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Hooks, Trips, Hi-Sticks, Oh My: The 2015-16 New Jersey Devils & Penalties

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While it may not be a major issue, penalties are an area the New Jersey Devils can improve upon for next season. This post looks at how the team did in 2015-16 with what penalties they took and who committed the more frequent penalties relative to the NHL.

A trip. Called? Not called? If it was, it was one of the 48 the Devils had last season - the 7th most in the NHL.
A trip. Called? Not called? If it was, it was one of the 48 the Devils had last season - the 7th most in the NHL.
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

With the 2015-16 regular season over, the New Jersey Devils are in their offseason.  While much of the attention will be appropriately looking ahead at the NHL Draft and free agency, there is value in looking back at the season that just happened.  Yes, the Devils are re-building.  In order to make it work, they must recognize what just happened and learn from it in order to get better.  This includes not just the major issues such as production (dead last in goals and next to last in possession) but also other areas.  Today and tomorrow, I want to focus on one of them: penalties.

Given that the Devils were far from offensive powerhouses and that they often got out-done in the run-of-play, taking a penalty seemed to present an immediate issue.  After all, if 5-on-5 is a problem, then how much better is a 4-on-5? To be fair, the PK was actually pretty good. Their success rate of 83% finished eighth in the NHL according to the league.  According to War on Ice's shorthanded team stats, their shots against per sixty minute rate was 51.1, which was on the right side of the league median.  Yet, taking penalties meant the team went from generating little offense to being forced to generate even less for the time of the kill.  It also meant additional ice time for members of the penalty killing units, which impacted usage and perhaps effectivness on some nights.  In general, taking penalties is a bad thing and, like any team, the Devils should strive for improved discipline.

Of course, to make improvements, it is best to know where one stands.  From NHL.com, here are the total amount of penalties and where they ranked in the NHL in 2015-16: (Note: a 15 means the 15th most in the NHL)

Penalties Count Rank
Minors 289 15
Majors 26 t-13
Bench 8 t-15
Misconducts 5 t-13
Game Misconducts 3 t-6

While it is not the heyday of the Devils being a relative hallmark of discipline, the Devils are around the middle of the league in most of the big-picture penalty stats.   They finished around the league median in minors, bench minors, misconducts, and major penalties.  While they had some nights where they looked like a crew of fouling fools, it was not the case relative to some other teams in the NHL.

Now, let's take a closer look at what penalties the Devils did take.  In the past, one could view a player's page at NHL.com and it will list what penalties they took and how many of each type of penalty they had.  After a bit of work, the information could be summed up to get a team total.  Unfortunately, the player pages at the new NHL.com does not have this information.  In fact, most sites do not have detailed breakdowns of penalty types. What can be done outside of going through 82 game summaries? Fortunately, there is an unexpected source: ESPN. (Thanks to @JCamps30 on Twitter for the heads up on that.)  They have more specific penalty stats for teams and players.

There are some caveats.  First, their numbers do not exactly match up with NHL. The NHL has the Devils at 289 minor penalties; ESPN has them at 285.  I don't know if that difference if from double-minors separately or not.  Second and more important, they do not list every single penalty type.  They have most of the common ones but they're missing types like delay of game calls (that's the biggest miss in my eyes), spearing (I know this because Stephen Gionta got called for one), illegal contact to the head, embellishment, and others.   And if a player does not have that penalty type, they're not at ESPN - like Gionta is not under Major Penalties even though he got five minutes for a spearing penalty in October. For the purposes of this post, I'm more concerned with the more common calls like hooking and interference.  For the Devils or any other team seeking to make improvements, they should be focused on what penalties the team has been most guilty of anyway.  If anyone knows of a site that has a more complete breakdown, then let me know.  In the meantime, I'm using ESPN.

Caveats aside, here are how many times the Devils have been assessed the following penalty types in 2015-16 and their rank within the NHL according to ESPN: (Note: a 7 means the 7th most of that penalty in the NHL.)

Pen. Types per ESPN Count Rank
Hooking 49 13
Tripping 48 7
Interference 38 3
Roughing 38 t-13
High Sticking 29 t-7
Fighting 22 t-15
Holding 22 26
Cross Checking 16 8
Slashing 16 t-25
Boarding 6 t-15
Unsports. Conduct 3 t-27
Instigator 2 t-4
Stick Hold 2 t-24
Goalie Interference 1 t-29

Relative to the rest of the league, the Devils rated rather well for some of these calls.  I was surprised to see slashing and hooking rate as low as they did.  I was pleased to see only one goaltender interference call was called against NJ all season - tied with Our Hated Rivals of all teams. So much for that Chris Kreider narrative I enjoy.  Some other types were around the league median: boarding, fighting, roughing, and hooking.  There would be value in reducing hooking penalties since the Devils took more of those penalties than anything else. Those often lead to penalty killing situations.  That said, relative to the rest of the NHL, the Devils are not really out of the ordinary in how often they get tagged with those.

