Optimizing the Rangers penalty kill by using K'Andre Miller and Kaapo Kakko

Last year, the Rangers penalty kill was a top-ten unit in terms of success rate, killing off 82.3% of their penalties. On paper, that’s a good penalty kill. But naturally, the devil is in the details, and we know how Igor Shesterkin was a one-man wrecking crew last season. How much of the Rangers penalty kill success was due to Shesterkin? Is there a need to change up the personnel in optimizing the Rangers penalty kill?

Rangers penalty kill success influenced by Shesterkin

To say that the Rangers penalty kill success was influenced by Shesterkin is an obvious statement. Of course the penalty kill is influenced by the goalie, he’s the most important penalty killer. The Rangers penalty kill will likely continue to have a high success rate solely because of Shesterkin. Much like how they always had a good kill percentage because of Henrik Lundqvist.

Optimizing the Rangers penalty kill is about the efficiency of the penalty kill with the skaters. It’s easy to isolate skater impact on the penalty kill, as we have shot metrics to look at. It’s not perfect, but it gives us a clearer picture of the details. The Rangers penalty kill was 7th in success rate, but 14th in xGA/60 at 7.1, per Natural Stat Trick.

rangers penalty kill - igor shesterkin

This is backed up by looking at Shesterkin’s expanded goalie stats on the penalty kill, per Evolving-Hockey. Focusing on his shorthanded impacts, we see that his expected rates, while still high, are far below the performance he turned in. In plain English, the Rangers penalty kill skaters were good enough, and Shesterkin covered for most of their mistakes.

There’s always room for improvement, and optimizing the Rangers penalty kill is a prime area. In the interest of keeping Shesterkin both healthy and fresh for a long playoff run, the Rangers will want to make his workload easier. They can also reduce workloads of prime players playing at all three strengths.

An opportunity to be more efficient

The Rangers used 8 primary penalty killers last year, listed in order of PK time per game:

But if you want to rearrange them by effectiveness, meaning xGA/60 while on the ice, that order changes:

  • Trouba (6.22)
  • Miller (6.35)
  • Zibanejad (6.65)
  • Rooney (7.26)
  • Lindgren (7.27)
  • Goodrow (7.33)
  • Kreider (7.46)
  • Fox (7.90)

Remember, we are trying to isolate skater impacts to the best of our ability. Thus, xGA/60, and not GA/60, where the goalie plays a role. None of the Rangers penalty kill skaters were bad, but there again is room for improvement. More specifically, there may be an opportunity to put more defensively sound players with skill on the penalty kill.

We’ve seen this in the preseason thus far, as skill guys like Brennan Othmann and Alexis Lafreniere have had significant impact on shorthanded goals. We are also seeing Toronto experiment with forwards playing defense, a new-age way of thinking that may give them an advantage. If we apply that logic to the Rangers penalty kill, then we are looking at a new way of deploying skaters.

Optimizing the Rangers penalty kill with personnel changes

Let’s look at the least effective penalty killer: Adam Fox. Gerard Gallant more or less used his top two pairs on the penalty kill due to lack of options. A very easy way to find more efficient success on the PK is to limit Fox’s PK time, which will have an added benefit of taking his TOI per game down to manageable levels, and give that time to K’Andre Miller. Even simply swapping their minutes gets the Rangers under 7.0 xGA/60 as a team.

It is likely too soon to tell right now, but perhaps Braden Schneider could take on PK minutes and give Fox a needed break. Getting him down from 25 minutes per game is important.

As for forwards, the easy answer is give Kaapo Kakko some PK time. He’s already a top defensive forward, and he has the skill to be dangerous. Alexis Lafreniere has been effective this preseason as well, as we saw last night with his aggressive forecheck that created a scoring chance that he capitalized on.

Optimizing the Rangers penalty kill with a few tweaks isn’t necessarily about defensive zone coverage, which can be taught pretty easily, but more about the forecheck and preventing the powerplay from gaining speed through the neutral zone. This is something we stress at even strength, and it applies to the penalty kill. Lafreniere’s shorthanded goal last night was one example. Kreider’s goal as well, with pressure at the blue line forcing a turnover.

The Rangers are going to be building towards a long playoff run, and minor tweaks like this have ripple effects down the lineup and into the playoffs. Even if the tweaks are simply giving Miller more time and using Kakko as a primary penalty killer, that should be enough to have multiple impacts in efficiency and fatigue. Optimizing the Rangers penalty kill may not seem like a need, but there’s always room for improvement.