Number cruncher: Turning the tables

Tuesday, 11.02.2014 / 9:00 AM canadiens.com

MONTREAL - Since breaking in with the Habs back in 2005, Tomas Plekanec has been doing his share of the damage in all situations. Without sacrificing his offensive contributions, the Czech pivot has established himself as one of the foremost penalty-killing specialists in the league.

The mirage of short-handed goals

On January 16th 2014, with teammate Raphael Diaz in the penalty box, Tomas Plekanec hopped over the boards in the first period of a game against the Ottawa Senators. Thirty seconds into the shift, his linemate Travis Moen smartly angled the puck off the side board and sprung Plekanec on a breakaway. The Czech made no mistake, beating Senators netminder Craig Anderson with a flawless snap shot to put his team up by one. It was his third short-handed goal of the 2013-14 and the 15th of his career.

While spectacular and memorable for those who witnessed it, this play doesn’t do justice to a penalty killer’s usual responsibilities. At the NHL level, it is extremely difficult to score short-handed. Over the course of an 82-game season, a penalty killer will, on average, be on the ice for about nine powerplay goals against before seeing his side score one short-handed. Even the most skilled two-way forwards in the league such as Marian Hossa, Brad Marchand and Mike Richards tend to think long and hard about potential consequences before taking a gamble on the penalty kill. Most often, they would rather just get rid of the puck and throw away a potential scoring chance than risking an odd-man rush going the other way. Therefore, the number of a short-handed goals scored by a player is not a reliable indicator of his PK proficiency.

Top short-handed scorers since 2010

Since 2010 Total G SHG

Marian Hossa 118 13

Brad Marchand 84 12

Frans Nielsen 66 10

Eric Staal 118 9

Mike Richards 91 9

Michael Grabner 84 9

Cal Clutterbuck 58 9

Patrick Marleau 150 8

Alexandre Burrows 102 8

Tomas Plekanec 94 8

For a player to have a chance at a short-handed goal, he’ll usually need a good bit of luck – a fluky bounce off the end boards, a careless give-away from the opposing goaltender or a mistimed change by other team’s defensemen. With all that being said, there are better ways to identify world-class performers on the penalty kill.

Traits of a PK specialist

So what are some more reliable metrics one can use to evaluate the work of someone like Tomas Plekanec or any of the other 75 NHL forwards who have played at least 300 four-on-five minutes between 2010 and 2013? By comparing player output in three statistical categories, we can start gaining a better appreciation of how the 76 most-used penalty killers in recent years stack up against one another.

1) Goals Against per 60 min 5vs4

# Player Name Team TOI GA60 SV%

1 HANSEN, JANNIK Vancouver 452:25:00 4.11 91.09

2 SMYTH, RYAN Edmonton 313:33:00 4.21 91.16

3 BAILEY, JOSH NY_Islanders 320:43:00 4.30 91.15

4 COMEAU, BLAKE Columbus 314:56:00 4.38 89.69

5 RICHARDS, MIKE Los_Angeles 365:04:00 4.44 90.01

22 PLEKANEC, TOMAS Montreal 522:07:00 5.06 88.86

74 MARLEAU, PATRICK San_Jose 340:26:00 7.93 84.85

75 PAVELSKI, JOE San_Jose 328:51:00 8.03 85.53

76 VERMETTE, ANTOINE Phoenix 303:48:00 8.30 83.59

Goals Against is the most straightforward metric we can use measure a player’s PK efficiency. The main problem here is that a skater is very much at the mercy of his goaltender’s level when killing penalties. Hansen, Smyth and Bailey took over the top three thanks to their goalies stopping over 91% of shots faced. Meanwhile, unlucky Antoine Vermette see his numbers tank due to the poor 83.59% short-handed save percentage of Coyote netminders when he was on the ice. For his part, Tomas Plekanec was able to count on above-average goaltending from Carey Price and Peter Budaj en route to posting numbers solidly in the NHL top-25.

2) Shots on net against per 60 min 5vs4

# Player Name Team TOI SA60

1 ELIAS, PATRIK New_Jersey 375:32:00 36.43

2 COUTURIER, SEAN Philadelphia 306:35:00 41.10

3 GIROUX, CLAUDE Philadelphia 417:23:00 41.26

4 DUPUIS, PASCAL Pittsburgh 469:47:00 41.51

5 TALBOT, MAXIME Philadelphia 592:06:00 42.16

6 PRUST, BRANDON Montreal 346:42:00 42.23

16 PLEKANEC, TOMAS Montreal 522:07:00 45.39

74 REASONER, MARTY NY_Islanders 344:44:00 56.57

75 FIDDLER, VERNON Dallas 445:12:00 58.49

76 KORPIKOSKI, LAURI Phoenix 524:10:00 58.95

The goaltender bias described above can be removed by simply looking at the number of shots on net conceded rather than goals against. Once again, Plekanec places well compared to his peers. Note that current Hab Brandon Prust, a keen shot-blocker and consistent physical presence, has also been strong at minimizing opposing scoring chances while short-handed.

3) Individual shot attempts (Corsi) per 60 min 5vs4

# Player Name Team TOI SH Points iCorsi/60

1 GRABNER, MICHAEL NY Islanders 349:48:00 7 12.35

2 PLEKANEC, TOMAS Montreal 522:07:00 7 8.963

3 CONDRA, ERIK Ottawa 369:25:00 5 8.283

4 RICHARDS, MIKE Los Angeles 365:04:00 9 8.218

5 KESLER, RYAN Vancouver 372:54:00 4 8.206

74 REASONER, MARTY NY Islanders 344:44:00 0 2.263

75 GAUSTAD, PAUL Nashville 388:15:00 2 2.164

76 KOIVU, SAKU Anaheim 347:16:00 0 2.073

Herein lays the reason why Tomas Plekanec has been a go-to player for the Canadiens’ coaching staff in the toughest situations since he became a full-time NHLer. Plekanec is one of the very best players in the world at recovering the puck and driving play while short-handed. By forcing turnovers, eluding oncoming forecheckers and advancing the puck all the way down the ice for a shot attempt, the Czech Olympian succeeds both at killing time off the clock and preventing the opposing team from setting up its powerplay formation. As we saw with P.K. Subban in a previous Number Cruncher, the best defense is a good offense.

More-heralded two-way forwards such as Jonathan Toews, Pavel Datsyuk and Patrice Bergeron may continue to get the bulk of the credit when it comes to the Selke Trophy vote, and more aggressive players like Michael Grabner and Marian Hossa may score more often while a man down, but make not mistake about it. Thanks to his combination of defensive acumen and offensive vision, when his team is outmanned, Tomas Plekanec is as good as it gets.

Jack Han is a writer for canadiens.com.

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