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Expect Fewer Penalty Minutes for the New Jersey Devils in 2023-24

The New Jersey Devils were relatively disciplined last season with only 632 PIM as a team. With players like Miles Wood gone and Brendan Smith expected to take a reduced role, can they take fewer penalties? This post explains yes - but there are still some players with penalty-concerns.

Carolina Hurricanes v New Jersey Devils - Game Three
No Miles Wood = Fewer PIMs? Yeah, but there’s a little more to it than that.
Photo by Rich Graessle/NHLI via Getty Images

In the comments to Jared’s post on Wednesday as to whether the “vibes” are “too good” for the New Jersey Devils, a discussion ensued about the penalty kill. Among it was this assertion about the source of a penalty kill: the penalty. Between DJCDevils1988 and Jared, this exchange happened:

I won’t presume to know how the new guys are going to fare, but the fact that Wood is gone and Smith is likely designated to the press box should reduce the penalties against substantially. - DJCDevils1988

Might be a reasonable assumption. Nosek had fewer PIMs than Wood and Miller had fewer than Smith and those seem like the two most likely replacements. - Jared

I happened to be thinking about this and I decided to dig into it. I think they are right that penalties against the New Jersey Devils are likely to go down based on last season’s results. However, it is a “yes with a but.” There are some points of concern to keep in one’s mind as the 2023-24 season comes up.

The 2022-23 Devils By Penalties

The best way to illustrate the New Jersey Devils likely reduction in penalties is to look at last season’s roster. Here is a list of all of 26 skaters that played at least one NHL game last season and took at least one penalty. Credit to Luke Hughes, Tyce Thompson, Nolan Foote, and Andreas Johnsson for not getting penalized in their short stays in New Jersey.

2022-23 Devils Skaters with at least one penalty
2022-23 Devils Skaters with at least one penalty

Players no longer on the team are in grey. The sum total of all penalty minutes (PIM) for players that have moved on from the Devils is 188 (190 if you include Mackenzie Blackwood), thanks in large part to Joe Sakic handing a long contract to the team’s leader in penalty minutes, Miles Wood. A reduction in 188 PIM is Good. It would almost take a concerted effort to foul opponents to make up that drop in minutes. Add in a reduced role for Brendan Smith and the drop in PIMs will be further. DJC and Jared were right. Post done. Thank you for reading.

Well, no. It is not entirely that simple. I did include penalty minutes per game as well as drawn/taken for a reason. I split up minors (2), majors (5), and misconducts (10) as the latter two can boost a PIM count quite a bit.

For Wood, 30 of his 76 PIMs came from major penalties (usually fighting) and misconducts (usually related to said fights). Similarly for Brendan Smith, 15 minutes of majors jacked up his count to 63. Both also drew plenty of calls themselves; which may justify some of their taken calls as the price of how they do business on the ice. This does not mean they are entirely absolved as being penalty-concerns. Both cleared 20 minors. And given that Smith and Wood did not play as much in terms of ice time or games played as Dougie Hamilton, Jonas Siegenthaler, and Erik Haula, that they took as many minor penalties - the ones that usually result in penalty kills - as they did is a concern. Wood being gone and Smith being pushed down the depth chart will provide gains there. Plus, if you count just minors, all of the departed Devils were responsible for 78 minors last season.

As for Haula, Hamilton, and Siegenthaler, it could be argued that they provide value elsewhere to make up for those minors. Hamilton and Siegenthaler were the team’s top defensive pairing and generally defenders are in situations where they do purposely or accidentally foul someone. It happens. Likewise for Haula, who was deployed to help out defensively. While Haula’s production was not much there until April 2023, he did help the play go forward, win plenty of draws, and at least hung with a superior Jack Hughes for a bulk of the season. That all said, if either of those three can take a couple fewer penalties in 2023-24, then that would also be a benefit from a penalty point of view.

The concerns from the 2022-23 roster are actually going to come from players who should be regulars for this upcoming season: Kevin Bahl, Timo Meier, and Nathan Bastian.

Bahl’s ascendency has pushed Smith out of the lineup last season. So much so that I would pencil Bahl in on the third pairing now. (The Colin Miller signing and potential addition of Simon Nemec further keeps Smith down.) While Bahl took a lower rate of PIMs than Smith last season, it was among the higher rates on the team when he did play last season. I expect that to continue. Bahl is not fast, he primarily plays defense as a defenseman, and his size could lend itself to physical play gone awry. This is all prime for someone to take penalties on a somewhat regular basis. I think more ice time for Bahl in 2023-24 may also lead to more penalties for Bahl. As long as the PIM/GP rate stays below one, then it should be a net positive compared to Smith. It is something to keep in mind.

