A problem the Flames had in 2016-17? They took too many penalties. A problem they had in 2017-18? They took too many penalties. A problem they might be having at times this preseason? … Well, penalties.
Over Glen Gulutzan’s tenure as Calgary’s head coach, the Flames were among the league leaders in penalty minutes: in 2016-17 they led the NHL in both minor penalties taken and total penalty minutes, and in 2017-18 they were fourth in minor penalties, and second league-wide in total penalty minutes. While we likely can’t attribute this entirely to Gulutzan, you have to go all the way back to the 2009-10 season to find another year in which the Flames were in the upper half of the NHL in terms of penalty minutes.
Mind, the Flames’ penalty kill percentage was in the upper half of the league both seasons, but it still stands to reason that taking fewer penalties is probably going to result in fewer goals against. (This was a problem for the Flames in 2016-17, but less so in 2017-18.)
In contrast, Bill Peters’ Hurricanes took the fewest minor penalties in the league over his four seasons as their head coach, and had the fewest total penalty minutes (except in 2015-16, when they only had the second fewest total penalty minutes, the monsters). The Hurricanes did have a similar record in 2013-14 as well – when Peters was still an assistant coach with the Red Wings – with the fewest penalty minutes taken in the league, but only the seventh fewest minor penalties. They also have pretty consistently been at least near the bottom of the league in penalties taken for a number of additional seasons prior to Peters joining the team.
Still, it does at least inspire one to wonder if, since Peters has enjoyed a consistent record of his teams just not really taking penalties, we can expect a sharp reduction in infractions committed by the Flames this upcoming season.
Beyond the coach, though, penalties will ultimately be decided by the players who take (or draw) them.
Via Natural Stat Trick, here are how the Flames (who are still in camp and actually have data to draw from) have stacked up over the past two seasons, listed in descending order by their penalty differentials:
|Player||Minor penalties taken||Penalties drawn||Penalty differential|
Players like Czarnik and Andersson have had pretty limited NHL showings, but in the handful of games they’ve gotten in, their early returns are good. Meanwhile, newcomers Neal and Lindholm project to help get the Flames on the man advantage, while Ryan and, to a greater extent, Hanifin may struggle a little more in that department.
We see players who are utilized in highly defensive roles – Backlund, Frolik, Giordano, and Stone in particular – take more penalties than they draw, but that’s a part of playing that position. (If Frolik takes on a lesser role this season then we may see his numbers get better; meanwhile, Backlund is still great as the team’s top defensive centre – and penalty killer – but fewer penalties taken might go a long way.)
On the flip side of things, Gaudreau is just so good as a focused offensive dynamo that he’s far more likely to force the other team into an error than to hurt his own cause, while Tkachuk is becoming something of a penalty-drawing specialist himself. (Bennett is kind of Tkachuk’s worst case scenario: he commits a lot of penalties, but he also draws quite a few, just not enough to balance his numbers out.) Otherwise, most players fall somewhere in between.
The players the Flames have lost over the offseason matter a lot here, as well. In 2017-18, Dougie Hamilton led the Flames with 25 minor penalties taken. Matt Stajan was tied for fifth with 12 penalties. Hamilton and Stajan were also second and third, with 20 and 19 minor penalties taken, respectively, on the team in 2016-17. Though the Flames still have a number of guys who take a lot of penalties, it is possible they may see some addition by subtraction in this department. (However, that isn’t a guarantee: remember, we’re talking about a top pairing defenceman and a centre who took a lot of defensive zone draws. Their replacements may end up committing a number of infractions as well.)
Ultimately, though, more disciplined play – perhaps under this new coaching staff – and a slightly changed roster of players featuring more newcomers who have a positive differential than not could see the Flames’ penalty fortunes take a turn for the better this season. Neal and Lindholm will likely get big minutes. Hanifin probably still has room to grow. And a rookie like Dillon Dube remains a total wild card.
But if the team is able to turn their penalty-taking fortunes around and their special teams follow suit, it’s another area in which the Flames may be able to tack on a few more wins, and that could make all the difference by season’s end.