"Bin" there, Done that: Uncharacteristic penalties trip up Carolina

"I don't know what it is, if the referees don't like our new coach or what, but we've been the least-penalized team the last couple years," Eric Staal said after the loss in Tampa Bay Saturday night. "We've got to find a way and make sure we stay out of that box."

Five games into the season, the fans, the players and the coaches of the Carolina Hurricanes have got to be wondering "what's up with that?" as the most glaring difference from previous years can be found under the column heading "Penalties". Typically among the most disciplined teams in the NHL for PIM/game in previous years, the Hurricanes have plunged to the bottom of the pile after another 7 minors in last night's game in Tampa Bay, with  a total of 122 penalty minutes assessed this season. Only the Pittsburgh Penguins have more (at 123 minutes - another anomaly I'll let the guys at Pensburgh sort out). With so much data to sample, I sorted out the numbers for your consideration.

First off, breaking out the major penalties and misconducts related to fighting, the numbers show that in those first 2 games against the Flyers and Bruins, the Hurricanes were facing teams with a reputation for rough play - and it comes as no surprise to see the minutes reflect exactly that style. I think we'd all agree with Coach Paul Maurice in praising Andrew Alberts, Jay Harrison and Tom Kostopoulos for their willingness to take the Bruins on last weekend (even though their choice in sparring partners was, in hindsight, somewhat ambitious).

But look what is leftover in Minor Penalties, those nagging 2 minutes in the box that set up the 5 on 4 advantage for the Hurricanes' opponents and puts the Penalty Kill Units to the test - over and over and over again.

Game (opponent)

TOTAL CAR PIM

Majors and misconducts (minutes)

Minors (minutes)

PHI

29

15

14

BOS

44

20

24

TBL

21

5

16

FLA

14

0

14

TBL

14

0

14

TOTALS

122

40

82

 

Can you believe the most-disciplined team in the 2008-09 season (when Carolina averaged less than 10 minutes/game) now finds itself at the rock-bottom of the league, drawing 41 calls for 2-minute minor penalties? (the stats at NHL.com say 39 - but even they missed a couple when you compile the game sheets). The next worst teams are the Flyers and Penguins, each with "only" 33 minors in their first five games. That puts the Canes 25% ahead of the tied-for-28th worst teams. It's gonna be awhile before they climb out of this basement.

Following the jump is a breakdown of "the minors" - what, how, who and why we should care.

Not all "Minors" are created equal

In the online edition of  the Falls Church (Virginia) News-Press last week, writer Mike Hume, analyzing a similar problem with the Washington Capitols, made this observation:

Not all penalties are created equal.... A co-worker of mine used to work in the NHL some years ago and the team had his staff differentiate between aggression penalties (such as roughing and cross checking) and positioning penalties (holding, hooking, tripping, interference, etc.). The thinking was that aggression penalties weren't all bad, as you often get a side benefit of intimidation in addition to any physical pain you inflict upon your opponent. If you board your opponent, sure, you go to the sin bin, but that player is going to think twice about going into the corners again. Positioning penalties on the other hand tell you when your team is getting out-skated and your players need to clutch and grab at other players to prevent prime offensive opportunities. There's no benefit on these penalties, as they just illustrate that your opponent is out-classing you and you have to break the rules to even the odds.

So how does this theory apply to the Canes after 5 penalty-filled outings? Here's what I found when I further differentiated between all those minor penalties.

 

 

Game (opponent)

Minor penalties called

Minors

Aggression

Positional

PHI

7

2

5

BOS

12

4

8

TBL

8

1

7

FLA

7

1

6

TBL

7

0

7

TOTALS

41

8

33

 

Only eight of the 41 (< 20%) of the minor penalties are for aggression (the so-called "good kind": cross-checking and roughing). The balance are all those whistles for tripping, hooking, interference, ugly positional  penalties that, if the premise is correct, truly reflect a team struggling to contain its opponent.

Let's name names

Player  # of minors
Sergei Samsonov 5
Jay Harrison 4
Matt Cullen 3
Eric Staal 3
Rod Brind`Amour 2
Andrew Alberts 2
Jussi Jokinen 2
Joni Pitkanen 2
Stephane Yelle 2
Niclas Wallin 2

Another five Hurricanes have just one call for a "positional" minor. This leaves only five Hurricanes who haven't yet "done that". Let's give props to:

Aaron Ward,Tuomo Ruutu, Tom Kostopoulos, Tim Conboy, Erik Cole.

It's worth noting that of those five, Conboy and Cole have significantly less ice time than the others. Also, Alberts and Harrison have been tremendous physical forces on the ice, racking up some monster hits at a pace Raleigh fans haven't seen since Tuomo Ruutu rode into town. And then there's the officiating which has been sharply criticized here at Canes Country in postgame conversations, particularly those questionable calls on the very smart and speedy veteran Sergei Samsonov, who finds himself at the top of this rogues' gallery above. 

So, you say, this is a lot of numbers. What does it mean? Why does it matter?

Caniacs, it's hockey, right? It all boils down to putting the puck in the net. After 5 games, the Hurricanes have allowed 17 goals as shown here:

Game (opp)

W or L

Score (Canes first)

PK%

PP goals allowed

ES goals allowed

PHI

L

0-2

60%

2

0

BOS

L

2-7

50%

4

2

TBL

W

2-1

80%

1

0

FLA

W

7-2

100%

0

2

TBL

L

2-5

83%

1

4

TOTALS

14-17

75%

8

9

 

Of those 17 goals, 8 of them, a whopping 47% came when the Canes were shorthanded. So while the PK % is not terrible and puts the Hurricanes squad at a respectable 19th in the NHL, one shy of half the goals allowed came while someone in a Canes sweater sat out, cooling their heels (or his knee, in the case of one big Finn), in the box.

So, I ask you:

  • What is your response to this new and unfamiliar phenomenon for our Hurricanes?
  • Is this something that will fix itself as the players gel in their roles and responsibilities?
  • Do you agree the Canes are feeling out-classed at times and are forced to break the rules to try and break up their opponents' play?
  • As easy as it is to blame the officiating, and it isn't without cause, I think we've all seen that the majority of the calls were reasonable.
  • Is it all on Mo, as Eric Staal kids in his comments at the top - is he forcing the players to be more aggressive? Or do you agree that those highly penalized players should be tagged as "lazy" or "outclassed" and should shoulder the blame for our troubles at this point in the season?
  • And, looking ahead to the Penguins this Wednesday and 76 more games after that, what do the Hurricanes need to do to stop the bleeding?
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