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Back to the Box: Looking at the Hurricanes’ penalty problems

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The Carolina Hurricanes are one of the NHL’s most promising teams, but one of their worst shortcomings is the frequency with which they end up in the penalty box.

Carolina Hurricanes v Boston Bruins - Game Two Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The Hurricanes are not a dirty team, despite what Capitals fans may want to say about Warren Foegele. They had the fourth fewest amount of major penalties (6) last season and only four teams had fewer misconducts (2) called against them.

Carolina also had no ejections, suspensions or even fines handed out to players — Rod Brind’Amour’s being a different story.

So it’s crazy that despite all of that, the Hurricanes ended up being the most shorthanded team by frequency and on-ice time through the regular season. The team was shorthanded 243 times for the 276 penalties committed, and spent an average of 6:05 per game down a man.

If not for the Hurricanes’ tremendous penalty killing, which I went over in detail last month, there is little doubt that the team would be nowhere near as successful as it is. Spending over 10% of a game down a man is not a recipe for victory.

By far the biggest issue within the Hurricanes’ penalty woes was stick infractions. Carolina committed 157 stick infractions during the regular season— nearly 60% of their total penalty share.

Ryan Henkel

Most of these times, these kind of penalties can be chalked up to “careless” penalties as it comes from players either not thinking of where their stick ends up or not caring. Sometimes these penalties can be critical, like maybe a hook against a player on a breakaway, but for the most part these can be avoidable penalties.


Penalty Type Frequency
Penalty Type Frequency
Tripping 56
Hooking 36
Holding 34
Slashing 33
Hi-Sticking 28
Interference 26
Roughing 18
Boarding 7
Too Many Men 7
Puck Over Glass 6
Fighting 6
Cross Checking 4
Unsportsmanlike Conduct 3
Misconducts 2
Goaltender Interference 2
Embellishment 2
Holding the Stick 2
Unsuccessful Challenge 1
Delay of Game 1
Faceoff Violation 1
Kneeing 1

The next most common were holds and interferences which are common defensive penalties.

The Canes had very few fights this season, similar to the downward trend for them around the league, and what is very good to see is the low number of dangerous penalties such as boards and knees and the fact that there was no penalties assessed for hits to the head, elbows or spears.

While the general breakdown of penalties was fairly even throughout the game, a big issue was that on 21 different occasions all in different games, the Canes took a penalty with either less than five minutes to play in a game or in overtime.

Of those 21 times, the Hurricanes ended up losing just six of them. In five of those instances, the team was already trailing, with these late penalties helping seal the deal.

Five other times Carolina took a late penalty while tied, but the team went on to win four out of those five games. That one game they lost was the only time the team even conceded a late-game, power-play goal. In fact, the Canes outscored that marker 4:1, notching four shorthanded goals while facing a late-game power play.

This is tremendous efficiency, yes. But the issue in it lies in the fact that it’s unsustainable. Of those 21, there were 12 games within only a single goal margin and to either light another team’s sparks or put out your own is not a path to success. Especially for a team that has only qualified for the playoffs the past two years in wildcard spots, the difference between being in or out is a lot less than 12 games.

While the timing of these penalties was a non-issue, the simple fact that the frequency of them was rising was a concern. The Canes only had 12 fewer penalties in 2019-20 than they did in 2018-19 while having played in 14 fewer games.

With an average of over four penalties per game, that would have equated to an extra 56 penalties taken.

Ryan Henkel

The reason for the uptick in penalties can almost entirely be accredited to Brind’Amour’s hyper-aggressive forechecking and defensive style.

On the offensive side when players are hounding and overloading puck carriers, it is more likely that a stick catches a skate or comes up on an opposing skater and on the defensive side when players are throwing the body or trying to move opponents off the puck they may illegally check or attempt to tie them up.

This style also amplified the penalty rate of a lot of the Hurricanes’ more aggressive players such as Andrei Svechnikov (27 penalties), Joel Edmundson (29), Nino Niederreiter (20) and Foegele (17).

The link to coaching style is even more apparent if we compare the penalty totals between the current trend and that under the last coach. Under Bill Peters, the Hurricanes took the fewest penalties in the league in three of his four years — the only year they weren’t was in 2015-16 where they had the second fewest taken by only a single penalty.

However, the increase in penalties hasn’t necessarily led to a decrease in success. In fact it is the exact opposite as the Hurricanes have found great success under Brind’Amour and his style as opposed to the floundering mediocrity under Peters’.

While there is success, it doesn’t mean it can’t still be refined. Fighting uphill is never as easy as it would be from a level or elevated surface and that’s where the Hurricanes could help get that little bit better.

And this is the difficulty with Brind’Amour’s style. That free reign to play at a high-energy level leads many players to take a few too many liberties, but it’s hard to balance that high-octane and responsibility.

For instance, in the first game against the New York Rangers in the qualifying round, the Hurricanes were called for penalties nine times. While part of that was the referees calling a tighter game, Brind’Amour also admitted it was due to the energy level of the guys, but it was something he didn’t want to diminish at all.

He loved the energy, but not necessary the execution with it and that’s currently where the Hurricanes sit still with their style.

It isn’t that the style has to change, but more that the players need a bit more focus. “Careless” penalties like high-sticks or typical retaliatory penalties like slashes can be made less frequent if the players can dial in their energy and take that spilt-second to know their surroundings.

Penalties will always be a part of the game, but the Hurricanes would do well to try and limit the exponential increase in them that the team is seeing and try to give their penalty killers a break every once in a while.