In their dominant 3-0 win over Chicago, the New Jersey Devils took three penalties. This put them at 99 penalties for the season. Among those 99 calls, the Devils have been shorthanded 84 times with 15 goals allowed. A penalty kill is usually the main concern when penalties are discussed for a player or a team. It makes sense; it puts the team down a man for a period of time, forces the team to play defensively for the most part, and it can cost the team. The Devils have one of the most successful offenses in the NHL in 5-on-5. They fly at even strength. Taking a penalty is one of the few ways to ground that offense.
However, penalty discussion is usually focused more on how many times it happens and in a bigger picture view like a PK success rate. What about the penalties themselves? Which ones have the Devils been the most guilty of? What about the calls taken by the team leader’s in penalties taken: Brendan Smith and Miles Wood? Who has had the most calls lead to power play goals? I can begin to answer those questions and dive a little deeper into a perception difference between Smith and Wood.
The Devils Penalties by Call
The Devils are not the most undisciplined team in the NHL. It may seem like it sometimes. But it is not true. The Devils are going into tonight with the 21st highest rate of shorthanded situations per game, 3.23. The vast majority of the NHL has a rate between 3 and 4 situations per game with six teams averaging fewer than three per game. The point is that we should expect calls to be made in every game.
Of course, not all penalties lead to shorthanded situations. In the 26 games the Devils have played this season, five penalties did not change the situation from 5-on-5 (three fighting majors, one instigator matched by a minor, one misconduct), eight penalties were matched by the opposition to lead to a 4-on-4 situation, and two even resulted in power plays because it was matched by the opposition and the opposition took an additional penalty. Still, the majority of penalties called do lead to shorthanded situations for the Devils and pretty much everyone else in the NHL.
After going through 26 boxscores this season, here’s the count of all calls and which Devils are the leaders in that particular in that on call.
This chart alone answers a number of questions that you may (or may not) have wondered about penalties.
- The most common penalty - and stick foul - the Devils have taken is hooking. Erik Haula has taken the most with four. Interestingly, Yegor Sharangovich is second with three; Michael McLeod and Jonas Siegenthaler is tied for third with two; and eight different Devils have one each. Those touches on the hand and tugs at the body by the stick have been and are getting called.
- Interference is the most common “body” foul with 13. Brendan Smith and Siegenthaler are guilty of this three times each. Two other defensemen, Dougie Hamilton and Ryan Graves, each have two calls. The remainder are all forwards: Miles Wood, Nathan Bastian, and Dawson Mercer.
- Roughing takes third place with high sticking. The roughing calls have an unexpected trio leading them: Smith, Mercer, and Tomas Tatar. Smith, OK, I see it. He is a defenseman and a physical one at that. Mercer and Tatar? Far tougher than some give them credit for as per the referees. As for the high-sticking, this is Wood’s most common foul. Hamilton and Tatar have done it twice followed by Mercer and, most recently, John Marino.
- At the opposite end of penalties, some credit needs to go to Lindy Ruff and his staff. Just one too many men on the ice penalty so far this season? Just one unsuccessful challenge (it was the Bastian disallowed goal against Toronto)? Very good. The bench has not added too many calls themselves.
- Boarding is generally a nasty call as it is one of the more violent fouls one can commit. Only one so far this season is a good thing. Oddly, it was by Nico Hischier of all players way back on October 24. And the Capitals punished him for it.
- The embellishment call on Fabian Zetterlund was garbage. As was the delay of game on Haula. Still, we have to count them because the refs called them.
I could go deeper (e.g. Do fewer penalties get called in the third period of Devils games? (Technically, yes, it’s 27 in the third period, 29 in the first, and 42 in the second.)) and I would like to revisit this as the season goes on. Instead, I want to focus on the two players who have taken the most calls this season: Brendan Smith and Miles Wood.
Smith, Wood, and Perceptions
Smith and Wood are not just the Devils who have taken the most penalties this season with 12. They are also the Devils who have taken the most costly penalties in that their penalties led to power play goals against New Jersey. Smith and Wood each took three penalties that led to 15 power play goals allowed this season. Here are the details for each:
- Smith’s interference call against Tanner Pearson in the second period (16:15) against Vancouver on 11/01 led to a PPGA; Smith’s holding call against Tyler Motte in the first period (10:36) against Ottawa on 11/10 led to a PPGA; and Smith’s hooking penalty against Nic Deslauriers in the second period (6:19) against Philadelphia on 12/03 led to a PPGA. The Devils ultimately won all three games.
- Wood’s hooking penalty against Justin Braun in the second period (19:48) against Philadelphia on 10/13 led to a PPGA; Wood’s holding penalty against Andrew Mangiapane in the third period (4:53) on 11/08 led to a PPGA; and Wood’s holding penalty against Nic Jensen in the second period (6:19) on 12/03 led to a PPGA. The Devils went 2-1-0 in those games.
The Devils have won 21 out of 26 games so it is not as if these calls ruined entire games for the Devils. The Wood penalty on 11/08 led to a game-tying goal at the time. The same applies to Wood’s penalty on 12/03 and Smith’s penalty on 11/10. They did not help the cause; but the Devils ultimately overcame them to win those games.
