Does it seem like the Ottawa Senators are always getting calls against them? That's because it's true. But not because the refs hate them, it's because they have consistently been taking too many penalties year in and year out. That doesn't speak to refs poor judgement, that speaks to the fact that the Senators have always been taking bad penalties.
It's no coincidence that they have mostly taken more penalties than they draw, and that's something that needs to change. I have been wanting to write about this topic for some time, and luckily for me, the narrative this year is exactly the same.
The team has racked up 12.21 penalty minutes per game, which ranks 6th in the NHL. Their penalty differential this year sits at 19, meaning they have been on the penalty kill for 19 more minutes than they have been on the power play. Considering the season is only 14 games old, that isn't very good. I took a look at a graph of the Senators penalty differential over their team history, and it was quite interesting:
(courtesy of Sporting Charts)
(For those who are confused, a negative number is actually good on this graph and vice-versa).
As you can see, up until the mid-200's, Ottawa was always very good at not taking too many penalties, as they always drew more than they took. Then from 2007-2008 until 2011-12, the Senators were always in the negative (although it shows it as positive on the graph). These past few years actually have not been too bad, but we also need some context.
In 2012-13, their differential was -6, meaning that in a 48-game season, they basically broke even. Plus, they actually finished third in the NHL that year in PIMs. So it's not as if they were a "clean" team that season, they just happened to draw a lot of penalties as well. Then last year, it was a similar story.
The team had 68 more minutes on the power play, which is good. But we can't look at that and say their problems are solved, because once again they finished 9th in the league in penalty minutes, which is not horrible but still not good. Plus, Chris Neil only played 38 games so if he had played the whole 82 that number would have gone way up. The Senators have consistently been taking too many penalties over the years, and I think it plays a part in giving up too many shots/goals. It isn't the single reason, but it's frustrating to see the same results year in and year out.
Here is how Ottawa ranks in penalty minutes since 2007 in chronological order: T-11, 19, 10, 6, 2, 3, 4, 9, 7. Besides 2008-09 (where they still took more than they drew), they have been in the top 11 of the league. If we want to focus it even more, things look much worse from 2010-11 onwards. Obviously if they are able to draw a good amount of penalties like they did last year, then we shouldn't be complaining too much.
However, the problem is that you can't rely on the opponent to always take x amount of penalties, because there are very few players who are actually skilled at drawing penalties. As Ottawa is showing this year, penalty minutes against your opponent will vary greatly from year to year. The one thing that you can control? Your own discipline.
I went ahead and looked at the top 3 players in PIMs for the Senators each year beginning in 2007-08, and then I took a look at their possession stats as well. It's no surprise that Ottawa's most penalized players were also generally amongst their worst.
Chris Neil, 199 PIMs. +0.6 CF% Relative
Mike Fisher, 82 PIMs. +1.1 CF% Relative
Dany Heatley, 76 PIMs. +2.5 CF% Relative
Chris Neil, 146 PIMs. -0.7 CF% Relative
Jarkko Ruutu, 144 PIMs. -0.8 CF% Relative
Dany Heatley, 88 PIMs. +2.9 CF% Relative
Matt Carkner, 190 PIMs. -0.9 CF% Relative
Chris Neil, 175 PIMs. +2.1 CF% Relative
Jarkko Ruutu, 121 PIMs. -0.9 CF% Relative
Chris Neil, 210 PIMs. +0.2 CF% Relative
Matt Carkner, 136 PIMs. +2.5 CF% Relative
Zack Smith, 120 PIMs. +1.1 CF% Relative
Zenon Konopka, 193 PIMs. -5.4 CF% Relative
Chris Neil, 178 PIMs. -1.0 CF% Relative
Nick Foligno, 124 PIMs. +1.6 CF% Relative
Chris Neil, 144 PIMs. +1.6 CF% Relative
Zack Smith, 56 PIMs. +0.3 CF% Relative
Matt Kassian, 47 PIMs. +4.7 CF% Relative (In 15 GP...but how??)
Chris Neil, 211 PIMs. -1.0 CF% Relative
Zack Smith, 111 PIMs. -2.5 CF% Relative
Clarke MacArthur, 78 PIMs. +2.2 CF% Relative
Mark Borowiecki, 107 PIMs. -4.4 CF% Relative
Eric Gryba, 97 PIMs. -4.0 CF% Relative
Chris Neil, 78 PIMs. -4.6 CF% Relative
Chris Neil, 37 PIMs. -1.2 CF% Relative
Mark Borowiecki, 23 PIMs. -7.3 CF% Relative
Zack Smith, 19 PIMs. -3.1 CF% Relative
So there are a few things that I can take away from this. First of all, the possession numbers didn't quite show the story I was trying to tell, as some players didn't have such bad numbers. At the same time, even though players like Neil, Kassian(?), Smith, and Carkner were somehow able to post positive numbers, that doesn't mean they were valuable players.
We should know now that players of that ilk don't have too much value. Plus, on the whole those four along with Konopka, Borowiecki, Gryba, and Ruutu have been largely outshout while they are on the ice, so if we looked at a career sample the numbers would show the players in a worse light. Secondly, there are a few outliers on this list who were actually effective players like Heatley, Foligno, Fisher, and MacArthur. Obviously those players play more of a physical game but the thing is they also have some skill.
Overall, the players listed year after year are hurting the Senators. Not only are they taking penalties that put Ottawa down a man for 2 minutes, they are also having negative possession numbers. I understand that some of those PIM's are for fights and that players like Neil supposedly fill a "niche," but I don't see these styles of play as effective. Rather, I see it as hindering the teams ability to play 5 on 5 (or 5 on 4) hockey, and the Senators have been poor at staying out of the box for quite some time.
Ottawa still has Neil, Smith and Borowiecki, and it's no surprise that I (amongst many others) want them replaced with more skilled players who take less penalties. It's a simple concept: if you take fewer penalties, then you won't have to defend as much. The Senators penalty kill ranks 28th in the league right now, so perhaps staying out of the box would be beneficial.
It baffles me that certain players that have little to no skill consistently get ice time, because I just don't see how they are being effective. How many times do we find ourselves saying "ugh, what a dumb penalty by Neil/Smith/Borowiecki/Cowen/whomever"? I don't know about you, but I would rather be a team that takes advantage of undisciplined teams, plus I think Ottawa could use a break in the defensive zone once in a while.
Otawa has been taking too many penalties for years now, and it would be nice to see a change. Neil's contract is up after this season, so hopefully that will be a step in the right direction. But for now, don't expect this team to be disciplined at all.