If Not Calvert Then Who? – A History of the Columbus Blue Jackets Penalty Kill

COLUMBUS, OH - MARCH 17: Matt Calvert #11 of the Columbus Blue Jackets skates against the Ottawa Senators on March 17, 2018 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images)
COLUMBUS, OH - MARCH 17: Matt Calvert #11 of the Columbus Blue Jackets skates against the Ottawa Senators on March 17, 2018 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images) /

The Columbus Blue Jackets are coming off a subpar penalty killing season finishing 27th in the league at 76.2%. With their best penalty killer likely moving on, it’s time to reflect on the CBJ kill over the past few seasons.

Some were surprised that the Columbus Blue Jackets made the Stanley Cup Playoffs last year considering how poorly their special teams played for the better part of the season. Finishing 25th on the power play (17.2%) and 27th on the penalty kill (76.2%) are team lows for the CBJ over the last half decade.

Some would attribute the struggles to coaching, others to personnel. Either way, it goes without saying that the team needs to improve if they want to continue making the playoffs and hopefully go further in the postseason.

Regardless of how consistent his offensive game may or may not be, Matt Calvert has undeniably been the Blue Jackets’ best penalty killer over the past few seasons. He is typically the first one on the ice when the opponent goes on their power play. Possessing great quickness and breakaway speed, Calvert plays an aggressive game at the blue line to disrupt passing lanes and clear pucks.

Related Story: Matt Calvert 2017-2018 Season Review

Hoping to see improvement from finishing fifth worst in the league on the PK, the Jackets will have to lean on other personnel besides “Matty Ice”. Watching number 11 sign elsewhere will be a tough pill to swallow for CBJ faithful as he has been a fan favorite in Columbus.

It’s perhaps salt in the wound trying to envision an already struggling penalty kill without Calvert. The Jackets can’t fall much further though and should have enough talent to address the issue. It’s equal parts surprising and encouraging that the Columbus Blue Jackets were able to make the playoffs with such abysmal special teams.

Calvert’s departure triggers two follow-up questions.

Question 1: How Has the Blue Jackets Penalty Kill Performed in Recent Years?

Having watched every Jackets’ game since 2006, I can attest that no CBJ penalty kill overwhelmed me with confidence. Like any other NHL team, there have been hot and cold streaks, but the PK has not been a strength for the Jackets of late.

Since that 2013-2014 season, the highest the Jackets finished in PK efficiency was 9th in 2016-2017 at 82.5%. Thanks to NHL.com, let’s look at the stats.

2013-2014: 82.1% for 15th in the league.

2014-2015: 80.2% for 23rd in the league.

2015-2016: 81.0% for 19th in the league.

2016-2017: 82.5% for 9th in the league.

2017-2018: 76.2% for 27th in the league.


If the number 76.2% didn’t jump out at you earlier, it might now. More than four whole percentage points below the team’s five year average, 2017-2018 becomes an outlier, especially considering the majority of their PK personnel returned from the prior season.

Columbus Blue Jackets
Columbus Blue Jackets /

Columbus Blue Jackets

Another observation one might make from these stats is that the Jackets tend to hover near the league median. This tells me two things. One, there is absolutely room for improvement. Secondly, the CBJ have managed to make the playoffs three of the last four years despite average, or below average PK efficiency.

Connecting the dots, it makes you wonder if a team’s penalty kill performance is in any way an indicator to its overall success. My guess was yes, but let’s turn to the numbers for statistical proof.

Question 2:  Does a Team’s Penalty Kill Efficiency Hint at Overall Success?

Of course “overall success” can be  measured in a number of ways, but nothing simplifies the metric like a playoff berth. The flip side of that is, do teams with a poor penalty kill typically miss the playoffs? Let’s let the statistics answer for us.

I chose the top seven and bottom seven teams in PK efficiency to help us understand the PK’s impact. Why seven you ask? You’ll see that in 2017-2018, the top seven penalty killing teams all made the playoffs. That’s right, all seven. Look at the numbers below and allow the trends to speak for themselves.

2013-2014: 6 of the top 7 PK teams made it into the playoffs. Of the bottom 7, only 1 did.

2014-2015: 5 of the top 7 made it in. Only 1 of the bottom 7 did.

2015-2016: 6 of the top 7 made it in. Only 1 of the bottom 7 did.

2016-2017: 5 of the top 7 made it in. Only 1 of the bottom 7 did.

2017-2018: All 7 of the top 7 made it in. Only 2 of the bottom 7 did.

If we want to sum for a larger abstract, of the top 35 PK efficient teams since 2013-2014, only 6 failed to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs. 29 of 35 is a staggering 83%. Surely there are countless indicators that point to playing in the postseason play, but it’s hard to argue with the numbers above.

Now let’s contrast the quality penalty killing teams with the poor ones. Of the compiled, 35 worst PK efficient teams over the past 5 seasons, only 6 made it into the playoffs. Thankfully it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to do the math here. Going off of PK alone, if you finish in the bottom 7 of the league, you only have a 17% chance of making it to the playoffs.

An absolute statistic this is not. A gigantic indicator, I would say it is.

It’s only ironic that the two statistics (the have’s and have not’s) strangely add up to a clean 100%.

Wrap Up

The Columbus Blue Jackets certainly beat the odds last year by making the postseason while still finishing towards the bottom of the league in the penalty kill. The numbers tell us though that this isn’t something that could (or should) be easily repeated.

Without PK specialist Matt Calvert, the Jackets have their work cut out for them, but I’m sure it will be well-addressed in the offseason and going into October. Assistant coach Brad Shaw is in charge of the kill and will surely hope to get the CBJ closer to their 2016-2017 form.

Next: Why Vitaly Abramov Will Play for CBJ Next Year

Making the playoffs with poor special teams is a welcome surprise, but it doesn’t allude to big picture success. Without much room to tumble further, I expect the Blue Jackets to move up the PK ranks this coming season. Leveraging that and a hopefully improved power play could be the difference in how far the Columbus Blue Jackets play into spring.