That it involves Smith and Wood does not surprise me. The perceptions from the People Who Matter about both are notably different, though. Miles Wood is a character guy who brings grit, energy, and apparently size despite the fact that Wood is officially listed at 6’2” and weighs less than 200 pounds. Smith has the same height (as do four other Devils) but a bit heavier; yet some are wondering, wishing, and waiting for Kevin Bahl to take his spot in the lineup - even with all of this winning. Both of them even haven drawn a similar number of penalties; Smith has drawn ten and Wood has drawn eight. Yet, both are seen very differently: Wood is an important fourth line winger while some hope third pairing defenseman Smith would sit for Kevin Bahl.
There is legitimacy to the perceptions being so different for two players who have taken (and drawn) a very similar amount of calls. The obvious one is the point production. Miles Wood can and does produce. He has six goals and seven assists. Wood even has 68 shots on net, which is quite a bit for someone who adds nothing to a power play unit and plays primarily on a fourth line with McLeod and then Bastian and now Zetterlund. Smith, on the other hand, does not produce. At all. He is the only Devil on the team with zero goals this season and he has just one assist. With 24 shots on net and often being paired with a more skilled Damon Severson, he is not expected to produce much and he does not. To that end, it makes sense for much more leeway to be given to Wood than to Smith. I would agree that Wood provides more value than Smith.
Further, Wood has the advantage of being a Devil since he being drafted. He has been a regular since the 2016-17 season and, barring injury and transaction, will play his 400th game with the Devils this season. Several of the People Who Matter have come to enjoy Wood despite his issues. Adding to that is that he is having a fine season after missing nearly all of 2021-22 with a hip injury. Wood’s comeback season is going swell, which adds to the more favorable opinion of the player. Smith, on the other hand, was a veteran UFA defenseman signing for depth purposes. He was signed for two seasons and expected to be a third-pairing defender, which he is. Wood has a history and potentially a future depending how GM Tom Fitzgerald handles negotiations with him this Summer. Smith is here as depth for now and probably will move on just as Luke Hughes, Simon Nemec, and others establish themselves in the NHL. That assists the perception difference between the two players.
I would argue that Smith is no warm body on the ice. He has been quite effective at what he does, which is defending. In 5-on-5 hockey, Smith has some impressive on-ice rates. Along with Severson, Smith’s CA/60, SA/60, HDCA/60, and xGA/60 (of 1.9!!) rates are among the best among the defensemen per Natural Stat Trick. Smith was brought into be a defender and you cannot ask for much better than that, really. Especially for someone who averages about 12 and a half minutes of 5-on-5 ice time. Sure, Kevin Bahl has greater rates in four games of limited work, but Smith is performing excellently in the game’s most common situation for a team with 21 wins out of 26 games. Smith is not really a problem on this team. Nor is Bahl a definitive upgrade. What is a problem is that, again, it is all one-way for Smith. When Smith takes a penalty, it undercuts what he is supposed to do - which is defend against the opposition. Wood has a history, he plays an energetic style for a fourth-line, and he produces points. When he takes a penalty, it is somewhat expected given how he plays at times. But it stings harder because you know that it will not necessarily be visibly redeemed with something like a goal, an assist, or anything other than maybe getting fouled by the other team.
As such, the perception of both players - which does have some substance to it - influences how we look at two players who both have taken the same number of penalties and the same number of penalties that ended with goals against. Ideally, both would do well to be more disciplined. Even if their penalties are killed, it is time in the game need to be spent to defend the situation. More specific areas for improvement do differ for each player.
Wood needs to watch his stick (four high-sticking penalties) and grabbing players (one hook, two holding calls). In terms of timing, just over half of Wood’s penalties are in the second half of games with three third-period penalties. Wood could stand to be more mindful of the game situation.
Conversely, Smith needs to be more of aware with how he engages opponents. Three interference calls, two roughing calls, two tripping calls, a hold, and a hook point to times where Smith is either beaten or trying to be physical at the wrong time. Whereas Wood takes more of his calls in the second half of games, more of Smith’s non-fighting calls take place in the first period or in the first half of the second period. Given that the Devils have not exactly had great starts to games, putting the team in a position to kill a penalty does not help.
The focus is on these two differently-viewed (and correct to a degree) players because they have taken the most calls on the team. Of course, other players also need to be more aware of following the rules in games. Siegenthaler and Hamilton are not too far behind Smith and Wood. The early fouls of Tatar (five in October, two since) and Haula’s multiple hooks (four, plus three others) put them close as well. They cannot really rely on the refs putting the whistle away in the third period to avoid getting into situations where they have to defend and protect a lead. Or, worse, give up a goal that could change the game. This winning thing by the Devils has been real nice. Handing the opposition opportunities to win it instead does not help such as in the recent win over Our Hated Rivals. The Devils have not done a lot of that, but it is worth keeping an eye on it.
Again, I would like to keep adding to this list and dig in deeper into data to answer more questions about penalties. More about timing, who is taking what calls in the future, and to see whether obstruction or stick fouls out-pace the more violent fouls called. What do you make of all of this? Are you surprised at what has been called the most against the Devils? Do you agree with the perceptions of Wood and/or Smith? What can they do to cut down on calls in the future? What else would you like to see regarding looking at penalty data beyond PIM count? Please leave your answers and other thoughts in the comments. Thank you for reading.