Ranking the Best Penalty Killers Among 2014 NHL Free Agents

Rob Vollman@robvollmanNHLContributor IJune 28, 2014

Ranking the Best Penalty Killers Among 2014 NHL Free Agents

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    The unrestricted free-agency period is a great opportunity for teams to quickly fill their holes.

    For those looking to repair and/or upgrade their penalty kill, who are the most effective available options?

    As usual, I'll be using analytics to answer this question—which is never easy when measuring the defensive side of a player's contributions. Essentially we're looking for players who handled the lion's share of a team's penalty killing duties while reducing the number of scoring opportunities their opponents were allowed.

    Because the 300 minutes killing penalties per season that even a top player spends is far too small a sample size on which to base the results, this analysis went back three years.

    And because no one single statistic can provide a clear picture, several different analytic perspectives were used, including:

    • The percentage of the team's shorthanded minutes assigned
    • The average level of competition that player faced (i.e. top power-play unit or secondary)
    • The team's goals against average with that player on the ice and without
    • The attempted shots the team allowed with that player on the ice and without 
    • Shorthanded scoring
    • Blocked shots
    • Penalties drawn (and taken)
    • Faceoffs won and lost

    In the end, this basket of analytics was used to find the 10 UFAs most likely to improve a team's shorthanded unit next season.

    Remember that this is just one perspective and that the analytic lens is not always kind to everyone, so feel free to weigh in on the comments with any players you feel were overlooked. Now let's begin!

    All raw data for this study from Behind the Net and Extra Skater unless otherwise noted.

10. Willie Mitchell, Defenseman

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    Penalty Killing Credentials

    Willie Mitchell has a sparkling reputation as a top penalty killer.

    Though his usage has been on a gradual decline, Mitchell has worked 52.4 percent of shorthanded minutes over the past three seasons and remains the player of choice against the top power-play units. The rates at which shots have been attempted and goals have been scored are consequently a little higher when he's on the ice relative to when he's not.

    Potential Impact

    Mitchell was Vancouver's top shutdown defenseman, leading the team's blue line in quality of competition and defensive zone starts.

    That continued to be the case his first year in Los Angeles, but given his age and the team's other strong blue-line options, the 37-year-old settled into more of a secondary role, generally ranking fourth or fifth by those measurements, where he remains effective.

    Mitchell is without offensive upside, however, having scored between 10 and 14 points in 10 of his 13 seasons with five different teams.

    Price Tag

    Mitchell's last three contracts over the previous eight years all had the same $3.5 million cap hit, and he'll doubtlessly be looking for the same this summer. But will he find it?

    Given the respect that goes with two Stanley Cup rings, his long reputation as one of the league's better shutdown defensemen and the relative scarcity of quality UFA defensemen, it's entirely likely that he will.

9. Brooks Orpik, Defenseman

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    Penalty Killing Credentials

    "When you're named after Herb Brooks, you'd better be good at killing penalties." That's what I wrote when I ranked Orpik fifth among all NHL defensemen in my early season Bleacher Report article on top penalty killers.

    And why not? Everybody knows how effective Orpik is in all aspects of shutdown hockey. He has handled a whopping 58.7 percent of all shorthanded minutes over the past three seasons against top power-play units, and the Penguins have allowed just 5.38 goals per 60 minutes when he's on the ice versus 6.03 when he's not.

    Potential Impact

    The two-time U.S. Olympian has a reputation as one of the league's finer shutdown defensemen. He has indeed finished top two among Penguins defensemen in both defensive zone starts and quality of competition for each of the past four seasons—a claim that very few NHL defenders can match.

    The 33-year-old also averaged 8.7 hits and 5.6 blocked shots per 60 minutes last year—exceptionally high rates that are typical of Orpik. Though he may be without offensive upside, Orpik has check marks in almost every aspect of a shutdown defenseman's game.

    Price Tag

    Orpik is coming off a six-year deal that carried an annual cap hit of $3.75 million. This could actually be small potatoes compared to what he agrees to in a free-agent market where legitimate top-four defensemen are incredible scarce.

8. Adam Hall, Forward

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    Penalty Killing Credentials

    Adam Hall plays on a team with quite a few solid penalty killers and nevertheless managed to tear off a significant share of the action for himself. On three teams over the past three seasons, Hall has been assigned 44.7 percent of shorthanded duties—quite high for a forward.

    In that time, Hall has gone 211-173 in the faceoff circle, blocked 40 shots, scored a goal and reduced the team's goals against average from 6.15 when he's not on the ice to just 5.48 when he is.

    Potential Impact

    Hall plays in the defensive zone almost exclusively, sporting some of the lowest offensive zone start percentages in the entire league. While he used to take on top-six opponents, he has been facing only depth lines these past two seasons.

