Ranking the NHL's 10 Best Penalty-Killers in the 2016-17 Season

Carol Schram@pool88Featured ColumnistDecember 10, 2016

Ranking the NHL's 10 Best Penalty-Killers in the 2016-17 Season

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    Kathy Kmonicek/Associated Press

    As the National Hockey League rolls wraps up its second month of play for the 2016-17 season, Hockey Reference reports that scoring is down just a tick from last year—from 2.71 goals per team per game to 2.70.

    The stats show that power-play opportunities have increased slightly, but penalty killing has also improved. On balance, the end result is basically the same—teams are scoring an average of 0.58 power-play goals per game this season.

    Though the overall special teams numbers are similar, there has been a bit of a changing of the guard. The Carolina Hurricanes are leading the league with a 92 percent penalty-killing rate and have surrendered just six goals with the man advantage, while previously strong penalty-killing teams like the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings are languishing in the bottom half of the league stats—and the Chicago Blackhawks are dead last!

    So you won't be seeing Norris Trophy winner Drew Doughty or perennial Selke Trophy candidates like Ryan Kesler and Jonathan Toews on the list of the league's best penalty-killers this time around. Most of the best penalty-killing teams in the league this year are from the Eastern Conference, and this list aims to showcase the best forwards and defensemen in their particular roles.

    Bonus points go to players whose teams have impressive overall penalty killing and who play big roles within those structures.

10. Mark Pysyk, Florida Panthers

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Shorthanded Time on Ice: 66:15—53rd overall among NHL players

    Shorthanded Time on Ice Per Game: 2:23—tied for 88th

    Times Team Shorthanded in 2016-17: 87—15th overall

    Team Penalty Kill: 85.0 percent—sixth overall

    His Impact: Since the Florida Panthers fired coach Gerard Gallant after a 3-2 loss in Carolina on November 27, the team's overall results have been, at best, average. Florida is 1-2-3 for five points in six games, but the team's penalty kill has been outstanding!

    Ranked 19th in the league when Gallant was fired, according to Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press (via the Globe and Mail), the Panthers have climbed to sixth overall in under two weeks. They've allowed just one goal in 23 shorthanded situations, an amazing 95.6 percent kill rate since Tom Rowe took over behind the bench.

    If you compare the Panthers' full-season ice-time numbers with what Rowe has done since taking over, you'll see big spikes in ice time on the penalty kill for three players in particular:

    • Mary Pysyk, D, overall 2:21, now 3:24 per game
    • Mike Matheson, D, overall 2:06, now 3:02 per game
    • Derek MacKenzie, C, overall 1:50, now 2:38 per games

    Mark Pysyk was acquired in the summer trade that saw Dimitry Kulikov leave Florida. Now 24, the first-round draft pick from 2010 appears to be successfully handling his increased responsibilities since Rowe has taken charge.

    Pysyk is offering early evidence that Florida's analytics crew may indeed have found a diamond in the rough, especially when it comes to improving the Panthers' penalty kill.

9. Luke Glendening, Detroit Red Wings

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    Rob Carr/Getty Images

    Shorthanded Time on Ice: 64:32—19th overall among NHL forwards

    Shorthanded Time on Ice Per Game: 2:18—tied for 25th among forwards

    Times Team Shorthanded in 2016-17: 82—21st overall

    Team Penalty Kill: 84.1 percent—10th overall

    His Impact: Last season, Detroit Red Wings forward Drew Miller earned notice as one of the NHL's best penalty-killers right as he suffered a broken jaw. That injury kept Miller out of the lineup for 14 games, then he returned for just two games before suffering a torn meniscus that ended his season.

    In Miller's absence, the penalty kill ticked right along. It was 13th in the league at 81.1 percent when he went down and finished the year ranked 14th at 81.5 percent. One of the reasons for the success was the continued steady play of Miller's old partner, Luke Glendening. He finished out the season as the league's busiest penalty-killing forward, both in terms of total ice time and minutes per game (3:08).

    This season, the Red Wings have done a decent job of staying out of the penalty box, so Glendening hasn't been quite as busy. Miller's still with the team but has been a healthy scratch on seven occasions—the 32-year-old's spot has been filled primarily by two veteran newcomers to Detroit, Steve Ott and Frans Nielsen.

    The torch has been passed. Glendening, 27, and defenseman Danny DeKeyser, 26, are now the anchors of the Red Wings' penalty kill.

8. Brandon Sutter, Vancouver Canucks

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    Ben Nelms/Getty Images

    Shorthanded Time on Ice: 50:35—59th in NHL among forwards

    Shorthanded Time on Ice Per Game: 1:52—79th among forwards

    Times Team Shorthanded in 2016-17: 73—tied for 27th overall

    Team Penalty Kill: 84.9 percent—tied for seventh overall

    His Impact: The Vancouver Canucks are taking a lot of heat as they try to lurch back toward respectability in the NHL standings. One place that the team has been good this year is on the penalty kill.

