The Calgary Flames and penalty differential

One way the Flames were able to achieve such success throughout the 2014-15 season was by drawing more penalties than they took. They led the league in power play vs. penalty kill differential, with a whopping 123:08 more spent with the man advantage than without.

And it paid off for them. Where they really shone was their 36 goals allowed on the kill: fourth best in the league. That wasn’t due to their exceptional kill – their PK% was only 80.6%, 20th in the NHL – but because they simply weren’t taking penalties.

That’s not quite the case to start the 2015-16 season.

Not the best anymore

Things can, of course, change in an instant. However, through the first 21 games of the season, the Flames have only spent 39 extra seconds with the man advantage than down a guy. While in 2014-15, their 186 times shorthanded was the best in the league, in 2015-16, their 59 times shorthanded is sixth best.

And while that’s not a steep drop, it’s costly when you’re only killing 74.6% of your penalties, and you’ve allowed 15 power play goals against. The Flames’ goaltending hasn’t been great, but 20% of their goals against have come when down a man, compared to the 17% of the previous season.

In theory, the Flames shouldn’t be down a man so often. They didn’t subtract from their lineup, after all; rather, they added to it. But that hasn’t been the case, and poor discipline and even poorer special teams are another thing killing them that weren’t the season they had success.

Player penalty differentials

The below charts only feature regulars for the Flames throughout these seasons, with regulars meaning someone who has played at least 30% of the team’s games. So while guys like Ladislav Smid in 2014-15 or Brett Kulak in 2015-16 weren’t exactly around a lot, they were around long enough to make note of their performances when it came to taking and drawing penalties.

2014-15 PenD

  • Thirteen Flames drew more penalties than they took, while six were on the wrong end of things more often than that. Giordano and Smid are in the neutral category, taking and drawing equal amounts.
  • Most of the Flames who were successful at drawing penalties are still with the Flames. From that category, they’ve only lost Diaz (who only drew one), Granlund (because he’s been in the AHL), Byron (waivers), and Bouma (injury). Their heavier hitters, like Gaudreau, Jooris, and Wideman, are still on board.
  • Glencross, one of the Flames’ penalty differential detractors, is gone. The others’ presence on the lineup isn’t surprising: Backlund and Stajan tend to get more defensive zone starts, Bollig and Engelland have limited skill sets that tend to result in this sort of thing, and Colborne often has questionable decision-making (although to this extent was a little much).

2014-15 pend

  • The highs aren’t as high and the lows aren’t quite as low, but we’re only a quarter of the way through the season.
  • Seven Flames have drawn more penalties than they have taken, while eight Flames are the opposite. Six are in the neutral area, including Grant and Kulak, who haven’t been on the team full time.
  • Here’s the biggest problem: Giordano is taking a lot of penalties, and Giordano averages 24:01 a night, the second most on the Flames. He plays a lot, and when he’s out there, he isn’t drawing penalties, he’s taking them. Hamilton is in the same boat.
  • The only defenceman actually drawing penalties is Brodie. One guy out of four (five if you count Monahan) who plays over 20 minutes a night has a positive penalty differential. 
  • (That isn’t fair to Johnny Gaudreau, who averages 19:48 a game, just missing the 20 minute cutoff. Though he isn’t quite as dominant as he was the previous season.)
  • Another problem is Jooris, who was a leader in drawing penalties in 2014-15; this season, he’s been taking them left and right. A possible explanation? His relative zone start percentages have plummeted from 4.49 to -3.33
  • Seeing Bennett and Gaudreau’s names up near the top makes for another reason to get excited about them being on a line in the future. If they don’t score a goal with their stellar puck movement, chances are they’re going to at least get themselves a power play to try again.

Conclusion

Taking fewer penalties leads to fewer goals against. The Blackhawks’ one goal in the Flames 2-1 overtime victory? On the power play. Through nine games in November, they’ve given up power play goals in six of them. 

But no matter how much the percentages may be going against you – no matter how poor your goalies may have been to start the year – having the fourth worst kill in the NHL isn’t doing any favours, particularly when you’re down a man more often than you were before.

But ultimately, a lot of things simply went right for the Flames last season, and drawing more penalties than they took was a part of that. Giordano’s numbers this year are bad, but his differential of 0 last year was the best of his career. Hamilton was a poor differential player during his time in Boston, and we only have one year of Jooris to go off of, so we don’t know what his true abilities regarding drawing and taking penalties are. 

The only consistent names from this year and last when it comes to actually drawing penalties are Gaudreau, Brodie, Hudler, and Jones: arguably the Flames’ two best players, and two veterans. Frolik is traditionally good at drawing calls as well, and since he’ll be around for a few years yet, he should add to that. And of course, Bennett looks very promising so far.

