The benefit to having players capable of drawing penalties shouldn’t be lost on the hockey viewing public, fans and analysts alike. Drawing penalties – legally and without an offsetting call – requires intelligence, timing and sometimes even a mean streak bordering on the line of legality.
The 2019-20 version of the New York Islanders are desperate to draw more penalties at 5v5.
Entering games on Tuesday night, the Islanders had drawn a league worst 111 power play opportunities translating to 3:55 minutes per game. They scored twice with the man-advantage against their arch rival, New York Rangers.
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By the time the game ended, they’d tied the Toronto Maple Leafs in penalties drawn (89).
We will come back to the Islanders in a moment, but a little preamble about drawing calls.
PREAMBLE – Drawing Penalties in the NHL
Toronto Maple Leafs fans had one of the better players in penalties drawn in Nazem Kadri, who now plies his trade with the Colorado Avalanche. Kadri is ranked fifth in the league in drawing penalties at 5v5 in 2019-20, while teammate Nathan MacKinnon is ranked 10th overall, giving the Avalanche an excellent chance of drawing a call in their favor when either player is on the ice. There’s one more Avs player to mention, but we will get to him shortly.
Boston fans can invoke Brad Marchand as an easy example, leading the NHL currently with 22 penalties drawn. Player distribution for drawing penalties at 5v5 looks like the chart below. Marchand, Jack Eichel and Nikolaj Ehlers have drawn the most penalties in the 21-23 band, with the distribution heavily favoring the players that don’t draw much – as expected. There’s an inverse relationship to time on ice and drawn penalties, with the more ice time leading to more penalties – making intuitive sense.
Drawing calls at even strength is a particular skillset, but the advantage can also be seen in different on-ice situations. Drawing a penalty when your team is already on the power play to force a two-man down situation (5v3) is more likely to lead to a goal than a standard 5v4 power play.
One player leads the way with drawing the most penalties while the team is on the power play (5v4), Brayden Schenn of the St. Louis Blues. The distribution of players drops off dramatically once multiple penalties come into play, with most players focused on scoring chances.
Already being down a player requires a penalty killing strategy, one that should attempt to include players that have the ability to draw calls and negate a power play situation.
Concepts like the ‘power kill’ give more credence to try to create and take advantage of more offensive opportunities. The twins from Evolving Hockey use the ability to draw penalties as part of their calculations for goals above replacement, referred to as Penalty Goals, enacting a coefficient related to a value of goal for the ability to draw a penalty.
Penalties drawn. You can read about our method for penalties here: https://t.co/6lWlGaMduY
— Evolving-Hockey (@EvolvingHockey) January 6, 2020
There’s also the instance of make-up calls. They exist. Courtesy of the link to an article by statistician, Michael Lopez, the argument has been made where past calls influenced future calls, make-up calls if you will.
I can’t give that article the importance it deserves, because deep down inside, we all carry the bias of refs calling too many penalties on our favorite teams – justified or not – but I encourage you to read through it for clarity. Game results can be swayed by errant calls that lie with the integrity of the referees, so it’s difficult to imagine calls made due to malice and then made up at a future time.
Offensive players are being used to kill penalties rather than strictly role players, grinders or depth, adding a skilled component to a traditionally defensive mandate and inducing more chances for scoring goals.
And drawing penalties.
This example of puck possession by Philadelphia’s Kevin Hayes is an example of doing the work to potentially set up an errant penalty call on the forechecking power play unit.
— Brandon Murphy (@2Murphy8) January 22, 2020
Matt Calvert – another Avalanche player – has drawn a penalty five times while the Avalanche were down. Anthony Cirelli, Brendan Lemieux and Noel Acciari lead the league with six. There’s a distinction to be made about the ability to kill off a penalty by forcing the other team to take one.
New York Islanders Revisited
The New York Islanders have drawn the least amount of penalties in the NHL in 2019-20.
Many theories abound for the reason, but sometimes there’s just simple randomness at play. Micah Blake McCurdy offered this tweet that shows the Islanders as an outlier and to make the point that drawing and taking penalties don’t have shared dependencies.
Minor penalties drawn and taken, by team for the season. The two things are not particularly strongly correlated once you remove offsetting penalties. pic.twitter.com/scDcLiu5ot
— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) January 8, 2020
For instance, this bubble chart below shows the Islanders and their standing in the NHL for drawing calls and penalties taken. They hover around the league average for penalties taken, but dead last in penalties drawn.
If the Isles' experience with getting calls at 5v5 was more widespread, we would see those instances in virtually every on-ice situation, but that’s not necessarily the case. We can explore special teams to deduce the effect.
At 5v4 the Islanders draw and take essentially the league average in both categories. The little slice of the orange bubble indicates their position.
Similarly at 4v5, the Isles middle out in both categories. The similarities across special teams forms indication that there’s a capability to draw calls in their favor, while unable to do so at even strength.
A similar argument was made about Toronto last season – with Kadri’s ice time and relevancy cut due to the injection of talent up front. Since they play a skilled, rush style game, they don’t get to the dirty scoring areas, or along the boards where most calls are made, goes the theory.
This doesn’t seem to be the case, however, at least not for the Islanders.
#Isles This little nugget from the extra pages on GameShots.
Look at the bottom chart. The NYI forwards get closer to the net for their ES shots than anyone else. This has to be Barry Trotz at work, their defense is known for protecting against slot chances. pic.twitter.com/BoxdJ76AXR
— Bill Comeau 📊 (@Billius27) January 18, 2020
I’m hesitant to point at Trotz and system structure to suggest the Islanders are getting more shots closer to the net, but not drawing the calls that would be associated with the free-flowing theory afforded to Toronto. There is a lot more at play here and this is where the video coach and data analyst would work together, along with coaching staff to determine the originating cause.
An answer is not likely to suss its way out of the analysis midway through the season, but if the Islanders don’t figure out a way to draw more calls, their first round playoff opponent may enjoy an unforeseen advantage.