As a companion piece for something out of the ordinary tomorrow, I decided to look into one of the more intriguing player stats: penalties drawn and taken. While a team’s special teams may not be good - like the 2021 New Jersey Devils - I believe there is value generated when a player is able to draw more penalties than they take and draw more than their teammates. It speaks to how the player is getting involved, drawing attention, and at least sometimes forcing the opposition to penalize them. Even if the team often does nothing with the power play - like many Devils seasons in recent memory - it at least is two minutes where the opposition cannot attack. For a team yet to find its way at even strength and could stand to get better, that is something. I want to know who on the Devils has been drawing the calls.
Likewise, I believe there is value generated when a player takes more penalties than the draw and puts their team into shorthanded situation. The value is negative in this case. Even if the team is adept at killing off the shorthanded situation - which was not the case with the 2021 New Jersey Devils - it is still time where a fraction of the roster is forced into a high-pressure situation for hopefully a full two minutes. They can only attack rarely. They can only do so much while shorthanded against an opposition hungry for offense. The best penalty kill is the one you never have to take, so I want to know who has taken the most calls.
In terms of raw numbers, the answers to both are pretty simple. The Big Deal, Jack Hughes, drew the most penalties with 19. Michael McLeod took the most with 14. Thank you NHL.com for the data. Please leave your opinions in the comm-wait, no. Not so fast.
For the umpteenth time, I have to point out that the 2021 season was an unusual season. Thanks to a global pandemic and the resulting restrictions, the NHL only had a 56-game season wherein every team played within their division. Thanks to an outbreak on the Devils, their schedule was more cramped to fit in all 56 games. There was a lot of turnover on the Devils roster between this past season and 2019-20. Not to mention some key injuries in 2021. And the prior season in 2019-20 ended early due to that same pandemic. To just solely focus on 2021 data may obscure who has been providing value, good and bad, in this sense.
Fortunately, NHL.com provides a solution. In addition to having a deep archive of all of these stats, they actually record penalties drawn and taken as a per-60 measurement. Using these rates can put everyone from call-ups to injury or transaction-shortened seasons on a more even playing field. With two seasons’ worth of data, we can identify whether or not someone has made any improvements.
To that end, I put the following chart together to make it easier for this comparison. Net penalties is drawn minus taken; higher positive numbers are better. Devils who joined the organization for 2021 has their previous teams included. Devils who have since left the organization have their names greyed out.
First, the positive takeaways to take from this kind of chart.
Jack Hughes was a big net positive in this regard in 2019-20, finishing only behind Nico Hischier in terms of net penalties, drawn over taken. Hischier’s injury-shortened season limited his effectiveness in this sense, but look at that 2019-20 rate. Hischier was fantastic at drawing calls. Hughes definitely improved over his rookie campaign and it now appears . A full season from Hischier and Hughes could see both draw a lot of attention and man advantages for the Devils in 2021-22.
Likewise, Yegor Sharangovich was also excellent in this regard as a rookie. Should he continue to light lamps, he will draw even more attention that could yield another positive gain in net penalties. Janne Kuokkanen and Jesper Bratt were not as impressive, but they were positive forces. Given that either could be on a first or second line at points in 2021-22, this is another good thing to see. Especially for Bratt, as he continues to be a positive influencer.
Also good is Miles Wood. Seriously. While he takes a lot of penalties - a 0.95 rate is a high one - he has managed to draw even more for a second straight season. The actual count may not be that high. Given how active he is when it comes to physical play, how he can get “heated” at times, and how he is constantly grinding out pucks on offense after dump-ins, it is impressive that he came out ahead in terms of net penalties. Over the course of a season, a positive net penalty rate and count is a legitimate positive to see from a player like Wood. In a specific game, well, that may be a different story. I hope he continues it for a third straight season.
It is also worth noting how Mikhail Maltsev and Nick Merkley ended up doing really well in this regard. Especially when you account for their ice time. Not that penalty differentials should override other values a player can bring in. At the least they were helping the Devils into more favorable special teams situations than they were not. That is not a bad thing for middle-to-bottom six forwards. You can say the same for Pavel Zacha and Andreas Johnsson, who took a bit of a step back from his 2019-20 in Toronto but still ended up on the positive side of the ledger. Travis Zajac did improve over a really rough 2019-20 from a penalty standpoint, but he is now out of the organization so it is just a footnote.
Overall, the Devils ended up drawing 11 more penalties than they took as a team last season. Again, over a whole season, that is a positive. In a particular game, your mileage may vary. Especially given the “performances” of the special teams last season. It looks better on paper when you remove the greyed out players; the raw differential grows to +20. The rates are combined negative, but that is thrown off by Greer’s one game yielding a -7.02. Take out Greer and it’s a positive 1.19/60 for the whole team and dips a bit to 0.81/60 for the returning Devils. While this did not make the 29th place Devils any better, we can at least say it was not a net-negative over the whole 56-game season.
Second, now let us go over the negative takeaways.