That’s only four names to really count on. So far, the Flames are failing to meet expectations the 2014-15 may have set, fairly or not: and drawing calls is, thus far, one of those failures.

  • MattyFranchise

    After Hamilton took that boneheaded penalty when he lost his stick in the last game all I could think was, “damn, this guy takes a lot of penalties.”

    Anyway, I looked at his stats from his last two Boston years and he took 40 minutes of penalties in 68 games one season and 41 in 72 games the next.

    This season he has 16 in 21 games. To make the math easy to compare to his last year in Boston this puts him on pace for 55 penalty minutes in 72 games with the Flames this season.

    Seven extra minor penalties in the same amount of games. That… that is not good.

  • CofRed4Life

    Makes me wonder why they’re taking more penalties. Is it lack of discipline? Is it the style of defense they’re playing? I haven’t been able to watch many of the games so I don’t know. Any thoughts?

  • MattyFranchise

    A penalty has the potential for changing the momentum. This stat is largely determined by whether you’re being chased are chasing. If you are charging the net the call will likely be on the defender.
    Hamilton has speed, youth, and skating style to his advantage. Brodie should be his role model. Gio can be forgiven if he breaks even. He plays a harder nosed game and makes his presence felt. And he’s not the spring chicken he once was.

  • Bean-counting cowboy

    Nice piece Ari. I was wondering the other day the quantifiable breakdown of the penalty differential as compared to last year. I figured we gained some points in the standing last year as a result and are losing points this year and this confirms it… which is what I figured, I just was curious of the breakdown.

  • RKD

    Gio doesn’t look the same, his timing and play is off and he’s not the dominant Gio we saw last season. When that happens you take short cuts even if it is not intentional, the refs call it. Hamilton is still adjusting and needs to learn how to play other forwards without taking holding and hooking penalties.

    • Ari Yanover

      That’s Mike’s territory! I love looking at player usage stuff, though, so I’ll try working in tandem with him on that, and hopefully get something up soon!

      • Two parts to because reasons and I have to preface much of this with:

        I’m sorry there are delays on PK stuff. Work/life are in the way currently + travel to Phoenix this week.

        BUUTTTTTT

        There is strong evidence to support (at least at this point) that it’s a two-fold issue:

        1. Player usage on the PK is a conundrum for this team. The lack of Paul Byron is a very noticeable shift on the PK. He was an exception forward at suppression in several areas.

        2. Josh Jooris’ penalty differential is honestly something not a lot of folks are considering when it comes to special teams. He was rather successful last year in his role on the PK.

        3. Lack of Brodie to start season was a very glaring problem. Couple that with Giordano’s penalty differential. I’m not of the ilk who are willing to “forgive” Giordano for his penalties. Some are incredibly weak calls and some are just. He is getting burnt more legitimately than not.

        Now onto systemic things that I’ve caught on and eluded to either in comments here or on Twitter:

        1. Positioning/deployment of the system is awful. A pattern that may have disappeared somewhat was the funneling of shots to one side of the ice. It’s a dilemma because the problem doesn’t need to exist, but it does.

        2. When the defense collapse to some degree (or intentionally on second-chances) it’s still sloppy. There is limited coherent decision making there. Sometimes you have a forward not paying attention to someone, sometimes it’s not reading the actual play.

        Anyway, once my life is somewhat back to normal I’m optimistic I can have more to share. Data, video, etc, etc. Again, super sorry for delays.

        • piscera.infada

          1. Player usage on the PK is a conundrum for this team. The lack of Paul Byron is a very noticeable shift on the PK. He was an exception forward at suppression in several areas.

          2. Josh Jooris’ penalty differential is honestly something not a lot of folks are considering when it comes to special teams. He was rather successful last year in his role on the PK.

          I’ve noticed the two above, quite a bit. I’d like to point out though, that it’s not like the penalty kill was very good last year (I believe it was in the bottom-third of the league)–they just didn’t take penalties. That leads me to believe, as you elude to, that it’s more systemic.

          I’ve noticed that Flames tend to allow very easy entrances into the zone on the penalty kill. I’m not sure if that’s trying to compensate for what they perceive as a weakness in coverage, or if it’s just overall hesitancy. Generally though, the easiest way to actually kill a penalty is to restrict zone-entry and force the attacking team to dump the puck in. When the Flames (or most other teams, for that matter) are at their most effective on the PK, they’re very aggressive (sometimes overly so) in not allowing the other team to actually set up in their zone. I think this is actually the crux of the Flames issue. Coverage once the team is actually set up is one thing, but the fact that teams get set up with little resistance seemingly all the time is a glaring weakness.