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Areas to watch in 2021-22: How much can the Penguins improve on the PK?

Penalty killing was a big weakness in Pittsburgh last season, can that turn into a strength next year?

NHL: MAR 29 Islanders at Penguins Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Penguins have not made many sweeping roster changes so far in the off-season. They’ve lost a few players like Jared McCann, Brandon Tanev and Cody Ceci and brought in a few new faces like Brock McGinn and Danton Heinen but haven’t made many serious or splashy alterations to the lineup overall.

How could next season be different or change for the better without external roster changes or clear improvement there? Part one of this series to consider will focus on a sore spot in 2020-21, the penalty kill.

Pittsburgh’s PK finished just 27th in the league at a 77.4% rate. One reason for this could be the high level of competition in the divisional format, all games were against East teams and several others joined the Pens at the bottom of the PK rankings with the Flyers finishing 30th in the league and the Devils ending up dead last in 31st place.

Part of the division’s strengths were undoubtedly the star power and ability to score on the power play. Washington was third with a 24.8% goal rate. Pittsburgh finished right behind them in fourth with a 23.7% rate (not that the Pens had to defend their own power play). Boston (10th), surprisingly Buffalo (12th) and NYR (14th) all also finished in the top half of the league in power play success.

Personnel changes will affect the Pens’ PK grouping: Ceci (2:32 shorthanded per game) was second on the team behind Brian Dumoulin. Tanev (2:24 per game) led the team’s forwards. Mark Jankowski, also now a free agent, played a significant role killing 1:48 per game — and he, perhaps surprisingly, saw pretty good results happen while on the ice in 4v5 play.

There is yet no obvious replacement for Ceci, though the team probably figures to use the regular first pair of Dumoulin and Kris Letang more, like they did in key situations crunch time and playoffs. John Marino, who still averaged 20+ minutes of playing time in the regular season, was PK regular. Marcus Pettersson (0:46 per game) was not a major SH factor, which might need to change in the future, and seemingly would be a fit for the stellar 5v5 defensive results he has driven over the years.

Up front, the mid-season addition of Jeff Carter put a right-handed center in the mix. McGinn (who led Carolina forwards in 2020-21 with 2:09 per game SH) will be a major new piece for the PK group.

Beyond that, as the old cliche goes, the goaltender is often counted on to be a team’s best penalty killer. Given that the Pens finished poorly in the league on the PK last season, it might go without saying but their goaltending wasn’t great while down a player. The Pens’ combined goalie output in all PK situations was a .837% save percentage last year, which ranked 28th in the league, a not-so-coincidental almost mirroring of the team’s 27th results.

Penguins 2020-21 goaltending, 5v5 vs PK

Goalie 5v5 save% 5v5 xGA Actual 5v5 GA PK save% PK xGA Actual PK GA
Goalie 5v5 save% 5v5 xGA Actual 5v5 GA PK save% PK xGA Actual PK GA
Tristan Jarry 0.923% 64.1 68 0.835% 16.4 23
Casey DeSmith 0.924% 33.5 32 0.838% 8.8 12

(data via Natural Stat Trick)

Tristan Jarry performed better in 2019-20, where he had a .865% shorthanded save percentage, and allowed 18 total goals on an expected 14.8. If Jarry can be closer to those numbers next season compared to his 2020-21 results, the Pens’ PK numbers will get back closer to the 10th place overall rate that they were in 2019-20. (Matt Murray, I guess it should be pointed out, was the Pens’ best PK goalie by a comfortable margin in the past two seasons..)

The discrepancy between 5v5 and PK situations is a pretty big one too. Jarry had the 24th best save% at 5v5 play last year (out of the 74 goalies who played the most minutes). DeSmith was even a notch better at 21st. At evens, the Pens’ goalies were very stable and consistent (in the regular season, anyways...). But while killing penalties last year, that totally plummeted. Jarry only ranked 61st out of 70 goalies last year for SH PK%. DeSmith was not much better at 59th.

The scheduling differences mentioned above should be a big benefit as well. There was only one team, New Jersey, who had an out-and-out poor power play that was like a night off and 32/56 (57%) of the Pens’ games came against teams with top-14+ PP in the league. The level of competition will decrease.

Which might give the goaltending a bit more of a chance to improve. Just what coaching elements can be adjusted to have the system or the technique of the goalie to get better results is a level of analysis of higher detail, but on the surface it is pretty safe to say that Pittsburgh needs to receive better goaltending while killing penalties, and there’s probably a pretty fair chance of getting it.