Don't hate Dustin Brown; he just really likes powerplays.

The only statistic that the average hockey fan really cares about is wins. All most fans want is to see their team win hockey games, no matter how that occurs. Here’s the dirty little secret: that’s all that the proponents of advanced statistics really care about as well. At the risk of stating the obvious, a team needs to score and prevent goals in order to win hockey games. All that advanced statistics claim to be is a better way to figure out what leads to a team scoring and preventing goals than traditional metrics.

Here’s another obvious truth: it’s easier to score and prevent goals when you have more players on the ice than the opposition. But the one advanced statistic that tracks how frequently a player puts his team in such a beneficial situation receives only occasional mention on hockey blogs and is rarely – if ever – mentioned in the mainstream media: penalty plus/minus (+/-).

Penalty +/- is a pretty easy statistic to understand: it’s simply the difference between the number of penalties drawn and taken at even-strength. It doesn’t include misconducts where a team is not given a powerplay. When a player gets hooked, high-sticked, tripped, etc. he is considered to have drawn a penalty. It’s fairly obvious how this contributes to wins as well. If a powerplay converts at around 20% (a little higher than the league average, but convenient as a round number), then a single powerplay opportunity is worth 0.2 goals. For every five powerplays a player gets his team, he’s contributing 1 goal, all without necessarily recording a point.

The flipside to that is that every five penalties a player takes, he’s costing his team 1 goal as well. This is why penalty +/- is important, tracking how many powerplay opportunities a player gave his team compared to how many he gave the opposition.

Dustin Brown is one player who has shown a particular aptitude for drawing penalties. In the 2008-09 season, he dominated this statistic, drawing 49 more penalties than he took. This is approximately equivalent to scoring 10 goals for his team. Add that to the 24 actual goals he scored and you have the equivalent of a 34-goal scorer with an even penalty +/-. He drew 39 more penalties than he took in the 2009-10 season and 21 more last season. This decline in penalties drawn may have something to do with his league-wide reputation as a diver, which, whether deserved or not, might lead to fewer referees willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

If drawing penalties has such an obvious benefit, why does it seem to be largely ignored in statistics? A parallel can be drawn between drawing a penalty in hockey and drawing a walk in baseball. For a long time in baseball, a walk was considered to be mainly a mistake by the pitcher. This is why a player’s batting average does not include the at bats in which he walked. What this missed, however, is that there is a distinct skill in drawing a walk. It involves having a good eye for the strike zone, the ability to foul off pitches in or around the strike zone, and possessing the hitting ability to force a pitcher to avoid the plate.

This has been increasingly recognized in baseball and the ability to “work a walk” is now highly prized. On-base percentage has become more and more important, particularly in the wake of Moneyball.

Matt Duchene earned this penalty and don't you dare tell him differently or he might cry.

The same is true of drawing a penalty. For a long time, all that was tracked when it came to penalties is who took the penalty. A player would rack up penalty minutes, whether by fighting or by slashing, high-sticking, cross-checking, etc. with all of those penalty minutes being given equal weight. The player on the receiving end of the slash, high-stick, or cross-check received no attention except from his team’s medical staff.

But there is a definite skill to drawing penalties, and I’m not just referring to embellishment or diving. The league leaders in penalty +/- are usually cut from the same cloth. Most are fast, strong, and skilled forwards who are difficult to contain. Inevitably, when a player can’t be contained within the rules of the game, defenders will attempt to contain the player with a hook, hold, or other penalizable offense.

Last season, two rookies led the league in penalty +/-, as Jeff Skinner drew 32 more penalties at even strength than he took, while Taylor Hall was just behind at 29. So far this season, it’s once again youth near the top of the league. Here are the top-five players in penalty +/-, keeping in mind that the season is still young and the sample size is small:

Name Pos Team GP Penalties Taken Penalties Drawn Penalties Taken/60 Minutes Penalties Drawn/60 Minutes Penalty +/-
Rick Nash RW CBJ 10 0 9 0 3.6 9
Jeff Skinner C CAR 14 4 11 1.3 3.6 7
Cody Hodgson C VAN 15 0 7 0 2.5 7
Matt Duchene C COL 14 0 7 0 2.3 7
Sean Couturier C PHI 13 0 6 0 3.1 6

The Blue Jackets powerplay may be as useless as a male nipple, but Nash’s impressive +9 rating is approximately equivalent to 1 goal, thanks to rounding. Hooray for math! Unfortunately, the Blue Jackets have frequently needed more than just one extra goal to win hockey games recently. In case you haven’t heard, they are not very good at hockey.

