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The Black Art Of Drawing Penalties

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Hey, who'd you expect my poster boy to be ... Patrick O`Sullivan?

Until recent years, one of the more underappreciated skills in the game was the knack of drawing penalties. With the advent of advanced stats, however, such information is now getting stripped from official play-by-play data by the likes of Gabe Desjardins, who publishes the results on his essential stats site Behind the Net. The default sort is on Total Penalties Drawn (defined as non-coincidental penalties at 5 on 5), showing that a 19-year-old rookie, Alexander Burmistrov, is currently well ahead of the entire NHL in this black art. Hmmm ... Anyway, that's the gold standard, 18 penalties drawn roughly a third of the way into the current season.

Before zeroing in on the Oilers I thought, let's look at the big picture, so I changed the parameters to include every skater who has played one minute in one game this season. It turns out that NHL skaters have taken 2477 penalties so far this season, but drawn just 2300, with the difference presumably being penalties not drawn by anybody such as puck-over-glass infractions. Also, goalies aren't included in either the drawn or taken category, but it seems to me I've seen a lot more goalie interference penalties this year than anything the goalies have perpetrated themselves. (Besides, as Ben can attest, goalies are innocent. Of everything.) So this is going to be that sort of number set that should sort of add up, but not reconcile perfectly. Kinda like runs and RBI, I suppose. To me a leaguewide penalties drawn to taken ratio of 93% passes the smell test, so I am pretty confident in the data set.

It occurred to me that there must be a distinct bias between forwards and defencemen, so I sharpened my pencil, changed the batteries in the calculator, and fired up Excel to see what expectations might be by position. Sure enough:

F 9265 11.7 108660 1570 1784 +214
D 4731 15.3 72297 907 516 -391
All 13996 12.9 180957 2477 2300 -177

As is my wont, I added a few columns to Gabe's raw data. The early columns seem bang on: a 2:1 ratio of forwards GP to defencemen (the 12:6 split that is the norm around the league) and a pleasing 3:2 ratio of TOI, perfect given Gabe is measuring just 5 on 5 play. ~46 minutes a game of even strength time split four ways among forward lines and three ways among defence pairings. Good data, totally consistent with logic.

Moving to the three rightmost columns, Penalties Taken, Penalties Drawn, and the differential between the two, we see that defencemen indeed come out way on the short end, having taken nearly 400 penalties more than they've drawn already.

Since we aren't accustomed to working with figures like 180,000 minutes, let's parse that as a ratio and in terms of events per 60.

POS PD:PT PT/60 PD/60 PD-PT/60
F 1.14 0.87 0.99 0.12
D 0.57 0.75 0.43 -0.32
All 0.93 0.82 0.76 -0.06

A couple of surprises here. One is that forwards draw fully twice as many penalties for each one they take, as do defencemen. League wide there is a drawn to taken ratio of 8:7 for forwards, just 4:7 to blueliners. So that will be our baseline when we look at individual players by position, as we will with the Oilers in part two.

Second surprise is that despite the much more unfavourable ratio of penalties, defenders actually take fewer penalties than do forwards. Fairly significantly fewer, too, just 86% as many per unit ice time. Hmmm, again. But the flipside is that defenders draw far, far fewer penalties, just 43% as many.

OK, so let's further break down the forwards between centres and wingers using the above methods.

C 3989 11.73 46784 626 760 +134
W 5276 11.73 61876 944 1024 +80

Alas, here we see the reliability of the data begin to break down. Centres and wingers should be split 1:2, but we see the ratio in both GP and total TOI  is closer to 3:4. Why so many centres? A cursory look at the Oilers list shows both Gilbert Brule, an emergency centre, and Jordan Eberle, not a pivot at all, both listed under "C". This is likely dismisinformation coming right from the source. While the dividing line between defence and forwards is pretty cut and dried, that among forwards is not that clear. There are also many more swing men who play C/W as opposed to F/D. 

While it's clear the C/W splits will be corrupted to some extent, there will be many more listed right than wrong. So while we're there let's look at the per 60 performances by listed position:

POS PD:PT PT/60 PD/60 PD-PT/60
C 1.47 0.82 1.21 +0.39
W 1.18 0.92 1.08 +0.16

Suggesting that centres are the ones driving this bus more than anyone. Or should I say, "centres". I'm reluctant to read too much into this for the reasons cited above.

Finally, a return visit to our data source, Behind the Net; Gabe you are a treasure. Click on this link, and lo and behold, there's our poster boy right on top of the entire NHfreakinL in penalties drawn per 60, at least at the moment I write this. A fluke of small number statistics at least to a degree, but there's some mighty familiar looking names up near the top of that list: Patrick Kaleta, Dustin Brown and Steve Downie to name three that leap off the screen at me. Nefarious bastards, all. Seems like those guys are up there every year, see: same list 2009-10.; same list 2008-09. Tootoo, Avery, Ott, Carcillo ... it's a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Of course some of the same guys give back quite a few penalties the other way, but it appears that at least some of these dudes are helping their teams by being as obnoxious as they are.

Of course the good guys are Never obnoxious, but I have to admit it's very interesting to see the name Ryan Jones in the top three of the NHL in each of the last two seasons. And now my man Zack Stortini atop the list.

You're a monster, Zorg.