On penalty differential and the Leafs

Photo Credit: Kevin Hoffman/USA TODAY SPORTS

One of the things that fans, analysts, team staff members, players; everybody, really, are prone to really dialing their focus on is a hockey team’s success on special teams. Playing in a situation where your team is up or down a player can, quite literally, be a game changer. So, with that in mind, let’s talk about how the team is situated as far as just getting into special teams situations.

First, let’s make a brief establishment of just how much your odds of controlling the game go up by having extra players on the ice. I rounded up the 5-on-5, 5-on-4, and 5-on-3 data for every team in the league between 2007/08 and 2015/16, and found, unsurprisingly, that the ice tilts as you widen your gap of active players. But here are the exact numbers:

Likeliness That You Will… On a 5 on 3 Powerplay On a 5 on 4 Powerplay
Attempt a shot 160.5% more likely 56.9% more likely
Give up a shot attempt 95.9% less likely 78% less likely
Get a shot on goal 177.4% more likely 55.4% more likely
Give up a shot on goal 94.8% less likely 73.3% less likely
Get a close-range chance 479% more likely 171.5% more likely
Give up a close-range chance 93.8% less likely 69% less likely
Score a goal 659.4% more likely 143.8 % more likely
Give up a goal 92.8% less likely 69.5 % less likely
Get your attempt to the net 6.5% more likely 1% less likely

With that in mind, a team that’s on the powerplay a lot is likely going to be one that wins a lot of hockey games. Your odds of scoring go up drastically on the average, and just as importantly, it’s a great way to shut down the opposition, who are usually focused on dumping the puck out rather than trying to put the puck in your net. Anyway, none of you need to be told that being on the powerplay is a good thing; the question becomes, how do you get there?


Once again, 5-on-5 Data, 2007-2016; all numbers used for brainstorming via corsica.hockey

The most obvious answer, of course, is to possess the puck. Infractions that are the type that lead to a single person being in the box are almost always the product of a chasing player trying to dispossess the puck-carrying player of their rubber disk, be it through a stick infraction or a hit. Sometimes, hit-based penalties will involve a non-carrier, but that’s typically due to that player having recently passed it. Whatever the case, the aggressor is usually on the team chasing, and as you can see above, the best puck possession teams are often the ones that are taking fewer penalties than they draw. There are some exceptions (dominant forechecking teams like the Kings, Bruins, and vintage Flames drag their peers down), but as a general rule, teams are too busy shooting to cause trouble.

Last year, the Leafs found themselves on the right side of Corsi history for the first time since the Ron Wilson era, thanks to Mike Babcock’s tried and tested cycle-and-rebound driven systems, which just finished taking the world by storm and, sometimes, snore in Team Canada’s utterly dominant run during the World Cup of Hockey. Toronto was above water despite putting one of the worst teams in the league out on paper; seemingly alternating between skilled forwards and questionable defending to the vice versa of that (puck luck helping, of course) until they finished with the best record of a last place team in the salary cap era.

There’s a belief that Toronto will take an even further leap this year, thanks to an influx of young talent in the forward core, a completed adjustment summer for their veteran trade acquisitions, the natural progression of some of their younger defencemen, and the establishment of actual right-handed depth on the right side of their defensive pairings; a long-noted possession booster even when talent level is equal. 

As well, an establishment of a natural culture of team toughness will be key as well. When I say natural culture, I don’t mean enforcers dropping the gloves at the slightest annoyance (sorry, Brandon Prust), but players who intimidate in clean ways and aren’t quick to retaliate. That’s where the veterans should really sign and lead by example; players like Brooks Laich, Colin Greening, and even internals like Tyler Bozak aren’t seen as pushovers, but don’t often end up with even-up calls either. 

This is something that Rich Clune showed in spades with the Toronto Marlies down the stretch last season, effectively keeping the team under control by not losing his own even when he was merited to do so. The past year has been a big one for him changing his habits of non-restraint, going from one of the most frequently penalized players in hockey to one who will still cause some trouble to one who can get under your skin without putting himself on the line. He likely won’t get much time to show that with the Leafs, but he may be able to pass those newfound traits down to others.

A new roster regular that could be interesting in both of these regards is Matt Martin. Martin was a forechecker and glove-dropper on the fourth-lineiest fourth line in hockey in Brooklyn, and it shows. His 1.52 penalties taken per 60 over the past three years are highest among Leafs with 100+ games played. In Toronto, however, he will likely be used as a puck displacer on an offensively-contributing line, where he also will presumably spend a bigger chunk of his shift as a screen and rebounder in front of the net rather than a human pinball along the sides.

Nazem Kadri, obviously, is another one to watch. Kadri has spent years near the top of the league in penalties drawn for many reasons. He’s quick enough that players get desperate to chase him in foot races, he carries the puck enough to be the player they try to strip, he’s pesty enough that he gets under players’ skin, and one has to admit, he’s spectacularly good at selling an infraction when he feels that continuing to move isn’t going to get him the return he wants. 

He isn’t a saint himself, though, and while he remains the team’s penalty differential king at 0.76 extra powerplays per 60 minutes of even strength ice time, his potential could be so much greater if he wasn’t taking his own chippy penalty every couple of games. It’s still pretty great though; the results over time have been telling.