Jeff Skinner finds himself once again near the top of the NHL in penalty +/-. His creativity and willingness to handle the puck in traffic make him a nightmare for defenders. Such is also the case with the young and talented Cody Hodgson and Matt Duchene, while Sean Couturier is getting it done mainly with his strength on the puck and willingness to go to the tough areas on the ice.

At the other end of the spectrum are the players who have a negative penalty +/- and are costing their team goals and therefore wins. These players are frequently, but not always, defencemen as they are more likely to take penalties while trying to contain opposing forwards.

Name Pos Team GP Penalties Taken Penalties Drawn Penalties Taken/60 Minutes Penalties Drawn/60 Minutes Penalty +/-
Chris Neil RW OTT 15 10 1 3.2 0.3 -9
Sheldon Souray D DAL 13 9 0 2.9 0 -9
Nicklas Grossman D DAL 10 8 0 3.2 0 -8
Kyle Quincey D COL 14 7 0 1.8 0 -7
Maxime Macenauer C ANA 14 6 0 3.7 0 -6

That said, two of the bottom five thus far this season are forwards. Quite frankly, Chris Neil can’t afford to take that many penalties as the Senators so far have one of the worst penalty kills in the league. Sheldon Souray has been a boon to the Stars offensively, with 12 points in 13 games, but his penchant for putting the other team on the powerplay may eventually cost Dallas, particularly since the Stars have another defenceman in Grossman who takes far more penalties than he draws.

Last season, Carolina led the NHL with 74 more powerplay opportunities than times they were shorthanded, which was 23 more than the next best team, the Maple Leafs. Because of this, the Hurricanes were able to finish 9th in the NHL in powerplay goals despite a terrible powerplay percentage. Jeff Skinner was a large part of that.

Cody Hodgson in "please take a penalty" mode.

Meanwhile, Vancouver led the league in powerplay goals despite having fewer powerplays than time shorthanded. With the addition of Cody Hodgson to the lineup, the Canucks not only have a more dangerous powerplay (witness his two powerplay assists from the second unit in their win over the Blackhawks), but may end up with more powerplays than last season. They are currently on pace for 394 powerplays, nearly 100 more than last season. At last season’s powerplay percentage, that’s another 24 powerplay goals. Personally, if I was their opposition, that would scare me away from taking any liberties with the Sedins far more than a goon suiting up on the fourth line.

I hope to keep an eye on this statistic throughout the season, looking for players who add value to their teams in a way that doesn’t show up on the scoresheet. Why penalties drawn and taken doesn’t appear on the NHL.com statistics is completely unfathomable to me considering how important it can be to a team.

 

All statistics drawn from Behindthenet.ca, which is an awesome, awesome website.

Comments (5)

  1. One caveat re: the following: “This is approximately equivalent to scoring 10 goals for his team. Add that to the 24 actual goals he scored and you have the equivalent of a 34-goal scorer with an even penalty +/-. ”

    In the event the player that drew the penalty scores the powerplay goal, you’re essentially double counting with respect to them being an effective XYZ goal scorer, no? I.e. If Dustin Brown draws a penalty and scores a powerplay goal for the Kings (assuming pp% of 20%) then you’re essentially giving him credit for 1.2 goals.

  2. danielson

    a perceptive piece of prose well worth considering. please keep us up to date on this statistic as the season progresses as well as re-evaluating its worth at a later date. cheers!

  3. It would be particularly nifty to link this stat with the team’s success rate. Mad staticians everywhere, make it so.

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