Generally, defensemen get the short end of this particular stick by the nature of their position. Even as active in the offensive zone as they were sometimes under Lindy Ruff, defenders do not draw a lot of fouls. Hence, it should be no surprise that most of the bottom of this list are defensemen. That stated, it is jarring to see Michael McLeod among them. He only took two penalties in 2019-20, so his rate of penalties taken should be taken with a grain of salt. What is not is that he managed to take more calls than Sami Vatanen, Dmitry Kulikov, and P.K. Subban - all of whom for which this has been an issue. McLeod is pretty much a lock to play center for next season. But he needs to watch his stick and actions as to not go to the box. He has shown to be not very effective without Nathan Bastian, who was not a big liability in terms of penalties, on the ice. If he continues to be a more significant taker of penalties, then the Devils may need to find a replacement sooner rather than later. At the least his rate of net penalties shows that he was not the most costly. Three defensemen were worse.
As for those defensemen, well, Kulikov was the worst by net penalties in terms of count. Also in rate if you disregard the one game of A.J. Greer and the eight of Marian Studenic. He was a big taker of calls as a Jet, and it got worse when he was with the Devils. I will note that Subban did take a fewer rate of penalties, which is nice to see as he took 30 of them in 2019-20 to “lead” that team. However, Subban did end up second only to Kulikov in net penalties and third to Kulikov and Sami Vatanen. Vatanen really ramped up the penalty-taking as his rate jumped from a somewhat respectable -0.17 to a not good -0.70 net penalties per 60. In this sense, Vatanen and Kulikov not returning can help the Devils in this sense. Damon Severson has improved from seasons’ past, but he remains more respectfully negative in terms of rate and count. Being able to draw a call roughly once every 180 minutes helps. I would like Ty Smith to follow suit. And, somehow, Jonas Siegenthaler, who went 18 and 20 in 2019-20 as a Captial, too. Those three provide somewhat livable rates. Much better than the departed Vatanen and Kulikov. Subban remains as a penalty-taking concern, but his improvement over 2019-20 is encouraging.
Third, what about the incoming Devils? Will they help?
Unfortunately, it does not look good for the penalty differential. Ryan Graves and Dougie Hamilton are both defensemen. Again, defensemen tend to be deep in the red when it comes to penalty differential. Both Graves and Hamilton had the lowest raw net penalty differentials on their respective teams in 2021. When you look at net penalty rates, it is not much better. Graves and his -0.87/60 rate was only better than five players who played fewer than nine games and 18 games of Bowen Byram. It is also a lower rate than in 2019-20, when Graves put up a still-low -0.60/60 rate. Ian Cole and Nikita Zadorov may have shielded Graves from any criticism about penalties, but you would have to speak to an Avalanche supporter to confirm that. Hamilton put up a -0.58/60, which is easier to swallow given how often he plays, but still just better than the 12 games of Max McCormick and 4 games of Drew Shore. It was a slight improvement over his -0.60/60 rate in 2019-20, where again he just did not draw a lot of penalties. Hamilton and Graves will (hopefully) make the Devils defense better overall and provide a lot of positive value in other areas. Do not expect it in terms of penalty differential. Christian Jaros played 7 games with San Jose and took just one penalty and drew just one, so he is a non-factor for this exercise.
Could Tomas Tatar mitigate the potential penalty differential negatives brought by Graves and Hamilton? I am not so certain. Last season, he drew six penalties and took four. That is positive. But a net differential rate of 0.16/60 is not going to move the needle all that much. I will point out that it is a massive turnaround from his 2019-20 season where Tatar drew six calls and took eighteen penalties. 18. In a word: Yikes. Please do not revert to that, Mr. Tatar.
Fourth, what is the overall takeaway?
With these additions and other changes in personnel and potentially in tactics, we may see the 2021-22 Devils take more calls than they drew. It may not be by very much. Hughes, Hischier, Sharangovich, and Wood will do their best to keep it positive. Severson staying cool and fewer minutes for Subban will help. But Graves and Hamilton could pull it in the wrong direction with Tatar possibly not providing much help.
It may not end up being all that significant. The bigger concern that I have is more about how the special teams perform as opposed to how often they get to perform. The Devils’ special teams in 2021 were collectively awful at best and obscenity-worthy at worst. Especially their penalty kill, where the success rate was flirting with historic lows in the first half of the 56-game season. I think a more normal 2021-22 season may help out a lot to at least keep the team from having a PK in the 50-60% success range. I agree (or at least want to) with CJ that the Devils should be a far better team in 5-on-5. Special teams can absolutely make a difference as to how far the 2021-22 Devils can go. There needs to be improvements, but one of those aspects does include how often the Devils go into these situations. This is where a potential turn towards a negative penalty differential may be a hinderance. And even small ones need to at least be acknowledged.
The Devils can (or at least should) seek out new ways to improve their PK if/when this does happen next season. Better that than hoping Hischier, Hughes, Wood, and Sharangovich among others will balance the scales, so to speak. Better that than holding your breath that McLeod or Subban or Graves or Hamilton or Severson does not take a potentially-harmful penalty either. (At least with Wood, he can make up for it.) Still, this is only part of a larger issue among the many from last season. Let us go more into how one could approach the larger issue (the penalty kill) tomorrow.
In the meantime, what do you make of the 2021 Devils in terms of penalties drawn and taken? Do you think Hughes, Sharangovich, and the others with positive penalty differentials will continue that in 2020-21? Will Hischier rebound to be a call-drawing machine again? Will McLeod be a bit more disciplined next season? Do you think Graves, Hamilton, and possibly Tatar could move things in the wrong direction? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Devils and penalty differentials in the comments.