Our hunt for the league's best penalty killers begins with the amount of short-handed ice-time a player gets per game (SHTOI/GP). The league's best penalty killers would be used a lot, and the definition of "a lot" depends on the discipline of the team, and how many quality penalty killers they have. Barring a coach with poor judgment or a team stacked with some amazing penalty killers, the league's best would certainly be among the top two among defensemen or forwards in short-handed ice-time per game.
The primary purpose of killing penalties is to prevent scoring, so among this list of primary penalty killers, the league's best would have a very low short-handed goals-against average (SHGAA). Again, the definition of "very low" would depend on other factors, like the other penalty killers on the team. If he were on an amazing team, then his SHGAA would be far below league average (which is roughly 6.30), but not necessarily below the team average. If he were on a terrible team, then it would be far below the team average, but not necessarily below the league average. In essence, his SHGAA would either be far below the league average or far below the team average.
Our hunt for the league's best penalty killer begins with a list of those with the lowest absolute SHGAA among primary penalty killers.
SHGAA: Goals against average in four-on-five situations, as of January 5, 2010.
Primary PK Team SHGAA
Dave Bolland Chicago 1.78
Daniel Winnik Phoenix 1.92
Daymond Langkow Calgary 2.34
Duncan Keith Chicago 2.61
Daniel Paille Boston 2.68
Eric Brewer St. Louis 2.74
Vernon Fiddler Phoenix 2.96
Mike Grier Buffalo 3.28
Nicklas Lidstrom Detroit 3.56
Jay Bouwmeester Calgary 3.80
Brooks Orpik Pittsburgh 3.80
Among those great penalty-killers who haven't suffered the misfortune of playing on a lousy team, these could be considered the league's best. The only other reason someone would be missing from this list would be if they ran into some bad luck or against some particularly skilled opponents in our relatively small sample size of a half-season.
Speaking of misfortune, what about truly talented penalty-killers with the misfortune of playing either under a coach with poor judgment or alongside someone even better? Such players would be pushed down the depth chart, but they would still show up on the following list of the best SHGAA among secondary penalty-killers.
To help us determine if their team suffers any of these misfortunes, I've included the players behind whom they find themselves on the depth chart.
Secondary PK Team SHGAA Primary Penalty Killers (with SHGAA)
Jonathan Toews Chicago 1.04 Dave Bolland (1.78) and John Madden (5.01);
committee of 5
Sergei Kostitsyn Montreal 1.26 Tomas Plekanec (3.93) and Travis Moen (2.90)
Maxime Talbot Pittsburgh 1.70 Jordan Staal (5.57), Matt Cooke (6.05) and
Craig Adams (6.78)
B.J. Crombeen St. Louis 1.80 Jay McClement (4.17), in a committee of 3
Bryan Allen Florida 2.14 Jordan Leopold (8.03), Keith Ballard (8.37)
and Dennis Seidenberg (8.56)
Kirk Maltby Detroit 2.33 Patrick Eaves (4.98) and Darren Helm (5.23);
committee of 5
Ed Jovanovski Phoenix 2.69 Adrian Aucoin (5.19) and Zbynek Michalek
Scott Gomez Montreal 2.70 (see Kostitsyn)
Jere Lehtinen Dallas 2.91 Tom Wandell (9.90), in a committee of 5
Paul Mara Montreal 2.94 Josh Gorges (4.17) and Hal Gill (4.23)
The league's best penalty-killers could also be on either of these two lists. Players on this list are performing exceptionally well while short-handed, but have the misfortune of falling primarily into one of two categories:
Those playing under coaches who are potentially making the wrong decisions as to who should be on the ice in four-on-five situations (e.g. Florida, Dallas)
Those playing on teams loaded with equally exceptional talent (e.g. Montreal). After all, with respected penalty-killers like McClement, Staal, Aucoin, and Gorges, even a great coach could easily push a really talented player to a secondary unit, at least temporarily.
Further to this second category, some NHL players find themselves in the opposite situation: playing on a team with lousy penalty killing. A great penalty-killer playing on a lousy team might not have a great SHGAA, but he should still compare very favorably to his teammates.
TSHGAA: Team four-on-five goals-against average when that player is not on the ice.
Diff: Difference between the team's SHGAA when the player is on the ice, and when he isn't.
Primary PK Team SHGAA TSHGAA Diff
Jeff Finger Toronto 4.34 11.52 -7.18
Daniel Winnik Phoenix 1.92 7.48 -5.56
Nicklas Lidstrom Detroit 3.56 8.59 -5.03
Daymond Langkow Calgary 2.34 6.43 -4.09
Sami Pahlsson Columbus 4.70 8.61 -3.91
Colin White New Jersey 4.44 8.35 -3.91
David Legwand Nashville 6.48 10.28 -3.80
Anton Volchenkov Ottawa 4.37 8.06 -3.69
Vernon Fiddler Phoenix 2.96 6.59 -3.63
Karlis Skrastins Dallas 6.69 9.82 -3.13
No hunt for the league's best would be complete unless we considered players like these, but you can't use just this table alone. To make this list, you have to be a on a bad penalty-killing team practically by definition. Even if you're on an average penalty-killing team like Calgary or Phoenix, you have to have truly exceptional results—like Daymond Langkow and Vernon Fiddler—to show up here. We need all three lists so far if we're going to find the league's best.
Do we need anything else? It's less likely that you could be a great penalty-killer on a bad penalty-killing team and not be on the primary unit, but it's possible. To complete our hunt, here's a list of those with the best SHGAA relative to their team's, including a list of who is ahead of them on the depth chart.
Primary PK Team SHGAA TSHGAA Diff Primary Penalty Killers (with SHGAA)
Bryan Allen Florida 2.14 9.69 -7.55 (see above)
Ian White Toronto 5.64 12.25 -6.61 Jeff Finger (4.34) and Francois
Jere Lehtinen Dallas 2.91 9.36 -6.45 (see above)
Frans Nielsen NY Islanders 4.04 10.25 -6.21 Richard Park (11.81) and Nate
Kyle Okposo NY Islanders 4.38 10.45 -6.07 (see Nielsen)
Matt Stajan Toronto 6.01 11.45 -5.44 Lee Stempniak (8.34) and Wayne
Andrej Meszaros Tampa Bay 3.48 8.72 -5.24 Mattias Ohlund (5.25) and Matt
Matt Bradley Washington 3.15 8.04 -4.89 Brooks Laich (5.79) and David
Kirk Maltby Detroit 2.33 7.13 -4.80 (see above)
Francis Bouillon Nashville 5.57 10.19 -4.62 Kevin Klein (10.27) and Dan
Toronto's coach, Ron Wilson, may have been wise to include Jeff Finger on his primary unit, but he might have made a mistake with the other three: Francois Beauchemin, Lee Stempniak, and Wayne Primeau. Based on midseason results, the Leafs might have better luck if they favored Ian White and Matt Stajan. The Islanders and the Predators might also want to re-visit their choices in the second half.
Putting it all together
There's one more attribute that the league's best penalty-killers would share: consistency. We should be able to look at some statistics from last season and see them rate well either by SHGAA, or by Alan Ryder's penalty-killing-specific measurement, PCD-SHK.
PCD-SHK measures the contributions a player has made killing penalties and takes several factors into play, including the team's goaltending. Although not intended, it results in almost a scale of 1-to-10, with the league's best earning over 10. Players who do well on teams that take a lot of penalties or have weak goaltending are going to have the best PCD-SHK. Let's look at all 34 players we discovered above.
Penalty Killer Team PCD-SHK SHGAA
Paul Mara Montreal 14 2.42
Matt Bradley Washington 6 4.51
Eric Brewer St. Louis 9 4.75
Kirk Maltby Detroit 8 4.87
Scott Gomez Montreal 5 5.07
Brooks Orpik Pittsburgh 11 5.20
Kyle Okposo NY Islanders 6 5.42
Daniel Paille Boston 5 5.46
Jere Lehtinen Dallas 7 5.55
Francis Bouillon Nashville 7 5.56
B.J. Crombeen St. Louis 4 5.61
Anton Volchenkov Ottawa 16 5.81
Ed Jovanovski Phoenix 6 5.92
Frans Nielsen NY Islanders 6 6.07
Sergei Kostitsyn Montreal 3 6.40
David Legwand Nashville 6 6.43
Maxime Talbot Pittsburgh 8 6.59
Mike Grier Buffalo 8 6.62
Vernon Fiddler Phoenix 8 6.74
Duncan Keith Chicago 12 6.91
Colin White New Jersey 12 7.12
Sami Pahlsson Columbus 11 7.28
Jonathan Toews Chicago 2 7.84
Jay Bouwmeester Calgary 4 7.93
Dave Bolland Chicago 5 8.08
Andrej Meszaros Tampa Bay 10 8.14
Nicklas Lidstrom Detroit 12 8.23
Matt Stajan Toronto 5 8.28
Karlis Skrastins Dallas 3 8.55
Ian White Toronto 5 9.56
Jeff Finger Toronto 4 9.95
Daniel Winnik Phoenix 0 12.10
Daymond Langkow Calgary Not Used
Bryan Allen Florida Did Not Play
On defense, Montreal's Paul Mara stands out ahead of the pack. If he's the league's best, then coach Jacques Martin has made an uncharacteristic error playing Josh Gorges and Hal Gill ahead of him.
Duncan Keith, Eric Brewer, Nicklas Lidstrom, Brooks Orpik, and Anton Volchenkov are all primary penalty killers who are playing well both this season and last. Pick any two off that list and you probably have the best top pair possible.
As for forwards, Sami Pahlsson is the only forward to earn a PCD-SHK over 10 last season, and this season he is behind only Daniel Winnik and Daymond Langkow—neither of whom killed penalties last season—in team differential. Unless former Phoenix and Calgary coaches Wayne Gretzky and Mike Keenan made colossal errors, Pahlsson's probably one of the men you want up front.
For his partner, I'm going to go with either Kirk Maltby or Jere Lehtinen. They're both playing on teams that kill penalties largely by committee, with preference to one or two other players for reasons that may be unrelated to how well these two have performed both this season and last. The consistency with which Maltby and Lehtinen keep scoring low on this scale is the primary reason why I'd consider them alongside Sami Pahlsson on the top pair despite not being used that way on their respective teams.
There is probably not a simple, single statistical method to determine the league's best penalty killers, but by combining several different approaches I think you'll agree that the best penalty killers have fought their way to the top.
That's it for this week. If you have a specific player or a different approach in mind, I look forward to your emails!
Robert Vollman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
You can contact Robert by clicking here or click here to see Robert's other articles.