As for Meier, he took a higher rate of calls in his 21 games with New Jersey last season. Perhaps unfortunate, as he actually was great at drawing calls and staying out of the box in San Jose last season prior to the trade. However, I looked in the last six seasons of Meier’s play and what we saw in New Jersey may be closer to what he could do penalty-wise than his last days as a Shark. He took over 50 PIM in 2017-18, 2018-19, and 2021-22. He had an outside shot of breaking that 50-mark in 2019-20 but he stayed at 42 with 12 games left in that shortened season. With the exception of the 56-game 2021 season, Meier has averaged at least a half minute of penalty minutes per game over the last six seasons. He has taken at least 20 penalties in four of the last six seasons. Again, this may be OK as it could be a price of how he plays. Meier is described as a power forward who uses his large frame and physical play to make space. With that comes calls from the refs. And so do not be surprised if Meier rises up the PIM list in 2023-24 for New Jersey. I do hope he can at least stay below 20 minor penalties; an achievable goal from this perspective.

Then there is Nathan Bastian. The fourth liner plays with “energy” and that also comes with taking calls. He averaged over 40 seconds of PIM per game last season where he played in only 43 games due to injuries. Should he stay healthy, he could end up being in the box more often if he keeps that up. Similar to Wood and his friend Michael McLeod, Bastian does draw his fair share of calls. For him, it may end up evening itself out over a season. In a given game, well, that will depend. Bastian is a kind of darkhorse to be among team leaders in penalties in 2023-24.

That all stated, I do think Jared and DJC and others who think the Devils will still improve in terms of taking fewer penalties. As much as Bahl and Meier may end up taking more calls as well as a healthy Bastian, it would take a lot to over come Wood plus the other departures whether you count by PIM or minor penalties. As much as I focused on Wood and Smith, a team’s PIM count is a team effort. Damon Severson, Tomas Tatar, and Ryan Graves contributed a healthy amount of PIM (38, 30, 28, respectively) through minor penalties (14, 15, and 14, respectively). Not that he was ever a concerning player from this standpoint, but Yegor Sharangovich’s 8 minors is not nothing either. Especially on a team where the team’s top three forwards - Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, and Jesper Bratt - have been remarkably disciplined.

Even if Meier, Bahl, and Bastian provide more time in the box as I am concerned, it likely would not be enough to fill in what Wood, Severson, Tatar, Graves, and Sharangovich got called for along with what Smith provided in his 60 games. I think this will also hold up with the incoming Devils for 2023-24.

Incoming Devils by Penalties

There are some players coming into the organization for 2023-24. Here is how they did in terms of penalties last season.

2022-23 Penalties by 2023-24 Incoming Devils
2022-23 Penalties by 2023-24 Incoming Devils

Some of these players you can probably discount. It would take plenty of events for Shane Bowers, Kyle Criscuolo, Justin Dowling, Chris Tierney, and Cal Foote to be regular Devils in 2023-24. And among them, from a penalty perspective (among others), you should be concerned if Cal Foote does get into many games. He took them at a rate on par or worse than Brendan Smith last season.

The three main names expected to play more often among this group are Tyler Toffoli, Tomas Nosek, and Colin Miller. For each, I looked at their penalty history from the last six seasons to get a sense of what they have done in the NHL.

Toffoli is not much of a penalty concern. Will he take a fair amount of penalties? Yes. But over the last six seasons, he ranged from 14 to 28 total minutes and never averaged a half-minute per game in the box. Given his offensive skillset, he is more likely to draw more calls than he takes and that has been consistent save for that 2021 shorter season with Montreal. You can pencil him in for about 20-ish PIM and you will be fine with it. You probably should be more concerned as to whether last season was such a peak year production-wise that he falls hard.

Nosek, on the other hand, has a more concerning penalty profile from his last six seasons. In his first four seasons with Las Vegas, Nosek never finished a season with more than 20 PIM or averaged more than 17 seconds per game in the box. Solid. In Boston, his time in the box shot up. He spent 32 minutes in 75 games in 2021-22 and 48 minutes in 66 games last season. Nosek went from out-drawing calls or evening up to taking more than he drew by a good margin. I do not know if it is a result of how Boston utilized Nosek, how Nosek has adjusted as he has aged, or something else. It surprised me to see the number jump up from one organization to another by a notable amount. My hope is that is more of a Boston thing and not a current-day Nosek thing. I think he can bring some good value to the bottom-six, but continuing to take 16-17 penalties per season would not be part of it.