With those examples in mind, here are the players that have gone on to greener pastures this year:

Player GP Penalties Taken/60 Penalties Drawn/60 Penalty Differential/60
MARK.ARCOBELLO 20 0 0.3 0.3
BRAD.BOYES 60 0.43 0.65 0.22
PIERRE-ALEX.PARENTEAU 77 0.81 0.94 0.13
JOFFREY.LUPUL 46 0.56 0.68 0.11
BEN.SMITH 22 0 0 0
SHAWN.MATTHIAS 71 0.44 0.37 -0.07
MICHAEL.GRABNER 80 0.28 0.07 -0.21
DANIEL.WINNIK 76 0.78 0.57 -0.21
DION.PHANEUF 71 1.13 0.87 -0.26
SCOTT.HARRINGTON 15 0.67 0 -0.67
NICK.SPALING 58 0.91 0.09 -0.82

There’s not much lost. Nobody really moves the needle in a positive way, and those who came close (Arcobello and Boyes) barely played. Parenteau obviously hurts to lose as a quality player and being a positive here too confirms that, but that is what it is. Lupul’s net impact will likely be gained back just by losing him as a drag on possession, and the others, well, we see some clear negatives. Nick Spaling, who started the year off as a noted penalty killer, ended up being the person causing penalty kills. 

The Leafs will also likely be losing Byron Froese to the numbers game, and diminishing Peter Holland’s role. Both players were below water, landing around the -0.33 range.

On the other hand, here’s what the Leafs have as far as players who might join the roster full time this year. These are three-year samples, to try to minimize variance.

Player Penalties Taken/60 Penalties Drawn/60 Penalty Differential/60
ZACH.HYMAN 0.6 1.79 1.2
WILLIAM.NYLANDER 0.43 0.65 0.22
MILAN.MICHALEK 0.56 0.66 0.1
BROOKS.LAICH 0.49 0.46 -0.03
JAMES.VAN RIEMSDYK 0.66 0.55 -0.1
COLIN.GREENING 0.73 0.61 -0.12
JOSH.LEIVO 0.74 0.49 -0.25
KERBY.RYCHEL 0.68 0.34 -0.34
FRANK.CORRADO 0.89 0.37 -0.52
MATT.MARTIN 1.52 0.87 -0.65
CONNOR.CARRICK 1.06 0.16 -0.9

Obviously, a couple of these guys are on the bubble; Hyman, Leivo, and Rychel will likely be victims of the numbers game. As well, Van Riemsdyk clearly isn’t new, but I threw him in solely because of how many games he missed last year and the fact he’s a positive drawer.

It’s certainly promising that Nylander is already drawing the attention of opposing sticks, and as he gets faster and more elusive, that will only improve; keeping his own frustrations to a minimum as he gets targeted will be the key to keeping a good ratio. We don’t have these types of numbers for Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews yet, but the hope is that they’ll bring a similar element with their hard-to-match stickwork and well above average foot speed. 

Laich being neutral is fine for a player in a grinder’s role, and as mentioned in the Martin point, a shift in how he’s used should tilt the scales slightly for him, and I’m curious to see if that could also happen with Greening and Michalek, who are already both basically washes to begin with.

Corrado and Carrick are two that interest me greatly. Carrick, in particular, is known for having a bit of an aggressive side to him, and I wonder how much of his lower drawing number comes from simply not being given much of an opportunity to be an offensive instigator in his 5-on-5 time in Washington and Toronto. In both of their cases, their numbers seem to be weighted down from their early experience with their former teams; perhaps due to the wrong types of usage.

We’ll have to see where that goes, but it’s not like Matt Hunwick and Roman Polak, the pair who’s jobs are on the line thanks to these two, were doing all that much better. Polak’s differential sits at -0.54 per sixty thanks to his aggression levels, and Matt Hunwick, even in a sample of 113 games, has only drawn 4 penalties in 1828 minutes; likely because he’s usually one to stand back and wait for the puck to come to him while playing defence, and rarely carries it when he’s moving the other way.

Player Penalties Taken/60 Penalties Drawn/60 Penalty Differential/60
NAZEM.KADRI 1.05 1.81 0.76
TYLER.BOZAK 0.41 0.61 0.19
MORGAN.RIELLY 0.29 0.27 -0.02
JAKE.GARDINER 0.36 0.26 -0.11
LEO.KOMAROV 0.77 0.61 -0.15
PETER.HOLLAND 0.84 0.52 -0.32
MARTIN.MARINCIN 0.7 0.19 -0.51
ROMAN.POLAK 0.88 0.34 -0.54
MATT.HUNWICK 0.69 0.13 -0.56

As for the regulars, there’s not really much to brag or poke at outside of being super impressed by Kadri and wondering who the fastest right-handed defenceman is so they can be paired with Marincin, who isn’t taking too many infractions, but is by means of ratio and is likely doing so in efforts to catch up to pucks he can’t skate up to.

Ultimately, what’s going to happen with this team’s special team hopes is more important than just the numbers you see here. But we do get an idea that the weaker players tend to be the ones that are doing a lot of the chasing, and as the team moves to becoming a “toughness through resilience”, always moving perimeter cycle team, they’re going to have more opportunities to get chased. With that, should come an extra call or two. With that comes more time where the Leafs’ odds are scoring are up, more time where their odds of getting scored against are down, and the closer you get to being in an overall winning position.

Will it work? Who knows. But from the looks of it, the team has improved in a way that will not only make them better at 5-on-5 but insure them chances to break away from it and find more opportunities to succeed.