Ways To Improve the Offense: Draw More Penalties

CHICAGO - APRIL 18:  Jarome Iginla #12 of the Calgary Flames scored a power play goal in the first period against goalie Nikolai Khabibulin #39 of the Chicago Blackhawks during Game Two of the Western Conference Quarterfinals of the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs on April 18, 2009 at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)


There’s no secret the primary (lone?) area of concern for the Flames heading into next year is scoring. Calgary finished with the second least amount of goals during the regular season, with their 201 total narrowly beating out the Boston Bruins (196). With an offense that inept, improvement is going to have come from multiple areas. The focus for toay is powerplay goals. More specifically, drawing more penalties in order to score more powerplay goals. 

When it came to the man advantage last year, the club was flat out terrible from just about every angle. The Flames managed just 39 5-on-4 goals last season (28th) and a measely three 5-on-3 goals. Their PP success rate was a putrid 16% (26th). And it wasn’t simply a case of pucks not going in either. According to Hockey Numbers, the Flames generated just 49.6 shots per hour with the man advantage, good for 25th in the league.

So the Flames didn’t generate a lot of chances and, appropriately, didn’t score a lot of goals. Now there’s a number of ways to try to improve those figures (better personnel, better strategy, better luck), but one method would be to simply draw more penalties. On top of everything else, Calgary was one of the worst clubs in the league at garnering man advantages: only Boston (265) and Montreal (261) were more inept than the Flames (268) at goading their opponents into the box.

It seems a simple enough thing, but even if Calgary had drawn a median amount of PP opportunities last year (308), they would have increased their goal total by about 6, assuming a steady 16% success rate over those additional 40 PP’s. That’s worth one win in the standings – a non-trivial amount when it comes to a playoff bubble team like Calgary.

The effects of minimal playoff time tend to ripple throughout the roster. Not only is the PP the most offense rich portion of the game for the attacking team, it also decreases the amount of time the opposition’s best players are on the ice and decreases the amount of penalties the good guys take. Spending less time on the man advantage is one of the reasons almost every Flame player to a man had a lackuster offensive season this year. For example, Jarome Iginla saw over 400 minutes of PP time in 2008-09. That’s 113 minutes more than this past season (289). Ditto Jay Bouwmeester, whose 351 minutes a man up in 08-09 were 114 minutes more than he saw in Flames colors (237).  Daymond Langkow (-118) and Olli Jokinen (-35) were in a similar boat. Unsurprisingly, the only two regular skaters to see a significant bump in PP time were Rene Bourque (+115) and Mark Giordano (+53) and they had career years in terms of offense.

At this point, I’m not sure precisely what moderates penalty drawing. Some players routinely have a strong penalty differential (Iginla is one of them) while others routinely end up at the other end, suggesting a skill component. At the team level, however, PP opportunity totals seem almost totally random. Intuitively, one would think that any club that can drive possession at ES (that is, spend more time in the opponents zone) would draw a lot of penalties, but not so. Last season, mediocre (or worse) possession clubs ended up in the top half of the league in terms of PP opportunities, including CAR (332), DAL (328), TBL (326), ATL (316), COL (310) and FLA (309). On the other hand, capable puck possession clubs like DET (307), CHI (298) and NJD (273) ended up in the bottom half. So while the Flames added more penalty takers (Ivanans, Jackman, Jokinen) than penalty drawers (Tanguay, Dawes) this off-season, the good news is they may just end up drawing more penalties by virtue regression to the mean (assuming drawing PP opportunities on a team-wide scale is mostly random).

Let’s hope that’s true. More PP’s won’t necessarily fix what ails the Flames offense by itself…but it would certainly help.

  • Bar Qu

    Speed is a big factor in drawing penalties, imo. If you can get even your marginal players to hustle to the net and force the defense to do something to prevent a scoring chance, then you have forced the ref to make a decision on whether it is a penalty or not. Some of the best penalty-drawers(?) in the league can do that regularly (I am thinking of Todd Marchant in his prime).

    Keeping a strong cycle in the opposing end might also be helpful, but as you pointed out, puck possession does not seem to be the whole answer.

  • Bar Qu

    Two major ways to draw penalties:

    1) Speed through the neutral zone drawing hooking calls. Tough to get calls when you dump in the puck from center all the time.

    2) Driving to the net with the puck. Defensive players will take holding, interference, and hooking penalties if they sense that a good scoring chance is imminent. Not much of this going on last year.

    Why take a penalty on the Flames when you know that they are just going to dump the puck in and then cycle the crap out of it with their backs to the net?

