The San Jose Sharks finished 24th in the NHL last year in penalty kill efficiency, killing off 79.6% of the penalties they took throughout the year. It was a unit that struggled with consistency since day one, and although there were some noticeable improvements at points throughout the postseason, the team still managed to post a 76.3% success rate in the playoffs, good for 12th in the League amongst all 16 teams.
Large sample size, small sample size-- no matter which way you cut it, the Sharks penalty kill was a weakness for the team all season long.
Perhaps most concerning is the fact that for the third straight year, Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski continued to find themselves in the top three of shorthanded ice time, finishing one-two this season by virtue of their 1:59 and 1:57 respective time on ice. And while it's hard to fault either player for their two-way abilities that make them so valuable to an NHL club, using your most dangerous weapons to kill penalties does have its drawbacks.
Shorthanded minutes are the most taxing on player's legs throughout the course of a game-- they're hard shifts, much more physically demanding than something one sees with the man advantage. Shot blocking is an essential part of the role of a penalty killer, increasing the threat of injury. And most importantly, lopping more minutes onto the plates of your most dynamic offensive weapons is bound to make them less effective at even strength.
In essence, I would argue that the sole benefit of having players like Marleau and Pavelski lead the team in shorthanded TOI is because they are the most proficient on your team at doing so. It stands to reason that any Head Coach in the League would prefer their third and fourth line to receive the lion's share of PK minutes.
Marleau and Pavelski aren't outliers in San Jose of course. Out of the eight forwards who received more than a minute on the penalty kill last season, only Torrey Mitchell, Jamal Mayers, and Scott Nichol could be considered outside of the team's "core." The remaining players (Marleau, Pavelski, Couture, Thornton, Heatley) are all big offensive weapons for the Sharks.
Which makes bringing in a useful defensive forward an important thing for San Jose this offseason. Not as important as acquiring a number two defenseman of course, but important nonetheless.
Here is a list of forwards who saw at least 1:30 of PK time last season, played in over 40 games, and scored over 20 points. We'll cover more of these players as free agency grows closer-- after all, it is still May, and it's very likely that many of these players will re-signed by their respective teams.
[Ed. Note]: Even strength Quality of Competition and Zone Starts are used in place of shorthanded metrics due to sample size issues. Furthermore, remember that Qual Comp is only useful for comparing players amongst their teammates-- the ranking number (which will be found in parentheses) is what will be of greatest use to the reader.
2011 UFA Penalty Kill Targets
|Player||Age||TEam||Goals ||Points||SH TOI ||EV QualCOMP ||EV Zone Start
There is more off of this list of course (Sean Bergenheim, Erik Cole, and Alex Tanguay are all worthy defensive players with scoring pop), but for the sake of our discussion today I've chosen to highlight some notable names that fit the criteria of over 20 points and 1:30 of SH TOI.
Vernon Fiddler, Marty Reasoner, Pascal Dupuis, Michal Handzus, Brooks Laich, Joel Ward, and Eric Belanger seem like the most beneficial players to the Sharks, but to be quite honest, there isn't a player on this list who isn't capable of handing the role San Jose would give him-- third line minutes, kill loads of penalties, an opportunity to jump into the top six throughout the year, and oh yeah, did we mention, kill some more penalties.
That's the most beneficial portion of this year's free agent class-- while largely devoid of top end talent, there is some very good defensive forwards available that can slide into a third line role. The flip side to that coin is these players get a marginal bump in salary due to the market being as weak as it is, but with San Jose needing just a few of these guys to substantially improve their roster, there's a lot of opportunity here to make an impact.
If I had to guess, I would assume that both Laich and Ward will price themselves out of San Jose's desired price range. It makes sense considering they are the best options out of this class in a complete player sense, but something that should serve to temper the inevitable winds of euphoria if either hits July 1st without a contract from Washington or Nashville.
Cautious optimism, yes.
But optimism nonetheless.