    Some credit could go to new assistant coach Doug Jarvis, who formed one of the top penalty-killing units of all time alongside Bob Gainey with the juggernaut Montreal Canadiens teams of the late 1970s. Jarvis also won the Frank J. Selke trophy as the NHL's top defensive center as a member of the Washington Capitals in the 1983-84 season.

    Jarvis' prize pupil in Vancouver looks to be Brandon Sutter, who's cut from similar cloth. His shorthanded ice time is lower than many other players around the league because the Canucks are one of the NHL's least penalized teams.

    Sutter leads all Canucks forwards in shorthanded ice time—and a team that's ranked 24th overall defensively with 2.89 goals surrendered per game is an impressive seventh on the penalty kill and tied for second, with just 11 goals surrendered.

    Faceoffs are big part of Sutter's game. He's a solid 52.5 percent overall but that number spikes in special team situations. He's 61.1 percent in the circle on the power play and 54.9 percent on the penalty kill—good for seventh spot in the league among the 29 forwards who have won more than 25 shorthanded faceoffs this season.

    Last year, when Sutter missed all but 20 games through injury, the Canucks' penalty killing ranked 17th in the league, with an 81.1 percent success rate. His return to the lineup this season has helped Vancouver lean on the penalty kill as one of the team's strongest areas of play.

7. Cal Clutterbuck, New York Islanders

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    Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

    Shorthanded Time on Ice: 67:15—13th among NHL forwards

    Shorthanded Time on Ice Per Game: 2:41—sixth among forwards

    Times Team Shorthanded in 2016-17: 90—11th overall

    Team Penalty Kill: 83.3 percent—13th overall

    His Impact: Penalty killing might not be the most glamorous job, but if you do it well, you can sometimes parlay it into a pretty solid contract extension.

    Such is the case for Cal Clutterbuck—a stalwart member of the New York Islanders' first penalty-killing unit alongside Casey Cizikas and one of the few bright spots in the Islanders' tumultuous season so far.

    On Friday, general manager Garth Snow rewarded the 29-year-old Clutterbuck, who hasn't scored more than 23 points in any of his three seasons to date with the Islanders, with a five-year contract extension with an average annual value of $3.5 million per season, according to CapFriendly.

    That's a nice increase from his previous cap hit of $2.75 million per season—and presumes that the hard-hitting Clutterbuck will stay healthy enough into his 30s to keep killing penalties and laying his body on unsuspecting opponents.

6. Chris Kelly, Ottawa Senators

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    Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images

    Shorthanded Time on Ice: 71:51—fifth overall among NHL forwards

    Shorthanded Time on Ice Per Game: 2:39—seventh among NHL forwards

    Times Team Shorthanded in 2016-17: 89—13th overall

    Team Penalty Kill: 85.2 percent—fifth overall

    His Impact: The Ottawa Senators were a defensive disaster last season—26th overall in goals against and 29th on the penalty kill, with a success rate of just 75.8 percent.

    Enter new coach Guy Boucher—and a couple of free-agent signings. Veteran Chris Kelly, 36, signed a bargain one-year deal for just $900,000, per CapFriendly, and has become the centerpiece of the Sens' terrific new penalty-killing unit, which has helped Ottawa move up to a respectable 10th in the league in goals against per game.

    Credit for the improved penalty kill also goes to journeyman Tom Pyatt. After spending the last two years in the National League A in Switzerland, Pyatt's on another bargain one-year contract at $800,000 and, like Kelly, will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year.

    The pair have combined primarily with Dion Phaneuf and Cody Ceci to form one of the most successful penalty-killing units in the NHL. Both could be in line for tidy raises if they can keep up their good work until the end of the season.

5. Zdeno Chara, Boston Bruins

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    Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

    Shorthanded Time on Ice: 82:58—17th overall in NHL

    Shorthanded Time on Ice Per Game: 3:46—first overall in NHL

    Times Team Shorthanded in 2016-17: 92—10th overall

    Team Penalty Kill: 87.0 percent—third overall

    His Impact: He may look like a giant pylon when he lines up his 6'9" frame in front of Tuukka Rask on the Boston Bruins penalty kill, but Zdeno Chara remains a beast when his team is shorthanded, even at 39 years old.

    Chara doesn't get power-play time anymore, but on a game-by-game basis, he remains the busiest penalty-killer in the league—just like last year, when he ranked seventh on this list.

    Boston's penalty kill started out shaky last season—it was 23rd in the league when last year's list was published in December but improved to 11th by the end of the season. This year, with Chara rejuvenated by new rookie partner Brandon Carlo, the team's penalty kill is returning to the elite levels we saw when the Bruins went to the Stanley Cup Final in 2012-13.

    Don't underestimate him just because he's big and old. Chara is still among the most effective defenders in the league when his team is a man short.

4. Zach Hyman, Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Shorthanded Time on Ice: 68:08—10th among NHL forwards

    Shorthanded Time on Ice Per Game: 2:43—tied for third among forwards

    Times Team Shorthanded in 2016-17: 76—25th overall

    Team Penalty Kill: 85.5 percent—fourth overall

    His Impact: The reinvention of the Toronto Maple Leafs remains a work in progress, but coach Mike Babcock has already done a masterful job of resetting the team's penalty kill. 