    Opposing teams don’t just take penalties for no good reason. They take penalties when the Flames are making life difficult on them with speed and scoring chances.

    The Flames style of play in 09/10 is directly responsible for the small number of powerplays. But it doesn’t explain the brutally low success rate with the man advantage!

    • This strikes me as intuitive as well. However, the Blackhawks, who I consider one of the best teams in the league #1 and #2 there, were below average at drawing PP opps last year (although they did manage 30 more than CGY).

      One day I’d like to see if there’s any correlation between certain factors and drawing penalties. There should be, in theory, but given the near arbitrary manner in which NHL refs hand out penalties these days, maybe there just isn’t.

  • It gets really interesting when you look at PP opportunities in home games. The Flames were dead last in the league at 132 PPs and 15.9% (21 goals). Philly led the league with 179 PPs and 21% (39 goals).

    On the road they were a bit better in 25th place with 136 PPs and 16.1% (22 goals). Interestingly, Philly was 23rd with 138 PPs and 21% (29 goals).

    If you look at the teams with the most 5-on-5 goals, they also seem to do really well in terms of PP opportunities. WSH, PIT, VAN, PHI, etc. are high on both counts. There are some strange exceptions, but generally it seems clear that the better your offense, the more penalties you are going to draw.

    That home PP stats for the Flames is troubling. The combination of least opportunities, combined with 26th place PP% is clearly the reason why the home record was so bad in 09/10.

    The stats seem to indicate that the best way to get PP opportunities is also to be good 5-on-5. The Flames were in 25th place 5-on-5 with 137 (compared to 213 for WSH and then 179 for CHI).

    If the offense is better, the PP opps will come, and hopefully the conversion rate increases as well.

  • That’s a good catch Casey. Maybe I’ll go through and see if there’s a correlation there. You’re right, though, the Flames weren’t good at generating offense at 5on5 either and that could definitely be a contributing factor.

  • I can’t disagree with the logic behind your post, it would seem if you play the laws of averages that the more penalties you draw the more chances you have to score.

    The one obvious malady for the team last year was generating shots and creating scoring chances. I lost count of the number of times the PP was booed as the penalty expired because we had only 1 or 2 shots on net. I chalk it up to lack of creativity and lack of bodies in front of the net. Granted, there were numerous times that meant nothing as we spent most of the PP in the neutral zone. I don’t recommend “speeding” through centre ice and holding the puck into the zone…too many teams have someone just waiting for that and will step up and blast you into next week. BUt that point is taken, as too oftern we dumped and were beaten to the puck anyways.

    I can’t say I saw any team practices, so I would be curious to know who is resposible for coaching the power play? Watching our PP was akin to watching statues…get set-up, move very little, telegraph where the pass or shot is going and watch the other team flip the puck down the ice. Retrieve puck, dump into zone and one of two things happen…(1)other teams beats us to puck or (2)we get it, set-up, move very little and, well, you get the idea. I bring up the coaching for this as I had the pleasure of watching the 2008-2009 Hitmen with Dave Lowry as their coach. Now ,that team may not have won the WHL Championship, but it was a vastly improved team (Yet Kisio had good teams too) and while talent goes a long way, the one thing that stood out from previous years was the power play.

    It was deadly and it was a thing of beauty. There was no “system” on that team, whether it was 5 on 5, PP or penalty kill. There were “system(s)”…plural. Different game situations, different opponents, home game, visitor…it was if there were various game plans in place to account for all variables that can happen in a game. But that power play…I still remember how much movement, both player and puck, was on display. You did not know where the pass was going or where the shot could be coming from. Players were constantly moving, cycling, in deep and then retreating and very seldom was someone out of position. You watched it and couldn’t believe these were just kids.

    So when Lowry was made assistant my hopes were raised that our PP would turn into a true force. That obviously did not happen. I don’t disagree with Kent that more PP time should increase our goals for…but there is a lot of work to be done by those whose job it is to get the puck in the net. Whether it’s coaching or players that is the issue is something we’ll be keeping an eye on very closely this year.

  • Yeah, the PP’s efficacy was an even bigger issue. Like you, I don’t know what the fix is though. It could be a combination of personnel and systems. Bad news in that respect is the fact that the Flames got rid of Dawes (most efficicent PP producer on the team last year) and brought in Tanguay (consistently mediocre on the PP throughout his career).

    That said, Flames don’t have any real puck movers up front aside from Tanguay. Nobody, aside from him, is good at distributing (at least amongst the forwards). We’ll see if his passing a vision make dent or not this year.