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Could 2021-22 be a Breakout Season for Ottawa’s Penalty Kill?

Youngsters like Shane Pinto and Alex Formenton should make for a more exciting PK unit.

NHL: OCT 04 Preseason - Maple Leafs at Senators Photo by Steven Kingsman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We’re just one day away from the Ottawa Senators’ 2021-22 season opener against the Toronto Maple Leafs, and much of the team’s success this year will depend on how quickly they can lock up restricted free agent forward Brady Tkachuk. To put it simply, Ottawa wants to sign him to a long-term deal, Brady wants to sign a bridge deal and general manager Pierre Dorion is confident the two sides can get a long-term deal done. Hence, the holdout.

It obviously doesn’t bode well for the Senators’ odds of getting off to a good start this year, but Dorion is adamant that the rebuild is over. A lot of things have to improve for that to be true. And one such aspect of the team that has little to do with the captain candidate, is the team’s penalty kill.

Through a revolving door of players and coaches, the team’s PK has struggled for years. In fact, you’d have to go back in time to the Hamburglar era to find a Senators’ team ranking in the top half leaguewide. The following table will show Ottawa’s penalty kill performance over the last seven seasons — PK% from NHL.com, along with NaturalStatTrick’s measures of expected goals against per 60 minutes, and save percentage at 4-on-5.

Ottawa PK Results By Year

Season PK% Rank xGA/60 Rank SV% Rank
Season PK% Rank xGA/60 Rank SV% Rank
2020-21 20th 21st 21st
2019-20 28th 26th 24th
2018-19 23rd 21st 4th
2017-18 26th 13th 25th
2016-17 22nd 12th 23rd
2015-16 29th 26th 28th
2014-15 11th 15th 9th

Did it jump out at you, too? The Senators really had the 4th-highest 4-on-5 save percentage in the NHL? Pretty neat. The main takeaway here is that Ottawa’s penalty killers have struggled to prevent quality chances over the last three seasons.

This past season there were 219 forwards who played at least 20 minutes at 4-on-5. In terms of preventing expected goals against, Austin Watson was the best performing Senator, ranking 51st, followed by Nick Paul at 102nd, Alex Formenton at 132nd, Chris Tierney at 150th, Connor Brown at 164th, and Derek Stepan at 187th.

As for the 186 defensemen, Artem Zub ranked 76th, followed by Josh Brown at 88th, Erik Gudbranson at 103rd, Mike Reilly at 124th, Nikita Zaitsev at 135th, and Braydon Coburn at 162nd.

These numbers aren’t great, and things are further complicated by Watson suffering a lower-body injury during training camp. That said, there are quite a few young players projected to take a step forward this year who could really help the PK.

For starters, the defenseman with the lowest xGA/60 at 4-on-5 in the entire league? Victor Mete. That’s right, the 5’9 Mete was used on Ottawa’s second unit down the stretch, and made the coaching staff look pretty smart, as the team outscored their opponents 2-0 with Mete killing penalties.

Of course, all of the individual numbers you’ve seen so far are affected by teammates and opposing players. In Mete’s case, having Shane Pinto in the lineup probably helps.

The 32nd overall pick of the 2019 NHL Entry Draft was trusted by head coach D.J. Smith to kill penalties in his first NHL game. You just saw him break up an attempted pass with the poise of a veteran of multiple seasons — it’s not just a great reactionary feat, he’s also made sure to be in the ideal location to effectively kill the play. The Senators tend to take an aggressive approach to killing penalties which helped them score seven shorthanded goals this past season, two back of the league lead. However, it can also lead them open to quality chances.

I looked at this back in the offseason with regards to Connor Brown. In his case, his value on the PK comes in creating many shorthanded chances to compensate for his lack of shot suppression. Pinto could be a calming presence on that unit, letting opposing players make mistakes in trying to work around his strong positioning. It doesn’t hurt either that he’s a sorcerer in the faceoff circle.

In addition, the aforementioned Alex Formenton can use his trademark speed to turn opposing mistakes into chances off the rush, and Parker Kelly, fresh off signing a two-year contract extension, can simply annoy the opposing power play and make them kill the penalty themselves. Notably, Pinto and Kelly finished 10th and 13th respectively in preventing expected goals at 4-on-5 in the preseason.

Goaltending, as usual, will be extremely hard to predict, but among Ottawa’s three NHL-caliber goaltenders, Anton Forsberg had the highest save percentage at 4-on-5 with a .902, with Gustavsson at .893 and Murray at .864. The best we can do here is cross our fingers for improvement across the board.

Overall, the Senators will integrate more youth into their lineup and rely on a bounce-back season in goal in order to improve their penalty kill, with hopes of finishing in the top half of the league. The newest iteration of the PK unit will get their first big test tomorrow, against the Leafs, the bane of the NHL regular season.

Poll

Will the Ottawa Senators’ PK finish higher than 17th in the NHL?

This poll is closed

  • 73%
    Yes.
    (95 votes)
  • 26%
    No.
    (34 votes)
129 votes total Vote Now