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New Jersey Devils Discipline Problems Plague Start of 2014-15 Season

Last season, the New Jersey Devils were ahead of the league median in the number of shorthanded situations; but they are near the most early in 2014-15. This post looks at the penalties themselves for a closer look at the Devils' discipline issues.

It's cheating like this that has led the Devils to taking so many penalties that get them in so many shorthanded situations.
It's cheating like this that has led the Devils to taking so many penalties that get them in so many shorthanded situations.
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

During our season preview, I focused on the penalty kill.  I was concerned about two factors: relatively inexperienced defensemen joining the penalty kill and the state of Cory Schneider's remarkably high save percentage in shorthanded situations.  I did address the penalties themselves, but only briefly.  I wrote out a general hope that the team could find a way to take fewer penalties - even though they were above the league median in terms of shorthanded situations.  Specifically, they were down at least one man 264 times in 2013-14; an average of about 3.2 per game. At the start of this season, the Devils have been shorthanded 26 times in five games.  That's tied for the second most in the league and they have the league's highest average of 5.2 shorthanded situations per game.  Clearly, discipline has been an issue.

Of course, you did not need to look up those stats from to know that.  Most of you who have caught at least one Devils game have likely lamented the calls the team has made.  From Adam Henrique rushing in to whack Nicklas Grossman's hand for a puck he wasn't going to win on a power play to Mike Cammalleri smashing Patrick Marleau's stick, plenty of the calls have not been good.  After the most recent loss, where the PK got beat twice, it's a good time as any to take a closer look at the penalties themselves.

I went through the game summaries of the last five games and tallied the penalties, when they happened, and who took them.   I removed any fighting majors (two) and minor penalties that were offset by a minor penalty to the other team (Travis Zajac had a roughing call in Florida that was matched by one to the Panthers).

Game Period Time Devil Penalty
1 1 14:38 Henrique Hooking
1 2 7:29 Tootoo Slashing
1 2 15:30 Elias Hooking
1 2 19:55 Clowe Tripping
1 3 10:20 Jagr Hooking
2 1 15:40 Tootoo Interference
2 1 20:00 Ruutu Roughing
2 2 11:27 Tootoo Hi-sticking
2 2 15:24 Ruutu Tripping
2 2 19:17 Gionta Hi-sticking
2 3 1:44 Cammalleri Delay of Game
2 3 3:22 Merrill Boarding
2 3 8:28 Havlat Delay of Game
3 1 1:18 Greene Tripping
3 1 4:47 Severson Slashing
3 1 19:16 Havlat Hooking
3 3 12:29 Severson Interference
4 1 13:09 Cammalleri Holding
4 2 1:21 Merrill Holding
4 2 11:15 Gelinas Elbowing
4 3 5:36 Zajac Tripping
4 3 7:26 Jagr Tripping
5 1 5:07 Tootoo Interference
5 1 16:54 Merrill Interference
5 2 3:29 Jagr Interference
5 2 17:34 Cammalleri Slashing

When were the calls made? I didn't find too much interesting about them other than trivia.  Like that four of these calls were within the final two minutes of a period.   Two of the 26 were during power plays; another two of the 26 were during penalty kills.   In terms of period-by-period, the Devils took 9 in the first period, 10 in the second, and 7 in the third.  Nothing that stands out too much, though one could point out that five of those seven third period penalties were called when the game was out of doubt for one team.

Who's taking these calls?   Given last season's leaders in penalties, it's shocking that Marek Zidlicky and Dainius Zubrus are nowhere to be found.  Likewise, Bryce Salvador is absent - which means he was able to play on the penalty kill for most of these instances.  Rather than count the players individually -'s stats page sort of does that - I decided to categorize the number of penalties based on the forward line and defensive pairing affected. Peter DeBoer hasn't changed them much in the first five games; only Damien Brunner has stepped in for Martin Havlat and he did not take a call.

Line Count
1st Line (23-19-68) 7
2nd Line (9-26-8) 3
3rd Line (17-14-29) 2
4th Line (15-11-20) 7

1st Pair (6-28) 3
2nd Pair (24-2) 0
3rd Pair (7-22) 4

To me, the main sources of concern are with the top and bottom forward line.  Jaromir Jagr and Mike Cammalleri have each taken three minors, and the team has paid for their sins at least once already.  Throw in one more for Zajac and that's right up there with the fourths.   That's the fourth line of Jordin Tootoo, Stephen Gionta, and Tuomo Ruutu does not, led by Tootoo's four minors.  That makes it one of the stronger arguments for scratching him, incidentally.  Unless I'm missing something, he's contributed four minor penalties, one major penalty, and not much else.  In terms of possession and production, at least the first forward line has absolutely have shown that in this early part of the season. The fourths have not.  Hence, I think changes there could help in this regard.

Nevertheless, should DeBoer and the coaches want to see better discipline, then dealing with those six forwards in some way would be a good place to start.   Two groups of three forwards each have has many penalties that have led to shorthanded situations as the entire defense so far.  Curiously, the defense as a group looks good.  Six players, seven calls over five games isn't a crazy amount.  That said, I do not recommend betting against Zidlicky-Salvador taking a call for much longer, for what it's worth.  I don't think the blueline will display superior discipline than the forwards for whole lot longer.   Still, the forwards are a key source for the current problem; specifically, the Zajac and Gionta-centered lines.   For those who would love to see Tootoo in a suit than a Devils jersey, then this

What are the calls?  The Devils have been tagged for ten different types of penalties that have led to their 26 shorthanded situations.  Here's the count of that:

Penalty Type Count
Tripping 5
Interference 5
Hooking 4
Slashing 3
Hi-sticking 2
Delay of Game 2
Holding 2
Boarding 1
Elbowing 1
Roughing 1

Look at all of the stick-related fouls.  While interference is right up at the top, there's a slight majority of those involving sticks: 14 out of 26.  I will admit that some of those five tripping calls did not involve a stick; rather a leg-on-leg sort of play.  Two that come to my mind are Zajac's tripping call in the third period in the Washington game and Ryane Clowe's tripping call near the end of the second period of first Philadelphia game (that was one of the costly ones).

Nevertheless, these are the sort of penalties that are generally the result of being in a bad spot and making a worse decision.  Hitting someone without the puck (interference) or taking someone down with it (tripping) are generally not good ideas unless it's to prevent a goal.  Unless I'm mistaken, none of those ten calls were done to do just that.  Hooks, slashes, and hi-sticks are generally errors with the stick.  Again, none of those were done to deny someone a glorious opportunity to score.  I can agree that a number of these were "drawn" well by the opposition, but the majority of these 26 penalties were, in my opinion, easy calls for the refs on for that given game.  I make a point of it to state that in my recaps when I think a penalty was a bad one to take, and usually most are.  I can't point to an objective stat that would agree; but from what I saw, that only makes the most of the 26 that were called sting.  It also makes me believe the Devils can and should do much better.

What can be done?  I do think switching Tootoo out for someone else on the fourth line can immediately help with current penalty problem.  However, it really will take a team effort.  Again, I would start focusing on the first and fourth forward lines as they've taken the most so far.   I will say that the goal is not to take no penalties. That's not really a reasonable goal.  It's rare for a team to go a whole game without taking one penalty.  But continuous improvement is possible because averaging over five shorthanded situations per game is a recipe for disaster.  Especially with the current form of the penalty killing units and Schneider not stopping everything in shorthanded situations.

What would you like to see the Devils do about their current problems with discipline?  Do you think it'll just happen over time or are there measures the team can take to commit fewer fouls?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Devils' penalty problems in this early part of the season in the comments.  Thank you for reading.