The Detroit Red Wings' season ended in a disappointing fashion as a team that looked like all of its players weren't on the same page was picked apart by a Nashville team which wasn't suffering the same affliction (yet). While the Wings' PK in the playoffs wasn't part of the problem, one could argue their regular season kill was partly responsible for their disappointing seeding and, be extension, their early exit from the playoffs.
Today, we're going to look at how the Red Wings compared to the rest of the pack and to past Detroit teams in the PK to see just how bad it was.
First off, the Red Wings' PK during the regular season succeeded 81.8% of the time, good for 18th place among the NHL this season in that ranking. This is the worst the Red Wings have killed penalties since the 2008-09 season, when they finished 25th. Let's go a bit more into context there.
18th in the league for PK percentage is obviously unacceptably bad, but there are significant problems with just overall percentage which lose a lot of detail. For instance, Florida's PK was worse than Detroit's by percentage (79.5%), but they also spent about 65 fewer minutes shorthanded and, as a result, gave up one less power play goal against on the season. While there's a good correlation between a team's power play goals against and penalty kill percentage over a season, it completely ignores a potentially very big aspect of a team's PK: their ability to score short-handed.
If goals are important to score and important to prevent (and they are), then let's take a look at the NHL's rank for how badly each team's being on the PK hurt them over the course of the season using the differential of how many times they scored short-handed versus how many power play goals they allowed.
Rankings-wise, that's 23rd place.
So who's at fault here?
Looking at the goaltenders
The Wings' netminders put up a 0.864 save percentage while shorthanded against the league's 0.866 average (A difference which averages out to 0.25 goals over the course of an entire season). Jimmy Howard was even better than that, going 0.889, putting him in 14th place leaguewide among tenders who saw at least 140 shots while shorthanded. However, blame isn't completely off the goaltending here. Ty Conklin faced only 55 shots while shorthanded, but gave up 14 goals for a 0.745 sv%. According to his CSSI stats, 4.5 of those goals were considered soft.
We can get a decent idea of how a man fared by his PPGA/60. We'll take how many goals he was on the ice for compared to how long he spent on the ice shorthanded and get a rating of how many goals you'd expect him to be on the ice against for every 60 minutes of PK time played. For Quincey, I took only the time he played in Detroit, not his Avalanche days.
For comparison's sake, here's the top ten defensemen in the league in terms of overall PK time and what their PPGA/60 stats were.
Obviously, those aren't the ten best penalty killers in the league just because they get the most time, but all but three of them were better than the average Red Wings' PKer (although what a difference in Jonathan Ericsson's numbers, huh?)
While a lot of blame may be heaped on Brad Stuart and his 30 PPGA, his numbers weren't as bad as some of his teammates', but they were only just about average overall. For the most part, Detroit's blueliners did their jobs slightly below average and that ended up showing on their PK percentage. Ericsson was good, Kronwall and Stuart were decent, but the remainder of the corps were either not good enough (Lidstrom) or downright bad (Quincey).
So if it's not the goaltending and it's only kind of the defense, it has to be on the forwards, right? Well... sort of. Here's the same PPGA/60 chart for the Wings leading PKing forwards
And again at the top-ten in the league (among forwards) for SHTOI
Looking at this, there are only two forwards who had a PPGA/60 below the 5.68 average of these ten. Again, these aren't necessarily the ten best PKers in the league (although Cooke's numbers are fantastic), but they're good enough to be trusted with those big minutes.
Looking at these figures, I am surprised to see Drew Miller's number that low, considering how many minutes he put up. I feel vindicated in my season-long man-crush. I'm also a bit surprised to see Filppula and Zetterberg's numbers so high for PPGA/60.
What strikes me to see is that (other than Datsyuk), the success of Detroit's penalty kill seemed to come from the forwards who were the least-threatening shorthanded. While the forwards run in to the same problems of having been generally "not good enough", we're seeing something which you've probably already yelled at your monitor about by now.
What about the coaching?
If you look at the New Jersey Devils' PK (and their incredible -12 comparative index score when it comes to how much a team was hurt by its own penalties), the first thing which might jump out at you beyond their PK% is the amount of short-handed goals they scored: 15. By comparison, Detroit put up two. TWO SHORTHANDED GOALS IN THE ENTIRE DAMN SEASON.
Without clear answers as to which individual players were sabotaging the Wings' otherwise good PK, we have to examine the system. what the numbers tell us is that the more offensively-gifted players on the PK seemed to have been the worst guys to have out there and that the system worked slightly better with defense-oriented role-players. Of course, when you regularly have four of your D-Men killing penalties, you can't exactly just put defense-only players out there. If you want your best players to get the most ice time, you're going to have to have some of them kill penalties.
Without the ability to fill from your ranks to fit the system-as-implemented, it's time to look at the system and see what kind of changes can be made to get better results. Again looking statistically, Detroit had 60 shots on goal while shorthanded this season, slightly below the league average 67. This led to a league-low (tied with TBL) 2 short handed goals for, well below the average 6.17. This is largely due to the 3.3 shooting percentage, which is almost tripled by the league's 9.3.
So the problem seems to be marginally an issue of shots created, but majorly an issue of finish. I can't begin to comment on the relative quality of shorthanded chances for the Wings, but when they're matched beaten in futility only by the 2.9% of the Tampa Bay Lightning, something is most certainly off.
I believe the biggest part of the problem with Detroit's penalty kill was in their single-passive system. Detroit's PKers would only pressure the puck carrier if they read a big advantage and usually only with the defender nearest the puck. Other systems used by teams like New Jersey, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles stress a much more fluid and aggressive PK which is not only designed to block off shooting and passing lanes like any PK unit should do, but also designed to keep the pressure constant to force quick decisions and mistakes.
The drawback of a more aggressive style can be quite ugly to behold when a player is momentarily taken out of position by a positional mistake or a great play by the power play unit. This can create opportunities for teams to really exploit the manpower advantage to get shots past the goalies. However, when it works correctly, it makes the power play unit work just a little more tentatively and can do just as much to prevent quality scoring chances for the opposition as it can to create the bonus shorthanded opportunities for the team.
I believe the actively aggressive system implemented by the league's best PKing teams has benefits which outweigh the drawbacks brought on by both coverage mistakes and by very good plays by opponents' PP units. I also believe that Detroit has the talent to utilize this system to their advantage. This is a fundamental change I would like to see made by the coaching staff heading into next season.