Ranking the NHL's 10 Best Penalty-Killers in the 2015-16 Season

Carol Schram@pool88Featured ColumnistDecember 8, 2015

Ranking the NHL's 10 Best Penalty-Killers in the 2015-16 Season

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    Christine Cotter/Associated Press

    It's not the most glamorous job in hockey, but good penalty-killers can be the difference between success and failure in a tight NHL, where many games are decided by a single goal.

    An airtight penalty kill doesn't just help keep a team on the right side of the scoreboard. It can also allow the group to play a more aggressive style—less concerned that if a play does get whistled by the officials, it shouldn't be a game-changing moment.

    It's tough to narrow down a list of the NHL's best penalty-killers to just 10 players. Forwards and defensemen play different roles, and some strong individual penalty-killers are trapped on inferior teams, where their solid work yields limited dividends. 

    With that in mind, this list attempts to recognize the players who make the biggest impacts on successful penalty-killing teams. Different types of contributions are made; the common thread is that these players are helping their teams glide through short-handed situations and, more often than most, finish the night in the win column.

    Once you've taken a look, let us know who else you think is deserving of recognition for his penalty-killing skills.

10. Ryan McDonagh: New York Rangers

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Short-handed Time on Ice: 82:23 - 15th in NHL

    Short-handed Time on Ice Per Game: 2:56 - 28th in NHL

    Times Team Short-handed in 2015-16: 88 - 14th overall

    Team Penalty Kill:  84.1 percent - sixth overall

    His Impact: An argument can be made that Henrik Lundqvist is the most important penalty-killer on the New York Rangers, but outside of the crease he gets plenty of help from forward Dominic Moore and defenseman Ryan McDonagh.

    McDonagh gets the nod here for carrying the biggest penalty-killing load on a Rangers team that keeps its goals against low by playing a disciplined style which limits the amount of time short-handed.

    Coach Alain Vigneault manages his team's ice time carefully, so McDonagh doesn't boast the same huge workloads as some of the other players on this list. Still, he and Dan Girardi will always be the go-to pairing for the Rangers in crucial penalty-killing situations.

9. Frans Nielsen: New York Islanders

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    Short-handed Time on Ice: 65:08 - 14th among forwards

    Short-handed Time on Ice Per Game: 2:19 - 29th among forwards

    Times Team Short-handed in 2015-16: 87 - 16th overall

    Team Penalty Kill:  85.0 percent - fourth overall

    His Impact: Just two years ago, the New York Islanders were the second-worst penalty-killers in the league, only ahead of the Florida Panthers. Last season, they climbed to 26th in the league, and this year, they're fourth overall. 

    The Isles have learned to apply their tenacious playing style to effective penalty-killing, and the group shares the load well. Frans Nielsen is singled out for special attention as the team's top defensive center—taking key draws and using his speed to attack the opposing power play and generate short-handed scoring chances.

    In addition to his strong defensive sensibility, Nielsen leads the NHL with 12 short-handed shots, which has yielded one short-handed goal.

8. Drew Miller: Detroit Red Wings

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    Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

    Short-handed Time on Ice: 77:32 - third among forwards

    Short-handed Time on Ice Per Game: 2:58 - fourth among forwards

    Times Team Short-handed in 2015-16: 90 - 12th overall

    Team Penalty Kill:  81.1 percent - 13th overall

    His Impact: The Detroit Red Wings' emphasis on strong systems hockey didn't change when new coach Jeff Blashill took the reins from Mike Babcock this season. Penalty-killing is one of those systems where the Wings have been traditionally strong, and Drew Miller is known as one of the best in the league when his team is short-handed.

    Miller ranks second among NHL forwards with 15 short-handed shot blocks. That's one better than his penalty-killing partner, Luke Glendening, who wins key draws and also plays big minutes for the Wings when they're down a man.

    On Dec. 3, Miller suffered a fractured jaw that will force him out of the lineup for six weeks, according to Helene St. James of the Detroit Free Press. In the Red Wings' first game without Miller, the team surrendered a season-high three power-play goals against the Nashville Predators. Suffice to say, Miller will be missed while he's on injured reserve. 

7. Zdeno Chara: Boston Bruins

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    Derek Leung/Getty Images

    Short-handed Time on Ice: 92:53 - fourth overall

    Short-handed Time on Ice Per Game: 3:52 - first overall

    Times Team Short-handed in 2015-16: 100 - third overall

    Team Penalty Kill:  78.0 percent - 23rd overall

    His Impact: At age 38, Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara is having a bounce-back season. After being slowed by a knee injury during the 2014-15 campaign, Chara's back up to 24:34 of ice time a game—and nobody in the league spends more time on the penalty kill per game than the Boston captain.

    The Bruins struggled short-handed during the early part of the season and are tied with a league-worst 22 short-handed goals surrendered, but there have been signs of improvement. Boston had given up just one short-handed goal in eight games before getting scored on twice during a whopping seven short-handed situations against the Nashville Predators on Dec. 7. 

    This season, the Bruins are a team in transition. Chara remains one of the most dominant penalty-killers in the game.

6. Jeff Petry: Montreal Canadiens

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    Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

    Short-handed Time on Ice: 75:09 - 28th overall

    Short-handed Time on Ice Per Game: 2:41 - 46th overall

    Times Team Short-handed in 2015-16: 95 - seventh overall

    Team Penalty Kill:  86.3 percent - second overall

    His Impact: More than most successful teams, the Montreal Canadiens kill penalties by committee. Defenseman Jeff Petry is the most consistent member of the short-handed group, which has the best differential so far in the NHL season—giving up 13 power-play goals against while scoring six short-handed goals of their own.

