Penalty killing has been one of the Capitals’ strengths this season, with the group currently in the top five leaguewide. “Controlled aggression” has been credited for the team’s improvement.
I thought about the Capitals’ success on the penalty kill while attending the inaugural Columbus Blue Jackets Hockey Analytics Conference earlier this month. While the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference has long brought together disparate analysts from across the sports landscape, as analytics become a larger part of hockey, the interest in hockey analytics has grown, leading to conferences in Seattle and Ottawa.
On February 8, Columbus joined the crowd with an all-day event that featured panels and presentations from NHL employees, data collection companies, and some of the most well-known hockey reporters, analysts and bloggers.
The panels were varied, covering topics like defending the blue line, whether expansion dilutes the talent base, and the impact of a sellout crowd on shots on goal totals. Most interesting to me was the presentation entitled “The Anatomy of a Power Kill.”
That presentation explained how teams are increasingly deploying three players that form a triangle to protect the most dangerous area – in front of the goal. The fourth player, usually a forward, stays at the top of the triangle, pressuring the two players closer to the blue line. The concept also allows the forward player to apply pressure in the opponent’s side of the ice, as the other team attempts to exit its own zone and enter the Capital’s zone.
The presenters talked about how “a power kill can be about aggressiveness in other zones as well,” which several Caps, including particularly Carl Hagelin and Tom Wilson, have demonstrated this year.
The presenters explained that the data also shows that penalty killers are no longer content to sit back in the defensive zone and are, instead, looking for opportunities to score, even when down a man.
For example, in the 2013-14 season, during a power play, 14 percent of the shots on goal were by the shorthanded team; last season, that number had risen to 18.7 percent.
Interestingly, data for the past three seasons shows that unblocked shot attempts against the team who is a man down have not gone up. In other words, teams are getting better about going on the offensive while shorthanded, but are not giving up an increased number of unblocked shot attempts.
This echoes the Washington Post article from earlier this season, where Scott Arniel explained that players are better this season at making the correct reads, recognizing when they need to attack in “trigger situations” and also when to fall back if the opposition wants to stay on the edges. As one of the presenters noted, if you’re spending time in the offensive zone while down a man, you’re also limiting the other team’s time in your zone.
The presenters hypothesized that this data might be because teams are using more skilled offensive players on their penalty kills. And, in fact, the data seems to support this thesis, as well as anecdotical evidence. Over the past four seasons, the data suggests that more skilled players are spending time on the penalty kill.
Several teams were identified as leading this trend, including Toronto, which uses Mitch Marner and Kasperi Kapanen, and Carolina, which uses Jordan Staal and Sebastian Aho.
Will there come a day when we see Ovi killing a penalty? I suspect that is unlikely, but the data suggests the Capitals might want to consider whether to include more offensively skilled players on their penalty kills.
You can find the entire conference here. The Anatomy of a Power Kill presentation starts at 1:23:30)
Presentation: “The Anatomy Of a Power Kill” by Meghan Hall and Alison Lukan
Full conference video : 2020 Hockey Analytics Conference Hosted By The Columbus Blue Jackets
By Brendan Thomas Machado