The Penalty Kill: Good News & Bad News

For the Edmonton Oilers, the not-so-proud owners of the league’s 30th-ranked penalty kill, there is some good news: the goaltending is part of the problem, and it’s bound to get better.

No team in the league has saved a lower percentage of the shots it has faced on the penalty kill than the Edmonton Oilers. Starting goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin has faced 63 shots while the Oilers were down a man, and has allowed 16 goals during that time – resulting in an astonishingly low 0.746 save percentage. For perspective, the worst performance by any goaltender with 25+ games played over the last three years was a 0.788 save percentage (posted by Vesa Toskala in 2009-10) – an average which should only have resulted in 13 goals on the same number of shots.

Khabibulin’s been a fairly average penalty-killing goaltender since the lockout, but his numbers tower over his performance this year – ranging between 0.845 and 0.877 on the penalty kill since 2005-06. Even a performance at the 0.845 level would have saved the team six goals against, or 38% of the power play goals scored against them so far. Even given that Khabibulin’s performance has been affected by age or injury, I think it’s reasonable to conclude that his numbers will improve, and that those improved numbers will greatly benefit the penalty kill.

Unfortunately, a slow start from Khabibulin isn’t the only thing plaguing the Oilers penalty kill – they allow far, far too many shots. Over the last three years, NHL teams have allowed between 40 and 60 shots for every 60 minutes of 4-on-5 ice-time. The teams with the best performance were generally closer to the 40 shot mark, while poor teams were close to 60 (though no team in the last three years has reached a full 60, or a shot per minute, while killing 4-on-5 penalties).

The Oilers performance at shot prevention over the last two seasons has been near the bottom of the league – they allowed a league-worst 59.4 shots against/60 minutes in 2008-09, and were marginally better at 55.9 shots against/60 minutes last season. This season is on pace to be the worst of the three, as they’re currently averaging 60 shots against for every 60 minutes of 4-on-5 penalty-killing. That suggests that even when the goaltending improves, the Oilers will struggle on the penalty kill because they’re allowing too many shots.

As for where the blame lies, I’d suggest a mixture of coaching and personnel. On the coaching side of things, Derek Zona put together a fantastic breakdown of where the penalty kill was going wrong late last month and then some suggestions to improve the unit, and I don’t have much to add to that.

On the personnel side of things, I did want to make a few points. Up front, six players (in order of ice-time: Horcoff, Fraser, Eberle, Cogliano, Hemsky, Jones) have averaged more than a minute per game. On the positive side of the spectrum, Horcoff’s reliable, Fraser’s been a little rough so far but was very strong in this area for Chicago, and Jordan Eberle has been better than we had any right to expect. Andrew Cogliano’s skill-set seems ideally suited to this sort of work and he’s always had decent results in limited action on the PK. Ryan Jones was never really used on the PK in Nashville, and I haven’t been impressed with what I’ve seen in this particular situation so far; maybe he picks it up but I don’t know that he can be counted on yet. I’m also not wild about using Hemsky on the PK; he can only play so many minutes and I think they might be better spent elsewhere, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he turns out to be a pretty effective PK’er. Basically, I think the group could use Cogliano more, perhaps give Jones some more time to find his stride, and would really benefit from the addition of a right-shooting centre – basically the guy they’ve been missing since Jarret Stoll was sent away and not replaced back in the summer of 2008.

On defence, Whitney, Gilbert and Vandermeer all have middling track records on the PK over the last few years, while neither Strudwick nor Peckham are ready for a significant role at this point in their careers. I like most of what I’ve seen from Ladislav Smid in this role, but I think this team misses what Steve Staios and especially Sheldon Souray (when healthy) brought to the table here. It’s arguable whether Souray was more important to the power-play or the penalty kill, but I don’t think it’s arguable that the Oilers don’t currently have someone on the roster who can handle his minutes with the same level of effectiveness.

None of these things need to be fixed immediately: this is a rebuilding year and ultimately a poor performance by this year’s edition of the Oilers should be in the franchise’s long-term interest. If anything, now is the time to break in new personnel: give Smid big minutes and see if he can handle them, and work in Cogliano, Peckham and Jones. On the other hand, I’d feel better about the team’s long-term prospects if Steve Tambellini were to address a long-time problem: third line centre. Until he does, it’s hard to describe the absence of that player as anything other than an organizational blind spot.

