Penalty Differential: The Ottawa Senators' Bugaboo

The Senators have a hard time staying out of the sin bin, and it's been costing them.

The story of where the Senators' 2013-14 season went off the tracks features many of the usual suspects: poor defensive zone coverage, porous goaltending, mediocre penalty killing, basically everything you would expect from a team that allowed a whopping 3.15 goals per game. Only the New York Islanders, Florida Panthers and Edmonton Oilers fared worse. You'd be right to point the finger at the obscene number of shots the team gave up at even strength, over 33 per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play. By this measure, only the Toronto Maple Leafs ranked below the Sens. If Ottawa wants to return to the playoffs next year, they will need to dramatically improve their shot suppression skills; this goes without saying. The deluge of shots against at 5-on-5, however, masks a problem that's been lingering around the team for several years now: a large, negative penalty differential.

Penalties are inevitable, a fact of playing competitive hockey, but take enough of them and your team will pay the price. One of the dirty secrets of the 2012-13 #PeskySens is that they papered over a terrible penalty differential with outrageously good goalie play when shorthanded. Specifically, that team got a .928 SV% out of its' goalies while shorthanded -- the next closest team was the Boston Bruins, clocking in at a cool .900 even. Just to further contextualize how much of an outlier that was, .928 would have been good enough to rank in the top 10 of the league this year *at even strength*. When your goalies play like that, a lot of the headaches that stem from a lack of discipline go away.

Sadly, this propensity for penalty taking isn't a recent phenomenon. You need to go all the way back to the 2006-07 season before you find a season in which the Sens posted a positive penalty differential. The fact that the issue can be traced through the tenures of five different coaches leads me to believe it has to do with the players more than any one particular system. Using some quick back of the envelope math, I estimate that being shorthanded so much last year cost the Senators in the area of 10 goals (I multiplied their PK% by the difference in time spent shorthanded versus on the power play). It's a rough, imperfect estimate but it's defensible.

So, who are the culprits? Glad you asked:

Name Penalties Taken / 60 ES TOI / 60
Chris Neil 2.3 11.18
Mark Borowiecki 1.7 10.93
Zack Smith 1.3 13.16
Jason Spezza 1.1 13.69
Eric Gryba 1.1 13.88
Jean-Gabriel Pageau 1.0 8.24
Erik Condra 0.9 9.13
Joe Corvo 0.8 14.78
Bobby Ryan 0.8 13.64
Jared Cowen 0.8 16.64

All data courtesy of Behind the Net.

A bit of context: the preceding link will take you to list from last season of every player who played at least 10 minutes per game, sorted in descending order by their propensity to take penalties. For those of you too lazy to click through, Chris Neil achieved the second highest rate. Only Dave Bolland took penalties at a higher rate than Neil did last season, and he only played 25 games. Neil's never been the most disciplined, but last year was calamitously bad. His primary partner in crime, Zack Smith, finds himself just outside the top 30 and the little used, but recently signed, Mark Borowiecki comfortably slots into the top 10. For what it's worth, Borowiercki also collected penalties at an alarming rate in the minors so I would be surprised if that changed in the NHL. He's still young so maybe this won't prove to be an issue, but the signs aren't good. Nonetheless, this is another one of the hidden perils of giving big minutes to the Smith line: you're a lot more likely to be shorthanded.

Which brings us back to the main point of all this: penalty differential has been a silent killer for years now, and two of the main culprits are stalwarts of the team's checking line. On a couple of occasions during the season, Paul MacLean talked about cutting back on ice time for players that took selfish penalties. I would applaud that in theory and in practice, yet for some reason the rules didn't really seem to apply to Neil and Smith last year. Those two and Borocop are so far ahead of the rest of the team that just by focusing on those three you could effect change in the team's overall propensity to take penalties.

There are lots of things that need to be done to clean up the team's defensive game, but there's also a low hanging fruit that could reap instant rewards: cut down on the minors by reducing the ice time of the players that take the most penalties. Or heck, Neil and Smith could go out and do it themselves. They're both touted as key leaders on the team, this would be a great show of leadership.

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