    In 2014-15, before Babcock arrived to save the day, Toronto's P.K. ranked 22nd in the NHL. That number improved to 13th last season and has jumped all the way up to fourth in the league this year thanks to the deployment of specialist forwards Zach Hyman and Ben Smith.

    When Toronto claimed Smith off waivers in late October, that basically signalled the end of the road for Peter Holland, but Hyman also played a role in causing Holland's stock to drop. Hyman, 24, started his tenure with the Leafs organization in the AHL after being acquired in a trade with the Florida Panthers during the summer of 2015. He has won over his coaches at both the AHL and NHL levels with his tenacity and work ethic.

    Not only does Hyman lead all Leafs forwards with an average of 2:43 of shorthanded ice time per game, but he's also fifth overall among Toronto forwards—averaging 16:18 per game with virtually no power-play time. When he's not killing penalties with Smith, Hyman is the steadying influence Babcock has tapped to ride shotgun alongside the talented-but-inexperienced rookie Auston Matthews in five-on-five play.

3. Andy Greene, New Jersey Devils

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    Shorthanded Time on Ice: 93:01—fifth in NHL

    Shorthanded Time on Ice Per Game: 3:26—third in NHL

    Times Team Shorthanded in 2016-17: 84—22nd overall

    Team Penalty Kill: 84.5 percent—ninth overall

    His Impact: Andy Greene took top spot on this list last season and deserves attention again. Last year, he shut down opposing teams in a partnership with the bruising Adam Larsson. This year, he has worked primarily with new acquisition Ben Lovejoy on the New Jersey Devils blue line.

    The Devils have cut down on the number of penalties they've taken this season, which is part of the reason why they're tied for seventh in the league with just 13 power-play goals against. New Jersey has been shorthanded for 146:26 so far this year, and Green has been on the ice for just under two-thirds of that time. At the age of 34, he's still a crucial penalty-killer on the Devils, where team success begins at the back end.

2. Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes

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    Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

    Shorthanded Time on Ice: 91:10—seventh in NHL

    Shorthanded Time on Ice Per Game: 3:22—sixth in NHL

    Times Team Shorthanded in 2016-17: 75—26th overall

    Team Penalty Kill: 92 percent—first overall

    His Impact: The Carolina Hurricanes don't take many penalties. While Antoine Roussel of the Dallas Stars leads the NHL with 70 penalty minutes, the Hurricanes' four most-penalized players combined have only tallied 73. Viktor Stalberg leads the way with a humble 23 minutes.

    Thanks to such good discipline, the Canes rank among the teams that have given up the fewest power-play opportunities so far this season. They're a little higher in time shorthanded—ranked 24th at 137:11—because they've rarely had to come back to full strength after giving up a power-play goal. Carolina is the only team the NHL in single digits, with just six power-play goals against so far this season.

    Jaccob Slavin's not yet a household name, but he has become an integral part of the Hurricanes' successful penalty kill. His 91:10 of shorthanded ice time represents about two-thirds of Carolina's total time a man down. It's nearly 12 minutes more than the team's second-most-used player, Ron Hainsey, and it ranks seventh overall in the league. Slavin's almost always available for the kill too—he has played in all 27 games for Carolina this season and has taken just one minor penalty himself.

    Tied for the Hurricanes' team lead in scoring among defensemen, with nine points and showing a plus-four overall, it's no wonder that the 22-year-old fourth-round draft pick from 2012 has become a player Carolina coach Bill Peters is trusting in all situations. After making the jump from the AHL to the NHL just last season, Slavin leads his team in overall ice time, playing 23:15 a game.

    If he can keep up his strong play, Slavin has the potential to carve a niche for himself as one of the NHL's top-level penalty-killers.

1. Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues

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    Shorthanded Time on Ice: 93:40—third in NHL

    Shorthanded Time on Ice Per Game: 3:20—tied for ninth in NHL

    Times Team Shorthanded in 2016-17: 103—third overall

    Team Penalty Kill: 87.4 percent—second overall

    His Impact: During the offseason, the St. Louis Blues lost their captain, David Backes, to free agency. Steady defenseman Alex Pietrangelo replaced him as the 22nd captain in franchise history. Though he has a "C" on his jersey, nothing has changed in terms of Pietrangelo's effectiveness as one of hockey's top blueliners.

    Last year, Pietrangelo ranked fourth on this list of the NHL's best penalty-killers. This season, his numbers are comparable, as are those of his team. The big, bad Blues still take a lot of penalties but the Pietrangelo-Jay Bouwmeester defense pairing anchors the kill as well as ever. 

    Maybe things will change next year, when Ken Hitchcock retires from his hockey life in the Gateway City. As long as the team is under Hitchcock's watch, it looks like the penalty kill is going to be impressively effective. Pietrangelo will be the centerpiece of that core group.


    All stats courtesy of NHL.com