    The Canadiens' speed and quick transitions make them a threat to score, even when they're a man down. Petry is excellent at clearing the puck out of danger and setting up his teammates—three of his eight assists this season have come with his team short-handed.

    Defensively, Petry has also been an asset since he joined an already-good Montreal penalty kill at the 2015 trade deadline. Last season, the Habs were seventh overall when short-handed; this year, they've moved up to second in the league.

    A nod, as well, to Petry's teammate Max Pacioretty—an outstanding defensive forward, especially for a winger, who is also an ace penalty-killer.

5. Drew Doughty: Los Angeles Kings

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    Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

    Short-handed Time on Ice: 80:46 - 17th overall

    Short-handed Time on Ice Per Game: 3:06 - 19th overall

    Times Team Short-handed in 2015-16: 99 - fifth overall

    Team Penalty Kill:  84.8 percent - fifth overall

    His Impact: Only one player in the NHL averages more ice time per game than Drew Doughty. Ryan Suter's Minnesota Wild are struggling with a 27th-ranked penalty kill this season, while Doughty's Los Angeles Kings are hanging near the top of the pack.

    Doughty averages 27:35 per game in total and leads his team in ice time on both the power play and the penalty kill. His effortless skating is his biggest asset when the Kings are short-handed. He's also fearless when it comes to clearing the goal crease, giving his netminder Jonathan Quick good looks at shots with minimal interference from the opposition.

    The Kings don't score a lot of goals. Much of their success relies on playing good defense, including when the team is a man short. That's why Doughty is such a key figure in their lineup.

4. Alex Pietrangelo: St. Louis Blues

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    Short-handed Time on Ice: 92:36 - fifth overall

    Short-handed Time on Ice Per Game: 3:25 - fifth overall

    Times Team Short-handed in 2015-16: 95 - eighth overall

    Team Penalty Kill:  86.3 percent - third overall

    His Impact: The St. Louis Blues are known for playing a heavy game—a style that can often result in plenty of penalties.

    It's rare, however, to see defenseman Alex Pietrangelo mixing it up. The smooth-skating 25-year-old has never taken more than 36 penalty minutes in a season and has been whistled for just two minors this year.

    While his mates are cooling their heels in the penalty box, Pietrangelo is the picture of efficiency on the penalty kill—blocking shots and clearing pucks out of harm's way. He's one of the busiest penalty-killers in the NHL, on one of the best penalty-killing teams.

3. David Savard: Columbus Blue Jackets

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    Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sports

    Short-handed Time on Ice: 93:56 - third overall

    Short-handed Time on Ice Per Game: 3:21 - seventh overall

    Times Team Short-handed in 2015-16: 98 - sixth overall

    Team Penalty Kill:  81.6 percent - 11th overall

    His Impact: The Columbus Blue Jackets may be in last place in the Eastern Conference, but they're one of the better teams in the NHL when it comes to killing penalties.

    Good thing, because the gritty playing style coached by John Tortorella means his players will spend plenty of time in the sin bin.

    Like most of the Blue Jackets, defenseman David Savard got off to a rough start. He's finding his way under Tortorella, who leans heavily on the players he favors. Partnered with Jack Johnson, 25-year-old Savard provides the steady defensive conscience for his pairing whether they're playing 5-on-5 [five-on-five], on the power play or on the penalty kill.

2. Ryan Kesler: Anaheim Ducks

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    Short-handed Time on Ice: 79:31 - second among forwards

    Short-handed Time on Ice Per Game: 2:50 - fifth among forwards

    Times Team Short-handed in 2015-16: 99 - fourth overall

    Team Penalty Kill:  87.9 percent - first overall

    His Impact: The Anaheim Ducks struggled to start their season, but their penalty kill never wavered. The short-handed quarterback is center Ryan Kesler—the 2011 Selke Trophy winner as best defensive forward in the NHL when he was with the Vancouver Canucks.

    Kesler's short-handed ice time is 20th overall in the NHL—one of the heaviest loads in the league for a forward and an especially big burden for a center who plays in all situations. 

    On the penalty kill, Kesler's an asset thanks to his ability to win faceoffs. He's 11th in the NHL with a 56.9 percent success rate, and his 62 wins while his team is short-handed are tops in the league.

    Kesler's also more willing than most forwards to block shots. His 18 short-handed blocks tie him for second in the league behind Jacob Trouba of the Winnipeg Jets, who has 20. Kesler's the only forward in the top 10.

1. Andy Greene: New Jersey Devils

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    Short-handed Time on Ice: 98:11 - first overall

    Short-handed Time on Ice Per Game: 3:38 - third overall

    Times Team Short-handed in 2015-16: 92 - ninth overall

    Team Penalty Kill: 83.7 percent - eighth overall

    His Impact: Signed by the New Jersey Devils as an undrafted free agent back in 2006, defenseman Andy Greene has become a low-key leader during his decade with the club. He leads the team in ice time and was named the Devils' captain heading into the 2015-16 season.

    Greene's not flashy, but he's consistent, dependable and durable—the anchor for the defense-minded Devils. Nowhere does his contribution to the team show more clearly than in his commitment to penalty-killing. 

    Listed at 5'11" and 190 pounds, Greene's not a bruiser like most of the other defensemen on this list or like his New Jersey predecessor, Scott Stevens. Greene's tenacity enables him to get the job done, allowing coach John Hynes to trust him as the surprising Devils continue their charge for their first playoff spot in four years.

    All stats courtesy of NHL.com, currently through games played Monday, Dec. 7.

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