    The 33-year-old winger can throw hits, block shots and is absolutely amazing in the faceoff circle. Twice in the past three seasons he finished the year with a faceoff winning percentage over 59.5 percent. Amazing!

    There is absolutely no offensive upside to Hall's game, however, especially when he's used in the defensive zone that way. He has averaged 0.8 even-strength points per 60 minutes in four of the past five seasons, a level below which only enforcers are found.

    Price Tag

    Hall has been playing for near the league minimum for his entire 11-season NHL career, a situation that's unlikely to change now.

    He might be a good fit in Edmonton where he can play some tough minutes and then later be used to trick another team in a future trade where first names weren't specified in the deal.

7. Chris Butler, Defenseman

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    Penalty Killing Credentials

    Chris Butler has done a little of everything as one of Calgary's key penalty killers over the past three seasons.

    He has worked 47.8 percent of the team's shorthanded minutes, scored a goal, drawn three penalties, blocked 45 shots and reduced goals against from 6.28 per 60 minutes when he's not on the ice to 5.39 when he is. Not bad!

    Potential Impact

    Butler can reliably serve as a defensive presence and shot-blocking specialist on a third pairing.

    Don't expect an offensive upside. His even-strength scoring rate has been a consistent 0.6 points per 60 minutes throughout his entire career, which is as low as it gets.

    His terrible possession numbers are also somewhat of a concern or, if you prefer it being put in more traditional terms: His minus-42 over the past three seasons is an issue.

    Price Tag

    Butler signed a one-year deal with a $1.7 million cap hit last summer, his richest contract to date.

    In my view, the 27-year-old is not likely to find another taker at that price, but with the tight free-agent market the way it is there's at least a possibility.

6. Scott Hannan, Defenseman

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    Penalty Killing Credentials

    While much of his game has admittedly abandoned him, killing penalties remains a talent that Scott Hannan remains largely in possession of.

    The 35-year-old has worked 48.1 percent of shorthanded minutes for three different teams over the past three seasons, reducing the number of attempted shots allowed per 60 minutes from 98.6 without him to 92.8 when he's on the ice.

    Potential Impact

    Penalty killing aside, Hannan has otherwise been a defensive-minded third pairing option for five teams over the past four seasons, and not necessarily a strong one.

    At this stage, Hannan is a veteran depth option only, with no offensive upside and a potential liability in the possession game.

    Price Tag

    Hannan's reduced ability to responsibly carry a regular shift at even strength could limit interest in the free-agent market, making his services available for less than the single-year, $1.0 million contracts he's agreed to for the last three seasons.

    Any team looking to add a little veteran depth while upgrading their penalty kill should consider this low-cost option.

5. Stephane Robidas, Defenseman

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Penalty Killing Credentials

    Stephane Robidas has worked 49.0 percent of his team's shorthanded minutes over the past three seasons while blocking 62 shots and drawing an excellent eight penalties.

    Opposing teams have scored just 5.53 goals per 60 minutes when he's been on the ice, compared to 6.78 when he's not. He's helped provide a slight reduction in attempted shots as well.

    Dallas' wealth of solid young defensemen allowed them to move Robidas to the Anaheim Ducks as a trade deadline rental, and they are now poised to release him to free agency for perhaps one last contract.

    Potential Impact

    The 37-year-old defenseman was once one of the league's most underrated two-way defenders, posting up to 41 points while taking on the team's toughest opponents for as far back as such statistics were kept.

    As it stands, Robidas is now more of a second-pairing option, still capable of killing penalties, blocking shots, throwing 7.5 hits per 60 minutes and providing some secondary puck-moving potential.

    Price Tag

    Robidas carried a $3.3 million cap hit over the past four seasons with a salary of $2.85 million this final year.

    The relative scarcity of quality free-agent defensemen could motivate a team to look past his age and injuries to match that deal on either a one- or two-year term.

4. Daniel Winnik, Left Wing

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    Penalty Killing Credentials

    Winnik is a penalty killing workhorse, handling 45.5 percent of all available minutes. He takes on the top opposing power play units, who average just 4.92 goals per 60 minutes, as opposed to the 7.60 that their teams score while Winnik is catching his breath. Wow!

    He has also scored three shorthanders over the past three seasons (adding two more primary assists), has drawn six more penalties than he's taken and has blocked 47 shots.

    Those are all big reasons why Winnik was ranked 10th among all NHL forwards in my early season Bleacher Report article where I wrote that he is a "master of positioning, the 28-year-old winger gets between an opposing player and where they want the puck to go."

    Potential Impact

    A huge part of Anaheim's overachievement lately has been the ability of their top shutdown line of Winnik, Andrew Cogliano and Saku Koivu to handle the tough minutes so that Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf can dominate opponents.

