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Why is the New York Islanders Penalty Kill Awful?

By power plays killed, the Islanders and Panthers have the two worst penalty kills in the league. Yet something significant differentiates the two.

Not enough.
Not enough.
Paul Bereswill

Saturday afternoon the New York Islanders conceded four power play goals (one was on a 5-on-3 in garbage time). Those four came on 12 shots on goal, meaning the Islanders goalies stopped 67% of the shots they faced while shorthanded.

It was all too familiar, and if you are someone who pays attention to shot totals on the PK (rather than just PK efficiency/percentage which is used to rank penalty kills), then you know where I'm going with this.

The question of "Why is the Islanders penalty kill last in the league?" has an answer that also applies to "Why are the Islanders floundering in last place in the Metro?"

At the Olympic Break, the Islanders PK% (a crude stat that simply rates how many power plays of any variety and length you've killed) stood at 77.6%, ranked 29th in the league. (After this past weekend it's still 29th, but with an even worse 76.9% percent efficiency.)

But as you'll see below, there's a pretty major difference between the Islanders' 29th-ranked PK and the Panthers' 30th-ranked PK.

Why Count Shots?

Special teams results, as a rule, are subject to fluctuation that can mislead us as to how good they are. For extensive data work into this topic, see this post at Fear The Fin:

Given that a teams effect on PK Sv% is very close to none, we can say that the goaltender's influence significantly changes our approach to analyzing the PK as compared to the PP.

All of the "tough luck" or "good bounces" that can make a difference in a given game are magnified when they occur in the small samples of time spent either up or down a man.

To be sure, as with wins and losses, the proof is in the pudding: No advanced stats can change how much you've won or loss, nor how many goals your special teams have scored or conceded. But the "why?" -- luck? a specific flaw? a general malaise? -- is worth digging into.

Certainly there are tactical adjustments, injuries and other things that can affect a special team's results in one direction or the other for the short-term. A recent video post at Islanders Point Blank went in depth on some of the Islanders' tactics (I question some of the conclusions, but that's for another day).

However, over the long haul of a season, a good indicator of whether a power play or penalty kill is "doing the right things" is to look at how many shots they are generating (on the power play) or preventing (on the PK). And the Islanders, though not superior in that category, are hardly among the league worst through 60 games (so, not including the three games after the Olympic break):

According to ExtraSkater, their shots on goal allowed per 60 minutes of PK time was 47.9, or ninth-best in the league. Include shot attempts allowed overall (including misses and blocks) and it's 95.1 -- ranked lower at 17th, but still not near the league-worst.

Via Behind the Net, here is a look at the shots allowed per 60 with each significant penalty killer after 60 games. If there was ever any doubt, Frans Nielsen and Michael Grabner remain your most effective killers:

Penalty Killer PK TOI/GP Shots allowed/60
Michael Grabner 1.92 28.3
Frans Nielsen 2.02 32.3
Thomas Hickey 1.81 37.1
Travis Hamonic 2.81 38.2
Andrew MacDonald 2.61 29.5
Casey Cizikas 2.26 40.0
Cal Clutterbuck 1.38 41.0
Matt Martin 0.85 41.1

So what's the issue? If you follow the team, you know where this is going...

Islanders Goaltenders while Shorthanded through 60 games
Man in Big Pads SH shots faced Goals Allowed Saves SH Sv%
Kevin Poulin 110 17 93 .845
Evgeni Nabokov 101 17 84 .832
Anders Nilsson 26 6 20 .769

There were notable goalies with similarly poor shorthanded stats at the Olympic break -- again, special teams are small samples with variable results -- like Craig Anderson (.836), James Reimer (.840), and Jonathan Quick (.846).

For reference, Tim Thomas' SH Sv% is .874 on 190 shots faced for Florida's 30th-ranked PK. While we're referencing Florida, today their PK allows 57.2 shots per 60 minutes, which ranks them 25th, while the Isles today stand at 48.0, or ranked 9th-best.

In fact, the Isles actually allowed shots at a worse rate (53.1) on the 4-on-5 PK in 2012-13, when Nabokov's PK save percentage was a little more respectable .868.

Again, in a small-sample situation where three gaffes by a defenseman can alter your goals allowed by 20 percent (e.g. an increase from 14 GA to 17 GA), mistakes or bounces or anything else can make a difference. And as noted, special teams can make for small samples so goalies' performance can vary wildly there too. Perhaps one could consider that if all of the Islanders goalies have poor results, it's not them but the men in front of them.

But given those goalies' track records in the NHL and AHL, I'm not betting on that explanation.

The Goalies. The Goalies. The Goalies.

Though the Islanders have received a few outstanding goalie performances this season, their regular stats would tell you that doesn't happen often enough. And their special teams records indicates they aren't bailing the team out on that front either.

Meanwhile, a look at the shots-allowed rank vs. the goals-allowed rank strongly suggests that, whatever the Islanders PK tactical flaws may be, there is something much more significant going on.

It's an issue known last summer, it's an issue that lingers today, and it's an issue that I believe obscures how good the rest of the roster is -- or at least completely muddies our evaluation of the rest of the Islanders roster (which by other measures is bad, but not this bad). And though fans tend to assume, "Surely they'll get a replacement," it's an issue whose resolution does not appear imminent.