Colin Miller experienced the opposite. Miller is an experienced defensive depth defenseman similar to Brendan Smith. Unlike Smith, though, Miller has cut back on the calls as he got older. Within the last six seasons, he spent two with Las Vegas, three with Buffalo, and last season with Dallas. As a G-Knight, Miller averaged at or close to 40 seconds in the box per game, topping 40 PIM in each season. With Buffalo, his PIM count never went above 30 and his average per-game never came close to what it was in Las Vegas. While Miller put up 37 PIM in Dallas last season, he played much more often with 79 games and . Of note with Miller is that he surprisingly drew a lot of penalties given his role. Unlike Smith, the margin between drawn and taken has never been worse than -6 and that was five seasons ago. Miller, by the nature of his position, may be taking a good amount of calls but more in the range of Graves and Severson than Smith. And if he draws close to as many as he takes, then that is a bonus. Provided he can continue what he did in Dallas and Buffalo and not what he did in Las Vegas.

Ultimately, among the incoming Devils, the only real concerning players from a penalty-standpoint are Nosek and, if he gets into a lot of games, Foote. I doubt Cal Foote will get into a lot of games. And Nosek could ultimately show that his increased penalty count was just a Boston thing, which would mitigate the concern.

Conclusion and the Macro vs. Micro Perspective

I still think DJC, Jared, and others who think the Devils will take fewer penalties in 2023-24 based on who left the team and whose role may be reduced are correct. There are a couple of players on the team - Bahl, Meier, and Bastian - that could end up taking more calls than we may would want to see. Nosek is the only real concern among the incoming players. Even if those concerns are realized, it would take all that plus other Devils to make up the loss of 188 PIMs from last season’s team. Wood, Severson, Graves, Tatar, and Sharangovich made up the lion’s share of that amount and they are all gone. A reduced role for Smith alone will help keep the team out of the box. I think it is fair to expect the 2023-24 Devils to take fewer penalty minutes than they did last season. Which was not an extravagant amount anyway as they finished with 632 PIM last season, the 29th most in the 32-team NHL. Again, it helps when top players like The Big Deal, Nico Hischier, and Jesper Bratt are just rarely in the box.

Of course, the concept of penalties brings up a larger meta issue with analysis. Something I mix up or fail to clarify and something I think the People Who Matter also misconstrue at times. Some call it the macro vs. micro perspective. Others call it the Big Picture vs. Detailed Look. Others have it as the Forest vs. the Tree. Whatever you want to call it, penalties are a stat that we judge very differently based on its context.

For this post and the discussion referenced, it was more on the macro end. How the team did with respect to penalties in the season, whether the team will take fewer penalties. With this perspective, it is assumed that what matters is how many and who did them. (It is also assumed that drawing calls is better than taking them, but do not look at the league leaders It does not matter as to whether the penalty led to a power play, the penalty was a good call, the penalty was justifiable (e.g. the player fouled someone to stop them from scoring), or whether the penalty led to a power play goal. In the bigger picture, we do not care that much about those things.

However, we absolutely discuss and lament penalties within the smaller picture of a game or a moment within a game. We lament how stupid so-and-so took that call or how stupid the ref was for making that call or both. We worry about whether that penalty will give the other team a crucial goal - an opportunity to get back into the game or put the Devils further behind. We argue as to whether there is any real positive to a player having a heap of PIMs (I say no, by the way). We know penalties happen in the bigger picture because every team gets called for penalties. After all, the 32nd place team in team PIM was Las Vegas with 599, which is still a team average of 7:18 PIM per game. Yet, knowing that does not make me or you feel any better when a ref’s arm goes up and it is against the Devils. And if it leads to a loss or a bad moment, then it is more likely to be remembered as a Problem. Even if it does not look like one in the larger picture.

This is not unique to penalties. It absolutely applies to faceoffs (I take the macro approach, some of you take the micro and remind me of that in the few times it directly leads to a goal), goaltender performances, and more. It is something I am cognizant of and will try to be more up front in the future at least to explain where I am coming from as you may be coming from a different perspective. Hopefully, that will increase some understanding.

Do understand this: DJC and Jared and others who felt the Devils should take fewer penalties next season due to certain departures are likely to be right. We shall see in a few weeks whether that begins to happen - and what the PK will even look like when preseason begins. Please leave your thoughts and expectations about the Devils with respect to penalties in the comments. Thank you for reading.