  • I find it hilarious that a guy like Bob Stauffer has been talking about getting the skilled players on the pk for a long time, and now that it’s happened they have a horrendous pk. Not a peep about it from him though.

    Also, as fun as it is to see a re-building top 6, I’m not sure why we have to watch a re-building 4th line center like Fraser. Just find somebody old already.

    • Death Metal Nightmare

      i find it hilarious that you actually think this team has the defense to actually run a proper PK. and lets not forget, Horcoff is still out there burning major minutes (2:46 toi/g)on this wretched PK in his oh-so-horny CORSI greatness. not to mention, the next forward on the list is the “3 games in the playoffs, Chicago Blackhawks stanley cup champion” Colin Fraser at 2:13 toi/g. so how much are the offensive forwards really killing it? Eberle? hes got shorthanded goals. Bob’s idea isnt bad, they just dont have the maturity (and talent, regardless of who it is) as a group to execute the structure of a good PK.

      but of course you can go find media guy comments and try to twist the story into that instead of just laughing at how bad the vets are on this team and have no business being the “core” of an NHL team unless you want to hit 30th place. which they more than likely will do when its all said and done.

      cant wait for Horcoff to retire. tries hard but hes not good enough for the respect he gets. Dustin Penner’s “im too big and silly to try” Animal House attitude can leave ASAP too.

      • I never said the defense was good enough to run a pk, they’re obviously a problem too. Don’t put words in my mouth.

        But Horcoff has been one of the better forwards so far this year, (both ends of the rink) so if you can’t wait for him to retire, I suggest you find another team for a few years, because waiting is what you’ll have to do. He is tied or leading the team in goals, points, PP goals, GWG, and was on for at least one of Eberle’s aforementioned SH goals. Not quite sure which of these statisics suggests Horcoff should reitre.

        Agreed on Penner, being aloof is not a great quality to have in the NHL.

        • DSF

          “One of the better forwards” on a last place team…damning with faint praise.

          Currently tied for 26th among NHL centres with 9 points…same as Marty Reasoner. Has an unsustainable 21% shooting percentage.

          58th in FO %

          19th in TOI/60

          Leads the NHL’s worst PK.

          Yep…that’s an all star right there Sparky.

          • Did I say all star? Did I? If you can’t argue with what I actually said, I guess you might as well make something up to argue with.

            As JW pointed out, being top-30 Center in scoring does imply first-line forward, which I am still hesitant to call him. 67 points last year would have tied him for 19th in scoring among centres.

            Just saying, Death Metal Whatshisnuts saying he can’t wait until Horc retires is completely ridiculous.

            Yes, being one of the best forwards on a last place team is damning, but you would have to say that about everyone on the team. Are they all crap then?

  • ranford4life


    I agree that NK’s PK SV% is unsustainably low. We can expect that he will improve in this area over time. Unfortunately, his ES SV% is unsustainably high. His .938 this season “towers over” his .916 ES SV% on 4662 shots since the lockout. If he had posted that career average at ES this season, he would have allowed the six extra goals that his post-lockout PK SV% would have saved him.

  • DMN said:

    “cant wait for Horcoff to retire. tries hard but hes not good enough for the respect he gets.”

    Stanley Cup and Olympic Gold medal winning coach Mike Babcock said:

    “but one thing not a lot of people are talking about is Horcoff is back healthy. He is a real good two-way centre and he’s looked good.”

    I think I’ll take Mike’s opinion on the matter.

  • “On the personnel side of things, I did want to make a few points. Up front, six players (in order of ice-time: Horcoff, Fraser, Eberle, Cogliano, Hemsky, Jones) have averaged more than a minute per game. On the positive side of the spectrum, Horcoff’s reliable…”


    At what point do we look at Horcoff as being unreliable on the PK?

