December 31 2016 08:42AM
Over the past few years, Nazem Kadri has been one of the best players in the NHL at drawing penalties. This was widely talked about among hockey's analytics community for a while, but last year the idea really seemed to break through, as it became a topic of conversation in far more mainstream sources, including TSN and Sportsnet's national broadcasts. It seemed like Kadri was finally getting credit for an under-rated skill that he was very good at.
But this year that ability has largely dried up. Many nights it's seemed like opposition players are able to get away with murder against Kadri without the Leafs being awarded a powerplay. So what's happened? And how steep has the drop-off been, really?
Nazem Kadri's penalty drawing ability has had significant value in previous seasons. One attempt to put a specific number on that value estimated that he provided the Leafs with 3.25 extra goals in 2014/15 just from his penalty drawing ability. That might not sound like much, but that's worth about one point in the standings, and that's just from penalty drawing alone; it doesn't take into account any other value he adds.
Kadri's ability in this regard has consistently ranked him at or near the top of the NHL. Here are the top 20 players in terms of penalties drawn per 60 minutes of 5v5 play between 2013-14 and 2015-16:
Not only did Kadri rank at the top of the league, but he was way ahead of most of the pack. Only five other players even drew penalties 80% as frequently as Nazem over those three seasons, and by the end of the Top 20, we're already at players drawing penalties about 2/3 as often.
But there's another important element, which is penalty taking. After all, if the goal is to find out which players are giving their team the biggest advantage, you have to take out their own penalties and see who has the best differential. So here are the top 20 players by penalty differential over the same time period:
So Kadri falls down the list a bit to 7th, but this list starts to make way more sense than the one we saw above. Most of the players near the top of the first list also take a ton of penalties, so guys like Tom Wilson and Zac Rinaldo completely fall off the list when you look at differential instead of just penalties drawn. And now we're seeing the kinds of guys we'd expect, as the list is largely comprised of speedy, shifty players who you'd think would be good at this kind of thing.
But something changed this season. Let's compare Kadri's numbers this season to the previous three:
There are a few things going on here. The first is that Kadri has taken significantly more penalties the past two seasons; his rate of penalties taken at 5v5 more than doubled between 2014-15 and 2015-16, and that higher rate has continued this season.
The second important thing here is that Kadri's rate of penalty drawing has fallen dramatically. In fact, it's fallen nearly in half from last season, and it's nearly 1/3 lower than the year before that.
Because of this, Kadri has gone from one of the top players in the league in terms of penalty differential to being a net negative. While he had the 7th best penalty differential rate from 2013-14 to 2015-16, this year he's way down in 328th of the 555 players with at least 200 minutes of ice time this season, well in the bottom half of the league. That's a massive drop.
So how did Nazem Kadri go from being one of the league's best penalty drawers to being a net negative in penalty differential in such a short span of time?
The simplest explanation would be that his reputation has caught up with him. Kadri's been known as an embellisher for a while, and other teams have likely complained about it. And the league has called him on it as well. Last season he was cited by the NHL for diving on three occasions, and paid fines totalling $5,000.
It's even possible that all the attention paid to Kadri's penalty drawing has become a problem. Once it started to become more widely known that Kadri was drawing penalties at such an incredibly high rate, other teams may have been more likely to complain, and the NHL may have taken more notice as well.
Perhaps it's inevitable that for a player like Kadri, their reputation is eventually going to start causing problems. If that's true, we should see the same thing happen to the previous king of penalty drawing - Dustin Brown. Brown's penalty drawing ability has been widely remarked upon - see for example this article by Eric Tulsky. So we might expect to see Brown's penalty arc to mirror Kadri's, since it's far from a secret that Brown also embellishes. What does his career look like?
This doesn't really look like Kadri's arc. What it looks more like is a standard player aging curve: peak around ages 23-25, with a slow drop-off throughout the late 20s, followed by a sharp decline in the 30s. Aside from the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, Dustin Brown remained one of the league's best penalty drawers for close to a decade. His penalty differential only really falls off as his level of play declines in general. It's also worth noting that Brown never sees the huge spike in penalties taken that Kadri has. While Brown's rate of penalty drawing has slowly fallen off, his rate of taking penalties has been remarkably consistent, even falling a bit over time.
Kadri, by contrast, is only 26. He's in the prime of his career, and is on-pace for a career high in goals and to match his previous best in points. He remains a positive player in terms of Corsi Rel despite being given much more difficult minutes this season. Kadri's still a valuable player who's other skills show no evidence of decline. It's just his penalty differential that's getting worse. It's clear that on some level the league has caught up with him, and he just isn't getting the calls he used to get. But penalty drawing is a repeatable skill, so there's no reason to believe Kadri's decline this year was inevitable.