    The departure of two thirds of that line was no doubt a major motivator behind the recent acquisition of Ryan Kesler, who will also obviously help fill the void on the penalty kill.

    Winnik's even-strength scoring rate is also on the bubble of the top-six level, which is typically around 1.7 points per 60 minutes, making the 29-year-old a useful source of secondary scoring.

    Price Tag

    Winnik's last deal carried a $1.8 million cap hit for the past two seasons, but he is not being offered a new deal, as reported by NHL.com.

    In my view, Winnik could command up to $2.5 to $3.0 million per season right now, depending on the term.

3. Mike Weaver, Defenseman

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Penalty Killing Credentials

    One of the best value trade deadline acquisitions this year was when Montreal acquired shutdown defenseman Mike Weaver for a fifth-round draft pick.

    Weaver has been assigned a whopping 58.1 percent of all shorthanded minutes over the past three seasons, blocking 77 shots, drawing three penalties and offering his teams a marginal reduction in goals against (7.53 to 7.32) and attempted shots (96.9 to 91.3) per 60 minutes.

    These are all reasons why Weaver was ranked ninth among all NHL defensemen in my early season Bleacher Report article on the top penalty killers.

    Potential Impact

    Weaver's departure was bad news for the Florida Panthers, who also dealt Marcel Goc to the Pittsburgh Penguins, and could potentially lose Jesse Winchester to free agency. It may ultimately prove to be easy to score power-play markers against the Panthers this year.

    As for Weaver, he's one of the league's most undervalued defensemen because he's just 5'10", 180 pounds and is essentially without an offensive upside.

    However, his small size has not stopped him from taking on the team's shutdown minutes against top opponents while frequently leading his team's blue line in hits and blocked shots.

    Price Tag

    One of the best bargains in the league, Weaver has been making his current $1.1 million or less for each of his 12 NHL seasons. Something tells me that will no longer be the case.

    Weaver has reportedly not received an offer to stay in Montreal, according to Richard Labbe of La Presse.

2. Brett Bellemore, Defenseman

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    Paul Vernon/Associated Press

    Penalty Killing Credentials

    Think there are no potential values in this year's free-agent mix? Think again.

    Carolina's 26-year-old 6'4" defenseman, Brett Bellemore, could very well prove to be the finest available penalty killer in this year's free-agent mix.

    Handling 40.8 percent of the Hurricanes' shorthanded minutes, Bellemore helped reduce opponent scoring from 9.06 goals per 60 minutes while he was off the ice to just 4.81 when he was on. That's amazing! Attempted shots were also down from 97.9 per 60 minutes to just 80.0.

    Maybe he just had a lucky season, or maybe he's the real deal. It probably won't take too hefty an offer to find out.

    Potential Impact

    With only 72 games of NHL action under his belt, not much can be said about Bellemore too definitively using analytics.

    His offensive upside is certainly limited with just 10 career points in the NHL and just 40 in 300 AHL games with the Charlotte Checkers and Albany River Rats.

    When Bellemore is signed, it will be for his size and defensive capabilities. He throws a lot of hits, blocks a lot of shots and is already trusted against top lines and in key defensive-zone situations.

    Price Tag

    Bellemore is currently making around the league minimum and is likely one of the few blue-line bargains left on the market.

    His lack of NHL experience will likely keep teams skeptical of his true talents and the consequent offers relatively low.

1. Jay McClement, Center

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    Penalty Killing Credentials

    Far and away the consensus choice as the league's top penalty killer among forwards, Jay McClement does everything it takes to burn up those two minutes.

    McClement has been assigned 59.7 percent of shorthanded minutes over the past three seasons in a league where most teams have no forward over 40 percent.

    He has drawn four penalties, blocked 54 shots and his teams have had a goals against average of 5.64 when he was on the ice and 6.40 when he's not. Those are all reasons why he was ranked third among all NHL forwards in my early season Bleacher Report article on penalty killing.

    Potential Impact

    The 31-year-old veteran is strictly a defensive-minded player at this stage, though generally not against top-six opponents.

    His scoring level has been between 10 and 20 points for years, but it is certainly possible that it could return to the 36 he once scored in the unlikely event that he was used in a more balanced fashion.

    McClement finished sixth in Selke voting in 2012-13 and has previously played for St. Louis and Colorado in his nine-season career.

    Price Tag

    McClement has carried an annual cap hit in the $1.5 million range for five years now—where it will likely remain. No talks have reportedly taken place with Toronto, according to Jonas Siegel of TSN 1050.

    Toronto also has Nikolai Kulemin, another one of their top penalty killing forwards, entering free agency in the coming days.


    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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