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Persistence of Penalties Put Penguins in Precarious Pickle

It ?s been the talk of the town over the past few weeks, especially over the past few games for the Penguins. Pundits, former officials, and even the Penguins own assistant general manager have agreed that the Penguins are barking a lot more than they are biting. In Pittsburgh, the perception is the team has a talking problem built up by frustration with a league that has reverted to allowing the types of play that it consistently says it wants to avoid and the officials that enforce (or don ?t) the league ?s rulebook night in and night out.

This two-part series will break down where the Penguins have struggled with penalties this year, where it falls in comparison to previous years, and lastly, will it even matter in the playoffs.

What ?s been going on this year?

2014-2015 Penguin Penalty Summary Through 70 Games

Minor Penalties Major Penalties 10-Minute Misconducts Game Misconducts Total PIMs
307 32 18 3 1008

Maybe it isn ?t a surprise to many that the Penguins lead the league in average penalty minutes per game at 14.4 through 70 games this season. In the offseason, Penguins General Manager Jim Rutherford commented in his opening press conference that the previous year ?s Penguins lacked toughness and grit. He proclaimed that the Penguins were not a tough team to play against and that he was going to change that.

CAUCZrZU8AAxhMl Through free agency and trades Rutherford backed up his plans bringing in Patric Hornqvist, Nick Spaling, Steve Downie, Maxim Lapierre, Ian Cole, Ben Lovejoy, Daniel Winnik, and Blake Comeau. The Penguins instantly become a tougher, more physical team, almost overnight. The opposition may not have been the only ones to take notice, as many of the new members of the squad had well-known and well-deserved reputations league-wide, especially Steve Downie.

The single most interesting item to take note of from the Penguin ?s penalty issues is that this year, with 25 league-wide suspensions for a total of 74 games lost, the Penguins have only 1 suspension for a total of 2 games lost and by a player that was eventually traded away, Robert Bortuzzo. Why is this interesting you may ask? It shows that while the Penguins are being penalized early and often during games, the Department of Player Safety has barely had any issue with the Penguins on-ice behavior.

So the question now becomes, if what the Penguins are doing on the ice isn ?t necessarily dangerous to warrant action from the Department of Player Safety, how is it possible they continue have such a high penalty minute average?

A few explanations are possible;

  1. The Steve Downie Effect: When a team employs a Steve Downie-type of player, there are certain consequences that accompany the signing of that player. In addition to putting himself in borderline areas of the ice, like directly in-front of opposing goalies and battling along the boards, Steve Downie-types (and by that I mean players who have been suspended for cheap and dirty hits) are very much targeted, usually deservedly, for penalty calls. These are commonly referred to lovingly as ?2 minutes for being Downie. ? In other words, players like Downie will often be penalized because officials know that they are more likely to commit something, whether or not they actually did anything. Harken back to the Matt Cooke days.
  1. More Bark than Bite: Another glaring issue for the Penguins, and probably the most outlandish statistic, is that for 10-minute misconducts. Currently, through 70 games, the Penguins have 18 misconduct penalties. At 10 minutes a pop that means the Penguins have lost the equivalent of 3 games worth of time from ttumblr_nl9lw9qFkK1skgd7ao1_500heir players. What ?s even more eye-popping about this is the realization that the 18 misconducts this season is more than the past 3 years combined. Misconducts are typically handed out when the officials deemed that players are out of control or a detriment to the likelihood of continuing the pace of the game. In other words, if someone is going to be a consistent pain to the officials or the opposing team in a way that isn ?t necessarily directly related to the playing of the game, they ?ll likely be gone if given the chance. The reality that the Penguins have 18 misconducts this year shows that either they are likely to be crossing the line with the opposition or with the officials or both, without crossing the line into dangerous plays.
  1. Revenge of the Referees: Former ?beloved ? referee Kerry Fraser had this to say about the Penguins team of this year:

?The Penguins have earned the undesirable reputation with several of the referees for having too much to say. As a team, they need to turn off the tap on their own as they move toward the playoffs. The referees’ patience has already worn thin. ?

– Kerry Fraser

Kerry Fraser was well known for holding his own biases while officiating, especially against Mario Lemieux and the Penguins, but if his time in the NHL taught us anything, it ?s that the league has not changed much since his retirement. While coaches have often called out officials post-game, especially known combatants like John Tortorella, calling out officials on the ice during a game has often hit a nerve with most NHL referees. Whether or not the referees have deserved the criticism (they definitely do, one needs not to look at the comments from Tim Peel in the Puck Daddy interview, or at the massive decline in penalties called this year, which will be covered in part 2), the Penguins will have to learn that their regular and post-season hopes rest largely on the shoulder of the officials.

Has this season been worse than others?

Penalty-Average by Season (Regular Season) 2009-2015

Season Minors/Game Majors/Game Misc/Game PIM/Game NHL Rank
2014-15 4.38 0.46 0.26 14.5 30th
2013-14 3.63 0.34 0.04 10.1 10th
2012-13 2.34 0.28 0.04 11.7 19th
2011-12 3.99 0.39 0.05 10.7 12th
2010-11 4.56 0.90 0.16 16.9 29th
2009-10 4.77 0.62 0.13 14.6 25th

Looking at the statistics comparing this season ?s Penguins with years past appears to show that the Penguins aren ?t historically outside of their own range for average penalty minutes on first glance. What makes this graph interesting for the Penguins is that league-wide, penalties and consequentially power-play opportunities have decreased again signifying that the Penguins average penalty-minutes per game puts them at dead-last in the league. Removing misconducts and majors from the discussion, the Penguins are still 29th in the league in minor penalties per game behind only the Winnipeg Jets.

Taking it one step further, even though the majors per game, minors per game, and penalty minutes per game are well within the same general area as other Penguins teams, this team ?s reputation for chirping has put them at odds with not only NHL officials, but even with their own fans when it has put them shorthanded.

What both fans and front office management for the Penguins want to know is whether or not this has an impact on postseason success, which is what will be covered in Part Two of this series, so stay tuned ?

Nick is a Penguins contributor to The Point of Pittsburgh.