Improving the Thrashers Penalty Kill: Stay out of the Box

Anyone who watched the Thrashers last season knows that the Penalty Kill was just a disaster zone all last season. The Thrashers allowed a staggering 88 goals against while short handed (league leading Minnesota allowed just 36 PPGA last season). The PK unit alone gave up more than 1/3 of all of the team's Goals Against last season. The PK% was dead last for most of the year and ended up 29th in a 30 team league. At Even Strength, the Thrashers were a net -10 in Goal Differential last year, and on special teams they were a net -16, for a combined -26. To make the playoffs they need to get that net Goal Differential to zero or better.

The simplest way to cut down on Power Play Goals Against is to stay out of the box. Unfortunately the Thrashers were not very good at that either. The team finished 25th (out of 30) in minor penalties taken, and they finished 24th in number of times short handed. Let's assume for the moment that the Thrashers show absolutely no improvement in their PK% but simply cut down on the number of penalties taken. If they went from 366 times short handed (24th worst) to 330 times short handed (13th) that would result in NINE fewer PK goals allowed. In other words, if the Thrashers simply display more discipline--that factor alone would get them 1/3 of the improvement they need to make the playoffs.

First let's look at the forwards. Last year the Thrashers had NOBODY among the the NHL leaders in penalties drawn. I suspect that Kovalchuk is still not getting as many calls as other speedy stars because of his reputation for diving when he was younger. The Thrashers best player in terms of net penalty differential last season was Bryan Little who put the team on the PP 13 more times than he put his team on the PK.

In the table below, I have everyone ranked by their "Discipline Rate" or their rate of minor penalties against given their ES ice time. It is probably not so surprising to see a tough guy like Eric Boulton at the top of this list. Colby Armstrong another physical guy also takes many penalties, but unlike Boulton he also draws quite a few himself. The biggest surprise was seeing Slava Kozlov so high. I don't remember him taking a lot of undisciplined calls. I do remember him taking penalties to prevent scoring chances from time to time. (Note: the totals for Christensen and Williams are their full season numbers.)

 

Player Games Played Even Strength Minutes Penalties Taken Penalties Drawn Net Penalties Penalties Taken Rate (per 60 Minutes) Penalties Drawn Rate (per 60 Minutes)
ERIC BOULTON 76 7.48 22 12 -10 2.3 1.3
COLIN STUART 33 9.46 8 10 2 1.5 1.9
COLBY ARMSTRONG 82 12.37 21 18 -3 1.2 1.1
VYACHESLAV KOZLOV 82 11.91 18 14 -4 1.1 0.9
CHRIS THORBURN 82 9.42 13 14 1 1 1.1
JOSEPH CRABB 29 9.86 5 5 0 1 1
JIM SLATER 60 8.47 8 11 3 0.9 1.3
RICH PEVERLEY 66 11.73 11 9 -2 0.9 0.7
MARTY REASONER 79 11.53 13 21 8 0.9 1.4
ERIK CHRISTENSEN 64 11.15 10 11 1 0.8 0.9
ERIC PERRIN 78 9.99 9 15 6 0.7 1.2
TODD WHITE 82 12.39 11 11 0 0.6 0.6
JASON WILLIAMS 80 12.16 9 13 4 0.6 0.8
ILYA KOVALCHUK 79 14.87 9 17 8 0.5 0.9
BRYAN LITTLE 79 12.18 8 21 13 0.5 1.3

 

When it comes to penalties the defenseman are the key guys. They match up against the other super stars and at times they must take a penalty to prevent a high quality scoring chance. If you look at the table below you can see that the worst penalty takers per minute played were Valabik, Schneider, Exelby, Bogosian and Havelid.

Player Games Played Even Strength Minutes Penalties Taken Penalties Drawn Net Penalties Penalties Taken Rate (per 60 Minutes) Penalties Drawn Rate (per 60 Minutes)
BORIS VALABIK 50 13.05 28 7 -21 2.6 0.6
MATHIEU SCHNEIDER 67 15.48 29 3 -26 1.7 0.2
GARNET EXELBY 59 14.21 19 3 -16 1.4 0.2
ZACH BOGOSIAN 47 14.62 14 10 -4 1.2 0.9
NICLAS HAVELID 78 16.15 21 8 -13 1 0.4
TOBIAS ENSTROM 82 15.89 20 19 -1 0.9 0.9
ANSSI SALMELA 26 12.24 4 5 1 0.8 0.9
NATHAN OYSTRICK 53 13.67 10 7 -3 0.8 0.6
RON HAINSEY 81 14.97 11 4 -7 0.5 0.2

 

At first glance, it looks like happy days are ahead--three of the worst five have departed the team! However, some caution is in order. Valabik will likely see more minutes as the "tough guy" on defense and he will probably replace some of Exelby's PIMs. New comer Pavel Kubina posted numbers that are almost identical to Nic Havelid last year, so no big change there. Mathieu Schneider's departure could be the biggest gain for the Thrashers in terms of cutting down on PIMs against. The key will be how Zach Bogosian handles playing more minutes against the top scoring forwards in the NHL. If Bogosian can contribute solid defense and stay out of the box that could save the Thrashers some goals against just by keeping them off the PK.

I plugged this data into a spread sheet and made some educated guesses about each defenseman's ice time for the upcoming season. If each player has a similar penalty pattern and if my ice time guesses are accurate--then I estimate the Thrashers could cut the number of Short Handed situations by 22 next year just based on changes to the defense. Even with a brutal PK% of .76, cutting down on 22 PK situations would save 5-6 Goals Against.

Conclusion: Avoiding penalties through improved discipline is not enough to get the Thrashers into the playoffs this upcoming season. But it could get the Thrashers about one quarter of the improvement that they need. To me the recipe for getting into the post-season looks like this: 1) improved discipline--25% of required improvement; 2) improve PK% of just below NHL average--50% of required improvement; and 3) improve ES goal differential by playing the other end more--25% of required improvement. If the Thrashers accomplish all three of those things and get their Total Goal Differential down to zero, they can get into the playoffs.

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