    If I am not mistaken, he has been on the ice for 11 of the last 12 PP goals against. Now I realize that he plays more than any other forward, but will there ever be a point in time where the staff evaluates if he deserves so much PK icetime?

  • a lg dubl dubl

    IMO Khabby’s rebounds are outright awful,he might as well be on of those arms in a pinball machine and he always seems to give up the juicy ones when the D aren’t covering thier man in front, I don’t know if its because of the type of pads he wears or its just him and how he plays but he has to learn how to control the puck waaaaay better. Could his rebound control be part of the problem on the pk? I like to think so.

  • @ rindog:

    I’m going by what I’ve seen; the sample size is far too small to make any kind of numbers judgement (side point: numbers-wise, Horcoff is doing great in shots against per 60 and not so great in goals against).

    I’m worried about Horcoff in quite a few areas, it’s just that IMO he hasn’t been the problem on the PK so far. I’m not adamant about that because it’s my opinion unsupported by other evidence; it’s just what I’ve seen.

  • DSF wrote:

    Currently tied for 26th among NHL centres with 9 points

    BOOM! Top-30! First line centre! On pace for 30 goals and 67 points!

    But seriously, we’re 11 games in. Can we give it another 15 before we revisit this endless debate?

    • DSF

      Sure…let’s not be calling him an all star before then.

      And, if you’re best forward can only manage 67 points with a 21 percent shooting %, you’re in a world of hurt…oh wait…the Oilers are in world of hurt especially with Sam Wellwood as your second best centre.


      • Max Powers - Team HME Evans

        So is your beef with Horcoff? The team? or the fact he was handed 30 million dollars? Because regardless of what anyone says, Horcoff is at worst a mediocre NHL center.

      • Maggie the Monkey

        Sam Gagner has 131 points so far in his NHL career. At the same age, Wellwood had 0. In fact, he wouldn’t get one for almost two more seasons, by which point Gagner may have 200 NHL points on him relative to age.

        Call me a Smurf-lover if you must, but labeling Gagner “Sam Wellwood” is a ridiculous innuendo. Ten years from now comparing these two players will look silly.

  • Ryan14

    Thank you DSF. No oilers blog should be able to go this long without mentioning that Horcoff isn’t a number one centre. The “Horcoff is not a top centre in the league” debate is one that is not brought up enough.

  • DSF

    To be fair to Stauffer I don’t think you can judge him until we see his good buddy “Bobby” Nilsson used on the PK.

    Also, as soon as we start using Lupul the proper way Stauffer will be proved right about that idea as well!

    Good work, JW, and as you said things should calm down a little when Khabby’s numbers level out a bit but we’re still a club without the necessary components for a good PK unit.

  • Horcsky

    ‘Bulin did take forever to get over on the one goal last night on the PK. I am definately on board with the idea that the PK suffers from poor play by the D-men and ‘tender, rather than the forwards at the moment.

  • positivebrontefan

    On a completely different note if you are watching the Toronto game; Tyler Ennis has hands like nobodies business. The kids gonna be a star!

    I’m impressed!

  • Crash

    Horcoff is off to a decent start offensively….decent.

    JW has always loved Horcoff and is not going to say anything negative about him but if you are going to criticize the teams poor PP you damn well have to include the forward on the team who gets the most minutes and who has been on the ice for more PP goals against than any other forward on the team. 16PP goals against and Horcoff has been on for 10 of them.

    If the PK is broken and you’re going to complain about it, you better include the guy who is the worst forward. You surely can’t sell it as Horcoff is doing great on the PK.

    On the other end of the spectrum in a PK role you have Hemsky and Penner…Hemsky averaging 1:21 per game has been on for only 1 goal against and Penner who has averaged almost 1 minute per game has yet to be on for any goals against.

    This is where I think Stauffer has been going with his thought process. It seems using Hemsky and Penner on the PK has come with good results…using Horcoff, not so much.

    Willis uses stats quite a bit…if you want to use stats to sell Horcoff as being a number one center, you better be prepared to use stats to critcize him for his PK prowess.

  • S.Tambellini

    DSF seems like a super smart and reasonable guy. I sure hope he keeps posting. His opinions are so unique and well thought out. Bravo to you good sir. A top NHL job is sure to await.

