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Palmieri, Larsson, and the 2015-16 Devils at Drawing & Taking Penalties

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Last season, the New Jersey Devils took more penalties in 5-on-5 play than they drew as a team. This post looks at that aspect of the game while highlighting that Kyle Palmieri was one of the best in the league at drawing calls and Adam Larsson took the most on the team.

Kyle Palmieri got a lot of attention last season - and became one of the league's best at drawing penalties last season.
Kyle Palmieri got a lot of attention last season - and became one of the league's best at drawing penalties last season.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, I wrote about the 2015-16 New Jersey Devils and the penalties the team took.  While they were around the league median in total penalties taken relative to the league, there were certain penalties that their players took more than most teams.  Those included interference, tripping, hi-sticking, and cross-checking penalties.  The names that appeared for which Devils committed most of those fouls varied.  As a result, the strategies will vary for the team to reduce the number of calls they'll take for 2016-17.  Today, I want to focus on penalties drawn and penalties taken.

Ultimately, the big concern with any penalty taken is a shorthanded situation.  The big hope with any penalty drawn in a power play situation.  If there is something the Devils may want to focus on with respect to penalties, then it should be with that in mind.  I'd like to think that it is to a degree. Here is a quote from last week's press conference by Ray Shero, as reported at Fire & Ice by Andrew Gross:

On the dearth of goal production this season at even strength, Shero said, "It’s my responsibility to add more talent. It’s a common theme. We want to score more. We were in the top 10 on the PK and top 10 on the power play. We need other ways to produce. If the power play slips from eighth to 15th, where are you going to be?"

Shero is right to focus on even strength production.  However, the power play will likely not be ignored. One way to counter for a potential drop in power play production is to have more power plays. The conversion rate may suffer but if there are more goals, then the team could still benefit.  If it does not, then team could get a boost in production through drawing more calls.  By the same token, their defense can benefit from a scoring perspective with fewer penalties taken.

How did the Devils do in that department last season?  According to NHL.com, the team finished around the league median at 16th in power play opportunities with 256 and above the league median in shorthanded situations at 11th with 264.  That makes for a penalty drawn differential of -8, which ranks 20th in the NHL.  It's not as dire as, say, Los Angeles, which had a league-worst differential -50; but it is an area that can be improved.   However, this does not tell us how many penalties the Devils drawn or taken.  Just the amount of special teams situations. For that, War on Ice has those numbers:

Per War on Ice Devils 5-on-5 Rank Devils All Sit. Rank
Penalties Taken 239 8 335 14
Penalties Drawn 218 t-18 324 t-18
Drawn – Taken Diff. -21 25 -11 t-20

Since a taken penalty or a drawn penalty is more likely to result in a special teams situation in that situation, 5-on-5 numbers are certainly of more interest.  There, the Devils have been pretty bad with respect to drawing and taking calls.  They are a "top" ten team in penalties taken, they're below league median in drawn penalties, and their differential is quite low.  The latter data point highlights that this is something worth exploring.

Would more possession help with getting more drawn calls? Not necessarily. The teams with the fewest drawn penalties in 5-on-5 last season were Carolina, the Islanders, the Rangers, Chicago, St. Louis, and Ottawa.  Of those teams, St. Louis just finished outside of the top five in CF%, Carolina and Chicago finished above 50%, the Isles finished less than a percent below break-even, and Ottawa and the Rangers were in the 47th percentile. That does not suggest a correlation.  The Devils, who finished with the second lowest CF% of 46.2% last season, should be trying to improve their performances for other reasons anyway.

Perhaps it has to do with the players.  Here's a list of all of the Devils who finished positive in drawn-taken differential in 5-on-5 play last season. These numbers also come from War on Ice:

5 on 5 Only Position GP Penalties Drawn Pens. Drawn Diff. D-T Diff./60 TOI
Palmieri RL 82 12 25 13 0.71 1100.51
Farnham L 50 9 17 8 1.02 469.41
Smith-Pelly C 18 1 6 5 1.33 225.12
Blandisi RC 41 7 9 2 0.23 522.68
Boucher LR 39 3 5 2 0.25 471.57
Henrique CL 80 7 8 1 0.06 1060.86
Warsofsky D 10 1 2 1 0.43 138.28
Pietila L 7 1 2 1 0.81 74.06
Wood L 1 0 1 1 4.65 12.89

Out of 37 players, nine drew more penalties than they took and only three had more than two. The standout here is Kyle Palmieri.  The winger was by far ahead of the rest of the team in terms of drawing penalties and drawn-taken penalty differential.  In fact, only three players in the entire NHL drew more than the 25 penalties Palmieri had in 5-on-5 play last season: Nazem Kadri (39), Oliver Ekman-Larsson (28), and Charlie Coyle (26).  That's just impressive.  Not only did Palmieri show that he can be a productive player on offense given significant ice time (thirty goals, fifty seven points, 222 shots - all first in those categories), but he has had the attention of opposing players all season long - even to draw fouls.  It is always a good thing that the team's leading producer on the power play (23 PP points) has created plenty of power plays for him to produce on.  I do not think this will be a significant stat for his upcoming contract negotiations, but I do think it adds at least a little more to his value.  If he can keep drawing calls in 2016-17 along with executing other aspects of his game, then he will be able to bring something to the table even during a scoring slump.

Beyond Palmieri, the notable names are Bobby Farnham and Devante Smith-Pelly. Farnham being so high in drawn calls was a surprise to me when I found it.  As he is an "energy" player, having drawn more penalties than the considerble number he took last season is a positive. The calls he did take were poor and drawing seventeen penalties does not make up for his other deficiencies alone.  But it is a positive and for a fourth-liner whose role is to provide "energy," that can make a difference.  Smith-Pelly drawing six calls in eighteen games gives me hope he can be a positive in this category. That will be helpful as Palmieri cannot carry the load alone, like he largely did last season.  After those two and Palmieri, there were six other players who finished just above the break even mark with respect to penalties and seven who did break even.  While most of those seven were players who only had a few games in 2015-16, that group includes Sergey Kalinin and Jacob Josefson.  Both were the only ones other than Palmieri and Farnham to draw ten or more penalties last season. Neither ended up as a net positive.  In short, the only players to provide several calls drawn compared to calls taken were Palmieri, Farnham, and Smith-Pelly. That's it.   The rest of the team has provided no net positive in terms of talks or, worse, were a net negative.

Who's been the worst? It should not surprise you that defensemen dominate this end of the list.   Here's the bottom eleven Devils in drawn-taken penalty differential as I cannot cut off the group at -3 early. Again, all numbers are from War on Ice:

5 on 5 Only Position GP Penalties Drawn Pens. Drawn Diff. D-T Diff./60 TOI
Larsson D 82 18 3 -15 -0.62 1455.91
Merrill D 47 11 3 -8 -0.68 706.6
Stempniak R 63 11 4 -7 -0.5 839.75
Moore D 73 7 1 -6 -0.32 1133.47
Gelinas D 34 6 0 -6 -0.86 418.07
Gionta CR 82 12 9 -3 -0.22 826.98
Tootoo R 66 11 8 -3 -0.26 681.03
Severson D 72 10 7 -3 -0.16 1099.51
Greene D 82 8 5 -3 -0.12 1440.58
Cammalleri LC 42 8 5 -3 -0.3 603.87
Helgeson D 19 4 1 -3 -0.69 261.62

Defensemen rarely attack enough to lead opposing players to foul them. That said, Adam Larsson is unfortunately ahead of everyone in terms of negative differential and taken penalties.  While he has played more than every other Devils player at 5-on-5 last season, that Andy Greene took ten fewer penalties, and was +12 better in differential, shows one can play a ton without taking the calls.  It speaks to how impressive Greene has been while not being flashy since success in this regard means there isn't a whistle or an entry on the scoresheet.  Going back to Larsson, what can be done so he can take fewer penalties in '16-'17?  Yesterday's post has some ideas.  I think he just needs to be smarter amid physical play and with respect to his positioning. Getting some better help from the forwards can help.

Beyond Larsson is Jon Merrill, Lee Stempniak, John Moore, and Eric Gelinas before a group of six skaters with a -3 penalty differential.  I'm surprised to see Lee Stempniak among them.  He is not a defenseman; in fact, he played quite a bit on the top six and in all situations. I'd like to have him back on the team for his other contributions last season, but this was definitely not one of them.  If he does not come back, at least that issue is already resolved. The other three above -3 were defensemen.  Again, not going to be drawing many calls due to position and their play.  Merrill was fairly high compared to others; I'd like to see him get closer to Moore's decent level in 2016-17.  Gelinas is already gone.   Let's look at that group of six.  -3 is not so bad, but it is still a net negative. In the cases of Stephen Gionta and Jordin Tootoo, it means they're taking quite a few calls to have more than the decent amount they drawn. Both are also up for new contracts; their exits may be given for other reasons - ones I would not disagree with - but this does not help their causes. As fourth-line players, being a net negative here does not provide the right "energy." Surprisingly, Damon Severson and Andy Greene ranked well in this regard.  Perhaps they should be considered archetypes in this regard? Something for a defender to strive for in terms of discipline? Maybe.  All the same, I can understand the defensemen taking more calls than they draw.  The goal should be to reduce that number even by a little bit.  For the forwards that are up there, they just need to be smarter.

Possession does not appear to be correlated with drawing penalties at a team level, but intuitively, the player that does draw a penalty tend to have the puck.  That said, I think the Devils should make this sort of thing a part of their consideration for signing players.  Not a big one, but it can be part of the discussion.  As I wrote yesterday, if a player can provide more significant contributions then being prone to taking more calls than drawing calls should not be a dealbreaker.  For those expected to play on the bottom six up front or deeper on the blueline, I think it could be a bigger deal.  The general idea for those players are to provide some kind of positive value with limited minutes; taking a bunch penalties and more than they can cause goes against that.

My hope is that for next season, a few more players are on the positive side of penalties drawn versus penalties taken in 5-on-5 play.  I'm not expecting multiple players to do as well as Palmieri did in this aspect.  A few more reaching the level of Smith-Pelly did in eighteen games at around +5 plus Palmieri keeping it up - which is an interesting point to look at - would be ideal.  If Larsson and the other defenders can lower the number of penalties taken in the process, the Devils can be better off for it in 2016-17.  Maybe not enough to make a difference between being in the playoffs or not, but it can play some kind of role for the team to take one more step forward.  At the end of the day, that should be the goal of a re-building team: to keep getting a bit better.

Can the Devils improve in this regard? How would you want them to do it? What would you want Larsson and others to do to take fewer penalties? Are there players the Devils should go after that could turn the tide towards a positive team differential in drawn-taken penalties?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Devils with respect to how they drew and took penalties last season in the comments. Thank you for reading.