The calls that were more frequent were interference penalties, tripping, high-sticking, and cross-checking.  Instigator penalties rated high but there were only two of those, which is not a big deal in the bigger picture.  While it may be nigh-impossible for the Devils to avoid the four calls mentioned, these are the four to focus on if management wants to look at a specific type in addition to hooking.  Two of them are fouls I would associate with positioning and timing. A Devil may be placed in a situation to throw a hit away from the play or trip an opponent to deny them a chance at the puck or getting involved.  Improvements on defense could lead to a reduction on top of just making a point of it to reduce them.  High-sticking and cross-checking are more or less violent fouls.  The Devils who take them just have to be smarter about it; there's little reason to get a stick high whether it is to throw a hit or just strike an opponent.

Who is taking these calls?  After going through what I could of ESPN's player stats on penalties, the main conclusion is that there is not one or two players who have done it so much that it is easy to tell them to settle down.  These calls are often by committee with the most often being five or six times and plenty of players committing it at least twice.  Still, here's a brief breakdown of the most common offenders:

  • Your Devils' leader in hooks was Joseph Blandisi with five.  He just edged Kyle Palmieri, Jon Merrill, and Jacob Josefson, who each had four hooks each.  While Blandisi is a pest of a player, those other three players are not exactly guys known for penalties.
  • Your Devils' leader in interference penalties was Lee Stempniak with five.  Stempniak did take two penalties with the Bruins, none were for interference, so they were all with the red, white, and black.   Bobby Farnham was close behind him with four, followed by Damon Severson, John Moore, Adam Larsson, and Eric Gelinas (no penalties with Colorado) with three each.  I'm not surprised to see as many defensemen involved, though it raised an eyebrow to see two wingers lead the way.  Especially two wingers as disparate in usage and role as Stempniak, a top-six winger in N.J. who was used and thrived a bit in offensive situations, and Farnham, a fourth-line "energy" guy.
  • Your Devils' leader in tripping minors was Jon Merrill with five.  The defenseman beat out Josefson, Sergey Kalinin, and Andy Greene, who each had four trips to the box for trips.
  • Your Devils' leader in high-sticking calls was also your Devils' leader in penalty minutes from last season: Jordin Tootoo.  He had four. As did Severson, who was nowhere near Tootoo's total of 102 PIM.  Plenty of players with one of these calls; only a handful had two and Stempniak had three.
  • Your Devils' leader in cross-checking penalties was Larsson with four.  Like high-sticks, most of the players had one of these at most. Only Moore and Tootoo had more than one; they each had two of these given to them.

You'll notice a variety of players in the preceding list. Therefore, the strategies to cut down on penalties for 2016-17 will differ.

Most of the regular defensemen from last season were mentioned at least once.  Among them, Larsson, Merrill, and Severson stick out. Larsson led the team in minor penalties with 21; Merrill and Severson took their fair share.  As these players will likely be on the team next season, their utilization and instruction should be adjusted to account for their play on the ice.  In the case of Larsson, since he plays so much, reducing the penalties he takes is a benefit to the defense.  Between the cross-checks and his holding penalties (he led the team with five), he could stand to be better in close-quarters.  Merrill and Severson need to be smarter with their sticks to cut down on the high-sticks, hooks, and trips.  A better defense overall would help in that the defensemen could get themselves in better positions to defend instead of having an incentive to foul.

Both "enforcers" - Farnham and Tootoo - make appearances for these kinds of calls.  It should not shock you that they are up there on the team in terms of total penalties taken, too.  As both are unrestricted free agents, this problem may be resolved by simply not signing them.  Something that could be justified for reasons more apparent than just penalties.

Surprisingly, forwards like Josefson, Palmieri, Kalinin and Blandisi also came up.   In the case of Kalinin, if he does return for another season, then experience may help him realize not to take as many calls he did.  This was his first season in the NHL  In the case of Blandisi, experience will also help as this was his first season of professional hockey. But I think it'll be more important that the coaches instruct him to not play on the proverbial edge so much and to keep his cool.  Blandisi has certainly shown a good amount of talent; so much so that having him take seventeen minors (!) does not help his or the team's future.  Among the forwards expected to return, he should receive the most attention regarding penalties.  As for Josefson and Palmieri, they are veterans of the game by this point and just need to know better with what they do.  Should Stempniak return, perhaps a reduced role could cut down on the opportunity to take the fouls that he did.

That leads me to my last point.  As the 2016-17 roster could see plenty of turnover, Ray Shero and his staff would be wise to pay a little attention to the penalties taken by who they seek to sign.  Even if the Devils do not think discipline from last season was that big of a deal, they gain nothing by becoming worse at it.  Personally, it is all about what the player can bring to the table.  If someone who takes quite a few calls, especially of a certain type, but also can play significant minutes, pass the puck well, and contribute plenty on offense, then I am willing to deal with it.  For someone expected to play a depth role or primarily a defensive one, then I would prefer a more disciplined player.

Tomorrow, I'm going to take a closer look at penalty differential. In the meantime, what do you make of the penalties taken by last season's team.  Surprised to see the Devils rank as high as they did for interference, tripping, cross-chekcing, and high-sticking?  Did you expect a variety of players to be featured among those calls as well as hooking penalties?  What would you want the team to do to be better in this regard for next season? Please leave your thoughts about penalties and the 2015-16 Devils in the comments.  Thank you for reading.