (among other ailments). If Helm's return to Detroit's line up is healthy and permanent, expect the Red Wings penalty killing to remain among the league's best.

6. Craig Adams, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Penalty-Killing Minutes Assigned: 48.3 percent (fourth)

    Attempted Shot Differential per Two Minutes: -2.54

    In signing 36-year-old fourth liner Craig Adams this offseason to a two-year deal with an annual cap hit of just $700,000, the Penguins were quietly making one of the more solid free agent deals of the summer.

    Born in Brunei (but raised in Calgary), Adams was drafted by the Hartford Whalers, and played with Carolina and Chicago before being plucked off waivers by Pittsburgh in 2009. Since then he has been the workhorse of Pittsburgh's power play, which currently ranks in the top four for the third time in four seasons.

    While a lot of the credit goes to their blue line, the contributions of Adams and Pascal Dupuis shouldn't be dismissed. Adams plays serious minutes, and always does whatever it takes to shut down opposing power plays. His 619.2 penalty killing minutes over the past four seasons is third in the NHL among forwards, and he was 22nd last year with 37 blocked shots. Not bad for $700,000.

5. Patrik Elias, New Jersey Devils

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    Penalty-Killing Minutes Assigned: 35.1 percent

    Attempted Shot Differential per Two Minutes: -1.81 (first)

    The New Jersey Devils have the second highest penalty killing percentage in the NHL right now, and were first overall in 2011-12, the last full 82-game season. While their blue line is largely to credit, their key penalty killing forwards Patrik Elias, Travis Zajac and Adam Henrique are big difference makers as well.

    Since the Devils don't rely heavily on any single forward, none of their top players handle the same kind of minutes as the other players on this list, but they all handle them more effectively. Elias is the only regular penalty killer in the entire league against whom opposing power plays have attempted fewer than a shot per minute over the past four seasons.

    The 37-year-old Czech and long-time Devil has an offensive bite too, scoring a short-handed goal in each of the past six seasons, the only NHL player to do so. Only Loui Eriksson and T.J. Oshie are capable of matching that this year. Overall, Elias is tenth among active players in career short-handed goals.

4. Jordan Staal, Carolina Hurricanes

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    Penalty-Killing Minutes Assigned: 43.7 percent

    Attempted Shot Differential per Two Minutes: -2.37 (13th)

    How good is Jordan Staal at killing penalties? After being acquired from Pittsburgh by Carolina in the summer of 2012, the Hurricanes' penalty killing percentage improved from 22nd in the NHL to third, while the Penguins dropped from third to 24th.

    Drafted second overall in 2006, Staal was the youngest player to score two shorthanded goals in one game, and currently holds the record for the most shorthanded goals in a single season by a rookie (seven).

    Arguably the league's most outstanding defensive forward, Staal is a physically imposing 6'4" and at least 220 pounds, and is currently 26th in the NHL with a 53.1 faceoff winning percentage.

    Traditional analysis also places Staal as the fourth best penalty-killing forward, according to a 2010 article by the NHL Hot Stove panel. Analytics are hardly necessary to confirm Staal's outstanding penalty killing abilities, but they might be necessary to explain how there could possibly be three players who are better.

3. Jay McClement, Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Penalty-Killing Minutes Assigned: 55.4 percent (first)

    Attempted Shot Differential per Two Minutes: -2.84

    Jay McClement is certainly the league's top penalty killer in terms of ice time, but has had some of his numbers pulled down by playing for teams with otherwise weak shorthanded units.

    McClement's 718.7 minutes killing penalties over the past four seasons is the highest in the NHL by 66.3 minutes. He's been assigned 55.4 percent of his team's penalty killing minutes, far and away the leader among forwards.

    He played five seasons in St. Louis before being traded to Colorado late in his sixth. He then signed a two year deal that carries a $1.5 million cap hit with Toronto, which expires at the end of this season.

    The 30 year-old center is 15th in the NHL with a 54.9 faceoff winning percentage, and was 20th among NHL forwards last year with 39 blocked shots.

    An NHL Hot Stove panel selected Jay McClement as the leagues top penalty killing forward back in 2010, and the Hockey News named him the league's top penalty killer just last year. McClement is the consensus choice as the league's top penalty-killing forward, and has been for several years. 

2. Sean Couturier, Philadelphia Flyers

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    Penalty-Killing Minutes Assigned: 42.8 percent

    Attempted Shot Differential per Two Minutes: -2.09 (sixth)

    While 20-year-old Sean Couturier is certainly viewed as a two-way player of tremendous potential, analytics rank him an awful lot higher than traditional analysis does. Then again, finding highly underrated players who are worth a closer look is one of those areas where analytics are at their best.

    There's also some traditional analysis that supports the concept of Couturier being an elite defensive forward and penalty killer. A 2011 piece on Kukla's Korner, for instance, involved favourable discussions with various scouts and analysts, including one making the comparison between him and Jordan Staal. 

    Whether you agree or disagree with the ranking, no NHL forward has simultaneously a higher share of their team's penalty killing opportunities than Couturier, and a better attempted shot differential over the past four years. The only player that is even close is his usual penalty-killing linemate Matt Read.

    While the accuracy of this ranking is yet to be determined, it can at least been established that Couturier is worth a very careful look.

1. Maxime Talbot, Colorado Avalanche

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    Penalty-Killing Minutes Assigned: 49.5 percent (third)

    Attempted Shot Differential per Two Minutes: -2.38 (14th)

    In an effort to improve their penalty killing, the Colorado Avalanche acquired Maxime Talbot from the Philadelphia Flyers are the end of October, in exchange for gritty veteran winger Steve Downie. Based on the underlying analytics, the move should succeed.

    Talbot has played on some awfully effective short-handed units throughout his time in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, and his 652.4 penalty killing minutes over the past four years are second only to Jay McClement.

    The 29 year-old is tenth among active players in shorthanded goals, and his six multi-goal seasons are exceeded only by Martin St. Louis and Marian Hossa among active players. He even scored two short-handers in the 2011-12 postseason with Philadelphia. 

    Whether this ranking is a trick of the numbers or a legitimate oversight by more traditional analysts, Maxime Talbot is a major coup for Colorado's penalty kill which has reduced its reliance on red hot goaltending.

    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.


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