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The Capitals and Penalty Plus-Minus

A look at which players put the Caps a man up... and down.

Greg Fiume

"[Penalty differentials] are a significant component of a player's value, to a larger extent than is generally appreciated. And capturing, quantifying, and exploiting those things that may be generally understood but are not fully appreciated is exactly how smart organizations get an edge." - Broad Street Hockey

We've discussed "penalty plus-minus" - simply the difference between a player's non-coincidental penalties-drawn and penalties-taken - plenty in the past (ah, the good old days) and have revisited it from time to time because, well, it matters, especially to a team that has shown itself to be dominant on the power-play and the opposite of that on the penalty kill. So let's turn our attention to it again for a bit and see how things shook out in Adam Oates's first (truncated) season.

The chart below (data via Behindthenet) is straightforward enough: it shows every (well, almost every - more on that in a moment) Caps skater and the rate at which he took and drew penalties at five-on-five in 2013, with positive differentials shown as blue bubbles, negative as red, and the size of the bubbles corresponding to the relative size of the differential. Have a look:


Some observations:

  • Marcus Johansson wins the penalty plus-minus belt with a differential of plus-1.2 per sixty minutes, drawing 10 penalties (only Alex Ovechkin with 19 drew more) and committing just one (a trip in Philly, in case you're intensely curious). Ten power-plays for a 26.8% efficient power-play is 2.68 goals-for; one penalty-kill for a 77.9% successful penalty kill is 0.22 goals against. So Johansson's penalty plus-minus was worth a hypothetical 2.46 goals in his 34 games played. Over 82 games, that total jumps up to 5.93 goals, or pretty much the generally accepted value of one win (estimated between five and six goals). The Caps power-play won't hit 26.8% next year and hopefully the penalty kill is better than 77.9%, but you get the point - there's real value here (and this probably isn't an aberration - Johansson was second to Ovechkin among Caps who played more than 30 games in each of his first two seasons). Then again, it's worth wondering whether Johansson's low penalties-taken rate might have something to do with his commitment to defending, but that's another subject.
  • Unsurprisingly, the guys drawing penalties are the speed and skill guys... generally. But what happened to Troy Brouwer? Don't get hung up on the numbers, given these small samples, but among forwards who played 20 games in 2013 and got 13 minutes of five-on-five ice time per night, Brouwer drew penalties at the third-worst rate in the League, ahead of only Derek Stepan and Vinny Prospal. His inability to draw penalties, along with Mike Ribeiro's, shows yet another reason why puck possession is so important (and why there's reason for concern over the team's likely second line, which includes Brooks Laich, who looks awful here in a tiny sample that includes just two minors, but has been better in the past).
  • Not every skater is displayed because an "even" differential doesn't have a bubble. Dmitry Orlov didn't commit or draw a penalty last year, so he's not on the chart. Neither is Joel Ward, whose 0.8 rate on both cancel each other out. Lastly - and most interestingly - John Carlson isn't displayed, since his rates in both metrics was 0.7 (10 penalties drawn and taken). That means that Carlson drew as many penalties as he took, as a defenseman facing top competition. That's pretty remarkable (and here are some points of reference for top and bottom defensemen). Mike Green and Karl Alzner also look pretty good here. But back to Carlson and Ward for a moment - drawing as many penalties as they take is actually a net positive for a Caps team that scored on nearly 27% of its power-plays and yielded a goal on nearly 23% of its penalty kills. Food for thought, in general.
  • Ovechkin drew 19 penalties, which is just five fewer than he drew all year in 2011-12, and his 1.5/60 rate was the same as his 2010-11 season. Playing under Oates suits him nicely, it would seem. (Also, gotta wonder how many times Ovechkin drew a penalty and scored on the ensuing power-play... he had to lead the League. Update: Ovechkin scored once in 2013 on a penalty he drew; so much for that assumption.)
  • Stop taking so many penalties, Jason Chimera. Seriously. His minus-six differential is pretty brutal... especially considering he only scored three goals. Use that speed for good, not evil, 25.
  • Add it all up and the Caps drew 136 penalties and took 153. Even with a solidly negative differential (if penalty percentage was a thing, which it should be, theirs was 47.1%), that would be an expected 37 power-play goals-for and 35 against at last year's special teams rates. In order to stay in the black here, they probably will need to improve their penalty plus-minus in 2013-14 (which would presumably come with better puck possession) and get better at killing penalties in order to cushion the power play's inevitable regression. But you knew that.

Anyway, penalty plus-minus is yet another thing to keep an eye on going forward, as "how often" tends to get pushed aside in favor of "how good" when folks are discussing special teams. It shouldn't. After all, it's like Benjamin Franklin famously said - "A penalty drawn is a quarter of a power-play goal earned." (That is the quote, right?)