November 01 2016 10:00AM
For the past two years, the Calgary Flames were one of the least penalized teams in the league. In 2014-15, they were shorthanded a league low 186 times (one of the many reasons they were able to make the playoffs that year). Last year, they gave up just 233 power plays, good for fifth best in the NHL.
This season has not started off on the same foot, however. Calgary has already been shorthanded 43 times in just 10 games, the second most in the NHL. That rate comes out to over four PKs per game and projects to a total of 353 (!!) over the course of the season. To put that in perspective, the Arizona Coyotes gave up a league worst 304 PPs last year.
To understand what's going on I took a look at who is taking penalties and how it relates to the club's rates from last year.
Penalty Rates 2015-16
Let's start with some context. This table shows regular Flames skaters from 2015-16 and how often they were taking and drawing penalties at even strength. All numbers from Corsica Hockey collected prior to the Oct. 30 game against the Capitals. (Deryk Engelland and Matt Stajan took the Flames' only two penalties that game.)
Lots of numbers and acronyms here, but the table is pretty simple.
You have the total number of penalties taken and drawn, and then some columns breaking those down into rates, including: penalties taken per game, penalties taken per 60 minutes of ice, penalties drawn per game and then per 60. Finally you have penalty differential rates (drawn minus taken).
The most interesting number here is PTake/60. That tells how us how often a player is being penalized. Last season only four Flames were over 1.0/60 by this metric: Garnet Hathaway, Brandon Bollig, Josh Jooris and Micheal Ferland. Bollig and Hathaway were the only guys to crest 2.0/60.
Ironically, three of those four players aren't around currently, so you would think the Flames would be taking fewer penalties this season, not more.
Penalty Rates 2016-17
Let's take a look at what's going on this year.
Huh. The team is almost completely divided between penalty takes and non-penalty takers: five Flames are above the 1.0/60 mark while seven of them have yet to take a single penalty at even strength.
The guys at the top of the list are the concern. Remember that taking over two penalties per sixty minutes of ice puts you in fourth line grinder/enforcer territory based on what we saw last year (Hathaway and Bollig). Which is bad.
Sam Bennett is up over five (5.10!) minors per sixty, while newcomers Alex Chiasson (1.82) and Matthew Tkachuk (1.79) are distant (but still not good) second and third respectively.
If you glance at the final column (Pdif/60) it shows you the effect players have on the Flames PP/PK differential. So far, four players are lower than -1.5 penalty differential/60 in 2015-16. Last year, only Brandon Bollig was below that threshold (-2.20/60).
Obviously we're dealing with some sample size effects here. Sam Bennett took just 0.87 penalties/60 in his rookie season so we can assume he's not actually going more than quintuple that rate this season. In fact, Bennett was a net positive player in terms of drawing penalties last year (+0.62/60) so this outburst of undisciplined play and poor penalty differential is definitely an outlier.
That said, the kids need to figure out how to play aggressively but within the bounds of the game. Tkachuk struggled with going over the line during the rookie and training camps, so this isn't totally unexpected. That said, as Bennett demonstrated last year, you can get under the other team's skin without constantly going to the box yourself.
The other big culprit by this metric this season is Dougie Hamilton. He is taking minors at about triple the rate he managed last year, which needs to stop if he is to make his way into the top three rotation.
Unrelated, but I'm surprised with how relatively few penalties Johnny Gaudreau draws (15 last year, three this year) given how often he is hooked and slashed every game.
The Flames should technically be a better team at staying out of the box this season since they aren't skating three of the biggest penalty takers from last year (Bollig, Jooris and Hathaway). Unfortunately, three of the club's high end youngsters (Bennett, Tkachuk and Hamilton) are taking minors at incredibly (and probably unsustainably high) rates in the early going so far.
The good news is twofold:
1.) It's extremely unlikely Bennett, Hamilton and Chiasson continue to get penalized at this rate over the long run given their histories. I'd include Tkachuk here, but we really don't know what he's going to be like at the NHL level by this measure yet.
2.) Glen Gulutzan has already recognized the problem and has started to take steps towards correcting it (strategic benching during games).
Some of the Flames' early struggles were due in part to going to the penalty box so frequently. Avoiding it as much as possible the rest of the way would help them get back into the running in the West.