Figuring out the Flyers penalty kill

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The Philadelphia Flyers have had plenty of things to worry about this season. They've been outside a playoff spot pretty much all season, and one of the leading reasons for that is a combined special teams rank near the bottom of the league.

Fortunately, the Flyers power play has recently shown signs of improvement. Much of that improvement can be attributed to the improved play of Jakub Voracek, Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds. 

The penalty kill has not seen the same kind of uptick in success, and isolating areas or players for improvement is much harder.

The Flyers penalty kill has been ranked in the high 20s league wide most of this season. This is about the same as last season, although they were a top-10 penalty killing team two years ago. Maybe losing Kimmo Timonen before last season hurt the effort, but he can't fully explain such a significant and continuing decline.

There are not a lot of great ways to break down a penalty kill with statistics. One starting point though would be to track unblocked shot attempts conceded (i.e. Fenwick against). Here's a month-to-month performance chart of such a measure:

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Furthermore, it turns out that the rate of goals conceded generally tracks the same curve.

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The tracking of the two stats only diverge in January, when the shots go up but the goals don't. Maybe the Flyers got better goaltending at that time. Maybe the shots they conceded were lower quality. Or maybe it's just one of those random things. There's no way to be sure, but we'll stick to Fenwick when narrowing it down to individual players next.

Forwards

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The Flyers usually use a six-forward rotation on the penalty kill. The chart above shows that Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Sean Couturier looked to be the most effective penalty killers in the first part of the season. Like the team-wide numbers, they conceded many more shots in January, and surprisingly were among the worst forwards during that period.

Claude Giroux and Ryan White have an opposite curve. They struggled early in the season, but had good numbers in January. Lastly, Matt Read has been oddly consistent, and Chris VandeVelde has been in bottom half of effectiveness throughout the season.

These numbers don't point to key players the Flyers can lean on. Regardless of any numbers, Couturier would likely be seen as a key figure, so the injury news on Friday will hurt. The Flyers lineup lacks any old vet grinder like Ian Laperriere or Max Talbot, so that could also be a factor in the Flyers struggles this season and last.

Defense

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On defense, the Flyers have been forced to lean heavily on three defensemen. Shayne Gostisbehere doesn't kill penalties, nor does Mark Streit see much time. Brandon Manning does see some PK minutes, presuming he makes the game day roster.

These defensemen's Fenwick numbers may provide a little bit more clarity than the forward chart. On this end, Radko Gudas does not have great penalty killing numbers. He does seem to be out there for a number of goals against, although individual goal rates were not run here.

Veteran stay-at-home defenseman Nick Schultz is the PK mainstay, and this is probably his main role on the team. The numbers show him getting the job done early in the season, but slipping since.

Lastly, Michael Del Zotto looks like a bit of a hero. This echoes his season overall, where he hasn't produced like the offensive defenseman he is usually considered, but is playing a needed role as reliable minutes-eater.

The Flyers probably want one more reliable penalty killing defenseman. Evgeny Medvedev occasionally fills in on the penalty kill, but if he can contribute more in this role his value to the team would increase. He's not overly physical or a big shot blocker, but neither is Del Zotto, and that seems to have worked this season.

Marc Naples is a contributor to Flyerdelphia and Sports Talk Philly. Follow him on Twitter@SuperScrub47.

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