This season the New Jersey Devils have been somewhat different than expected. While possession is most likely the major difference, and one that is not a good change at all, another difference has been with the penalty kill. This used to be one of the stronger points for this hockey club, as the team finished first last season with a 86.4 kill percentage. However, this season has seen the Devils with one of the worst kill units in the league, sitting in 26th before Friday night's game against Detroit at 74.7%.
While I could sit here and harp on how the PK units need to improve, and that is completely accurate, instead I want to look at the actual penalties that this team takes. Are the Devils taking more penalties than their competition, putting them at a disadvantage, or are they not taking too many penalties in comparison? Furthermore, what penalties are they most guilty of, and what do they need to work on to stay out of the penalty box? An improved penalty kill would be great, but if the Devils can stay out of the box more, it could potentially help this club even further.
Note: All statistics were gathered before Friday night's game. If you want more up to date information, click on the links, which should now have Friday's stats included.
Taking Too Many Calls
While not known for its hockey coverage, ESPN tracks penalties quite well, and posts up its data on its website. The chart for minor penalties can be found here, while the chart for major penalties is here. First, let's discuss the good news. The Devils have actually only taken 4 major penalties this season, good for 25th in the league. The worst offender in that category, Anaheim, has 14 already. These are good numbers. This means the Devils are staying out of the box for long stretches of time. They are not fighting much, nor are they giving up 5 minute majors.
The issue comes with the minor penalties. Whereas the Devils are one of the least penalized teams in the league in terms of major penalties, for minor penalties they are one of the most penalized teams. New Jersey sits at 5th in the league with 91 minor penalties taken. Winnipeg is far and above the most penalized team with 114 minors, but the 2nd worst team, Los Angeles, has 96 minors. This means that the Devils are only 5 penalties away from being the 2nd worst offending team in terms of minor penalties. This is quite bad. The least penalized team, Nashville, has only taken 66 minor penalties, 25 less than the Devils. That equates to 50 minutes of extra penalty kill minutes that the Devils have needed to kill off that Nashville has not. And when your penalty killing unit is not performing well at all, those 50 minutes can equate to lots of goals, and in fact have.
In terms of overall penalty minutes, despite all of the minors, the Devils rank 22nd in the league with 210 penalty minutes. The worst team in the league to this effect, Winnipeg, has 350 PIMs, so NJ is doing fairly well in that category. The issue with that stat, however, is that PIMs can be greatly skewed from major penalties. So many of those penalty minutes are added on for fights or for game misconducts, of which the Devils have zero. So in reality, those 210 penalty minutes are being served the hard way, as opposed to something like offsetting fights where the game still remains at 5 on 5.
To showcase this a little further, this season so far the Devils have had to kill off an average of 3.95 penalties per game. In contrast, the team has only been getting 2.95 penalties per game. That means that on average, the Devils have had to kill off one extra penalty per game, at least in comparison to how many power plays they get. This is a bad ratio, especially for a team that currently ranks 12th in power play percentage and 26th in penalty kill percentage. For a team that has been scoring on power plays and giving up goals on kills, they need to get more minutes with the man advantage and less minutes with a disadvantage.
What's Being Called
To further delve into penalties, let's see what calls the team has been taking the most. The biggest culprits are penalties that prevent the opposition from moving forward. The Devils have taken 20 hooking penalties, good for 2nd in the league only behind Los Angeles' 22. They also take the most holding calls, with 16 so far this season. The 2nd worst team in this category, Detroit, is right behind at 15. The Devils also tie for 3rd in the league with 15 tripping calls. LA again tops the list in this category with 17. The other penalty that prevents movement, interference, has the Devils actually doing somewhat better. They have only taken 10 interference calls so far this season, which is good for 13th in the league. Detroit tops that list with 18 interference penalties.
Of the other calls, The Devils have taken 8 high sticking minors, 7 slashing penalties, 4 roughing minors, and 3 cross checking minors. They have not been called at all for holding the stick or for goaltender interference. Those numbers are definitely better than the movement prevention penalties, and help to bring down the overall number of penalties that have been called against New Jersey this season.
Who is Taking Penalties?
Next, let's look at who on the team is taking the most penalties. This information comes straight from the Devils' main website. The leader in PIMs for the Devils is none other than Bryce Salvador, with an egregious 20 PIMs over 15 games played. Behind him is Marek Zidlicky with 18 PIMs, Jordin Tootoo with 17, Mike Cammalleri and Jaromir Jagr with 14, Damon Severson and Michael Ryder with 12, and Eric Gelinas, Travis Zajac, Tuomo Ruutu and Dainius Zubrus with 10 PIMs each. Everyone else has under 10 penalty minutes on the season.
What Does It Mean?
In the end, it means that when the Devils take penalties, they are usually lacking speed, are out of position, or have a combination of both. Movement prevention penalties such as hooking usually happen when a skater is out of position and cannot properly defend his opposition. It could also be a lack of speed where the opponent gets too far ahead. Speed cannot be corrected, but being out of position is something that is correctable to a degree. If the Devils can play smarter hockey, they could potentially be in better positions to make plays and not have to take penalties due to being somewhere they shouldn't be.
I think that this analysis is confirmed to a degree by who is taking penalties. The worst offenders are Zidlicky and Salvador, who are often out of position or are forced to take bad calls to make up for poor defensive play or poor positioning. Tootoo is a bruiser and so will get a high number of penalty minutes, but the other two certainly confirm the analysis.
Of course, penalties are going to happen, and the Devils will take penalties most every game. That is understandable. But when the team takes the 5th most minor penalties in the league, when last season they were 25th in the league, you know that something is wrong and something needs to be corrected. The penalty kill certainly needs improvement, but the kill also should not need to be on the ice as often as it has been. To really be in a stronger position, the Devils need to get to a point where they have more power plays per game than penalty kills, not like it is now.
What are your thoughts on this? What do you feel about the penalty situation, and what the Devils can do to mitigate taking so many penalties? How do you look at the data and what do you take from it? Please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading.