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When Pickles Puts the Devils in a Pickle: A Look at Blake Coleman’s Penalties

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Blake Coleman is all about his pickle juice, being an offensive threat while killing penalties, and taking penalties? Yes, Coleman leads the New Jersey Devils with 32 minor penalties and 29 shorthanded situations. Learn more about those calls and their impacts in this post.

Arizona Coyotes v New Jersey Devils
Blake Coleman actually drew a penalty in this picture. Oliver Ekman-Larsson tripped him up with authority before Coleman could go off on a shorthanded breakaway.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Blake Coleman has emerged as a popular forward for the New Jersey Devils. It helps that he was one of the few NHL-caliber forwards available to play for the team in the better part of the last month and a half. It also helps that he has had some good performances, including earning the AAtJ Devil of the Month of January 2019. It even helps he has a brand and a nickname - “Pickles” - driven by that time he drank pickle juice while serving a penalty in 2017. Most recently, he scored in the shootout win over Arizona while being tripped up by Darcy Kuemper. His skate knocked off Kuemper’s mask while he put home the puck. It was cool and the New Jersey Devils’ social media team put it in a better context:

He also did something he has not done a lot of recently: Coleman did not take a minor penalty against Arizona.

The Pickle Man is familiar with the penalty box this season. Coleman is currently second on the Devils in penalty minutes with 64 and first in minor penalties with 32 according to NHL.com. This is not at all ideal. Coleman is frequently used on the primary penalty killing unit next to Travis Zajac. When Coleman sits, someone else must step up - which has been somewhat of an issue in the last month or so. As he has been one of the most offensive players in the last two seasons on the PK, Coleman in the box takes away some of that shorthanded threat.

And I do mean a threat. Coleman is one of the most prolific if not the most prolific shooters on the penalty kill this season. According to Natural Stat Trick’s shorthanded situation stats prior to Sunday’s games, Coleman was second in the league with 24 shots on net, first in the NHL with 38 individual shooting attempts, and first in the NHL 21 individual scoring chances. While he has not scored that often on these shots, the threat from #20 is very real when he is able to kill a penalty. In a way, it is remarkable that Coleman is still leading or close to leading all players in shorthanded shots and shorthanded scoring chances while still taking so many penalties. Imagine if he was more disciplined.

I decided to take a look at these 32 penalties to see if there are any common traits. Thanks to Coleman’s game-log at Hockey-Reference and the Game Summaries at NHL.com through the Devils’ full schedule, here is what I was able to find:

Blake Coleman Penalty Log as of 3-24-2019
Blake Coleman Penalty Log as of 3-24-2019
Hockey-Reference and NHL.com

So Many Calls!

I’m surprised that the majority of them have taken place since the 2019 NHL All-Star Weekend. Up until the beginning of 2019, Coleman took only nine penalties - which includes a double-minor, which the NHL correctly counts as two minors. Coleman was well-behaved for most of January. But after January 26, Coleman took 20 penalties in now 24 games. Shortly after then, the Devils started to look to sell assets and the team’s injury list grew more and more. This means that while Coleman was one of an increasingly fewer group of healthy NHL forwards on the roster, Coleman was sent to the box more frequently. It was frustrating to watch but I never picked up on frequent it was. Among this post All-Star run of penalties, Coleman had a five-game streak where Coleman took at least one minor from January 31 to February 9, he took four minors in the Calgary game on February 27, and he has taken at least one minor in six of his last nine games - Arizona included. I am still shocked at how much he has been sent off.

Coleman’s Actual Penalties

In terms of what Coleman was called for, Coleman has been given nine different penalties so far this season. Most of his penalties could be described as violent actions. The most common penalty Coleman has been given was for roughing, which he was given seven times this season. Roughing, tripping (6), hi-sticking (5), cross-checking (3), slashing (1) and elbowing (1) total up to 23 out of 32 penalties Coleman has taken this season. It could be argued that tripping could be a result of trying to restrain an opponent, but I see it as going beyond just restraint. I see penalties such as holding (4), hooking (3), as interference (2) as restraining fouls; penalties given for keeping an opponent from doing as they wish. While all players need to be careful for those, Coleman should really watch his stick and what he does out on the ice to cut back on these penalties.

Timing of Coleman’s Penalties

In terms of timing, I did not see anything out of the ordinary for Coleman’s penalties. The period breakdown is 13, 11, and 8 for the first, second, and third periods, respectively. That leans more towards the beginning of games, but refs tend to hold back on their whistles in the third period, so I do not see this as evidence that Coleman has issues early on in games/ At least Coleman has not taken any penalties in overtime. I did not see anything sticking out in terms of the actual times themselves. Only four of Coleman’s 32 penalties carried over into the next period and eight were assessed within the first five minutes of a period.

The vast majority of Coleman’s penalties took place in 5-on-5 situations. I counted only three times where Coleman took a penalty during a Devils penalty kill. They were all recent too: February 27 against Calgary (Calgary scored), March 8 at Washington (Devils killed the two-man disadvantage), and March 13 at Edmonton (Devils killed that two-man disadvantage). Not that there is ever a good time to turn a 4-on-5 into a 3-on-5, but doing so while the team was bereft of talent is particularly unhelpful. At least those situations did not cost the Devils dearly. While Calgary converted on February 27, it was not a 3-on-5 GA as Damon Severson left the box from the first minor; and the Devils eventually matched that goal in a 2-1 loss.

Who and What Team Did Coleman Take Penalties Against

As far as who Coleman fouled, there were only two times he penalized the same person twice. The first was a double-minor for hi-sticking Ryan McDonagh. Tampa Bay scored on both minors way back on October 30. The second was with Mathew Barzal on February 7. The first minor was for roughing and Barzal was also given one for roughing; a beef that earned penalties for both. The second minor was for holding Barzal in the second period. That penalty was killed. All of the other 28 penalties were one-and-done for whoever drew it. As for position, Coleman penalized 20 forwards and 12 defensemen - which does not really strike me as anything of note given how there are more forwards than defensemen. You can make it 20 and 11 if you want to disregard the post-regulation beef with Hamonic.

In terms of opponents, Coleman has taken four minors total against Calgary, the Rangers, and Tampa Bay. With only one game remaining with the Rangers, Coleman could make them the “leaders” unless he has a terrible night of discipline against someone else soon. I will credit Coleman for keeping his cool in that horrid 4-9 loss in Calgary given how the last Devils-Flames game went. What’s mildly interesting is that Coleman has not taken a penalty against five of the next six opponents the Devils will play as they close out their season. He has stayed out of the box entirely against Buffalo (2 GP), Detroit (2 GP), St. Louis (missed the last Devils-Blues game), Carolina (3 GP), and Florida (2 GP). Whether you want the Devils to do well in those games or not, I do hope that Coleman is able to keep that up if only so he can be killing a penalty instead of serving one.

Mitigating Factors

There are five mitigating factors to these 32 minor penalties Coleman has taken so far thatc come to mind.

First, the Devils had to kill 29 of them as there was a corresponding penalty issued to the player Coleman fouled. One of those three were at the end of regulation; Coleman’s fourth minor in the Calgary game. While that still leads the team in minor penalties (Severson is second with 23), it is a more accurate number as to how it cost the Devils.

Second, the Devils killed 23 of those 29 shorthanded situations caused by Coleman. While a success rate of 79.3% is not great, it is not terrible either. A closer look shows that five of those six PPGAs from Coleman’s penalties were really against Coleman’s penalty. During that second minor from the hi-sticking penalty Coleman took on October 30, Travis Zajac took a penalty and the Bolts converted the 3-on-5 situation. Further, the damage from Coleman’s penalties have not been recent. Only two of those power play goals against took place after 2019 NHL All-Star Weekend: the second minor in the January 31 game against Our Hated Rivals and the first minor against Calgary on February 7. Since then, the Devils have killed the last ten shorthanded situations Coleman caused. Not that you want to see the Devils killing penalties caused by one of their premier penalty killers, but it has not cost them dearly on the scoreboard.

Third, as many calls as Coleman took, he has drawn many penalties as well. According to Natural Stat Trick, Coleman has drawn 26 penalties. While that is still a negative penalty differential of -6, it does suggest that Coleman’s style of play can be beneficial at times. Not that the Devils’ power play has been anything resembling a consistent threat this season. However, drawing a call is preferable to taking one. And 26 drawn penalties is a good amount; it’s tied for 29th in the whole NHL and its the most by any Devil this season so far. (Nico has 25 so this may change in the next two weeks.) It still means Coleman should work to avoid taking calls, especially those where he just needs to tone down the “tough stuff.”

Fourth, the other penalty killers have done a splendid job on the PK in place of Coleman. According to the on-ice rate stats at Natural Stat Trick for shorthanded situations among Devils who have at least 40 minutes on the PK, Coleman has some of the highest on team. In terms of attempts and shots, the team’s on-ice rate stats is the highest among forwards when Coleman is out there. In terms of scoring chances and high-danger chances, it is the highest of all Devils skaters who met the thresholds. Coleman usually gets to go up against the other team’s primary power play unit and shorthanded situations are filled with variation. But Zajac also typically gets those match ups and the team’s rates are better with him on the ice compared to Coleman. And while they had more limited action, the rates when Nico Hischier, Kevin Rooney, Brian Boyle, and Pavel Zacha have been far better. So much so that when Coleman had to serve a penalty, one of these would step in and generally do a good job.

As a quick aside, I want to especially highlight the controversial Zacha. He’s put in shorthanded offense of his own. Zacha has been unavailable from February 15 to March 21 so I can understand those forgetting about this aspect of his game. Per Natural Stat Trick, he’s tied for tenth in the NHL with 15 shots, 21st in the NHL with 17 shooting attempts, and tied for ninth in the NHL with 9 scoring chances. No, he’s not on Coleman’s level, but this is way more than most in the NHL. I would not be surprised if he pushes for more shorthanded ice time this and/or next season.

The Devils’ penalty kill has one of the highest success rates in the NHL and has been one of the few consistently good things in this 2018-19 season. That does not happen with just one man. Therefore, Coleman taking as many calls as he has so far this season has not been major issue for the team or its PK. If anything, it just holds Coleman back from contributing.

Fifth, Coleman has still found ways to contribute while taking 32 minor penalties this season. As stated earlier, he is still a league leading attacker in penalty kill situations. He has long surpassed his 2017-18 basic totals in fewer than the 79 games he played in that season. Coleman has accomplished this with his current line of 21 goals, 13 assists, 190 shots, and 16:52 average ice time per game. He has six more games to expand on that and will likely do so while continuing to play prime minutes. The issue with all of these penalties is that they have held him back from doing more. But he has done a lot in 2018-19. Perhaps enough to be seen as a “silver lining” in this lost season. Your mileage may vary on that.

Conclusions & Your Take

There are several mitigating factors, however, I still think that Coleman’s penalties are an issue. I have noticed he had 50 PIM in 2017-18; unfortunately, he set a season high in that stat as well this season. But as he has emerged as one of the team’s main penalty killers and continues to attack, I repeat that it is far better for the Devils to have him on the ice killing penalties rather than serving them. Taking 32 minors is too many. It is especially bad that he has taken most of them in a part of the season where the team needed their available NHL forwards to perform and not make games any harder on the Devils. As most of his penalties are related to roughing, tripping, hi-sticking, cross-checking, and elbowing, I think he really just needs to tone down what he does. I can appreciate that his style lends others to foul him, but he needs to be more judicious when it comes to being aggressive and definitely do a better job resisting to strike a player in retaliation or in general. The Devils have had plenty of issues this season and even if this does not strike you as a significant enough issue, they do not need Pickles to put them into a pickle of their own.

Now that you know what I think about Coleman and his penalties, I want to know what you think of the Plano Devil’s penalties this season. Were you surprised to learn about the breakdown in timing and type of penalties Coleman has taken? Did the mitigating factors make you feel somewhat better about them? What do you think Coleman should do to stay out of the box? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Coleman and his penalties this season in the comments. Thank you for reading.