    • Crash

      What good would Souray do? The guy is made of glass and would already likely be out with an injury.

      He wasn’t exactly tearing it up in the AHL either….Souray is done.

  • The bad PK makes the bad goaltending even worse, but I’m not convinced NK will get a whole lot better.

    NK has had a lax schedule to date. When things pick up I’d bet that his body falls apart before the save % climbs too far up. I’m not a big believer in him, but he’s doing his part to make the Oilers a lottery team so I wont be too mad if he keeps playing like this.

  • @ Crash:

    Horcoff’s offence has only been decent so far because of his shooting percentage and power play production. If those tail off and his even-strength production doesn’t pick up… there’s not going to be much (any?) room to defend him as an offensive option.

    As for his PK work, I’ve generally been a fan of what I’ve seen. That’s all. The sample size this season is far too small to come to any conclusions on any of the personnel, and in Horcoff’s case we have some conflicting data – a high level of goals against, but a very low level of shots against. The reason for that is the save percentage behind him has been 0.655 – and that will turn around. The reason I didn’t quote those numbers is because we haven’t had enough time to see if that shots against rate will be maintained.

    As for Horcoff being one of my favourites, it’s true. I’ve followed his career for years, he works his butt off, he’s paid his dues at every step along the way and he’s a guy who plays an honest two-way game. But Steve Staios is also one of my very favourites and when I really believed he’d lost his game, I was critical.

    • I don’t think I buy the sav% argument that much, I think it’s actually a reflection of how bad the penalty kill has been, not the other way around.

      Save percentage has a lot to do with the quality of chances, and the Oilers have been giving up a lot of grade A opportunities so far.

      I’m sure both stats will start to get better as the season progresses.

  • Crash wrote:

    He wasn’t exactly tearing it up in the AHL either….Souray is done.

    Admittedly, I haven’t been watching much Hershey hockey action, but his stats line (4GP – 0G – 3A – 3PTS, +5) hardly screams “done”.

    • Crash

      3 pts in 4 games and then BOOM, injured again….he’s done. Can’t stay healthy, can’t look in the mirror without hurting something.

      Don’t know too many who can contribute at the NHL level if they can’t stay healthy….

      Maybe “done” is a little harsh but he’s close.

  • I did not know the finer points of the penalty kill until reading this article and the two articles you reference. It looks like the penalty killers are over-committing to the puck, basically flattening the box? The article on the Barons mentions the defense passing off the puck chase so that they can return to the box. Sounds like a more productive approach? This discussions reminds me of a very good penalty kill from a few years back – no flattening of the box on this one.

  • Completely on topic; they played the Antoine Dodson remix not once, but twice at the bar I was at tonight. What a time to be alive! If it wasn’t for those horrid Canucks, Vancouver might be a pretty legitimate place to rest yo head.


  • S.Tambellini

    How long before Penner and Hemsky decide enough of this rebuild around bubble players , and they want out ? Even Horcoff if his contract could be moved ? Bring up more youth and give them experience as they might be part of future , rather than bring up farm boys who are slated to be temporary or part of the past . Not going to make any difference either way in the standings by end of year unless the youth turn it on !

    Take away the rhetoric, and we find the only thing Tams is good at is building a loser . We need new blood to delegate where this club is going and how ! We already need a new rebuild from this last rebuild , that is making us even worse off than last season .

    They have got to do something about the base before Hall, Eberle and Paajarvi decide whether they might want to stay come their contract time .

    Management has to start immediately towards building a competent base long before seasons end if it hopes for a successfull rebuild in the near future, or the future will be the next round of players wanting to leave this organization .

    • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

      So the guy that was talking PO a few months ago is now talking about blowing up the blown up squad?

      It’s cute to constantly run down management, but based on your own track record I don’t think you should be too quick to try and point out solutions.

  • Crash


    Does the fact that we are so atrocious at face offs result in significantly more shots on goal on the PK? Does it affect our PKers that they never or rarely start with a face off win and clearing of the puck?

    Another way to look at this might be — do the teams that perennially have strong face off men also end up in top half of penalty killers?