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Drawn and Quartered: How the Capitals Go on Special Teams

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A breakdown of penalties Washington draws and takes, by player and penalty type.

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

For teams at the extremes of special teams efficiency, getting on (or staying off) special teams is critical. With a top power play, Washington gets an extra goal for every 4-5 penalties it draws. With a bad penalty kill, Washington surrenders an extra goal every 4-5 penalties it draws.

So who has been helping the team get on the power play and stay off the penalty kill this season, and who has been hurting the team?

For ease of analysis, I broadly classified penalties into five categories:

  • Obstruction: hooking, holding, tripping, and interference
  • Discipline: high-sticking, too many men on the ice, and diving, to name a few
  • Aggression: roughing, elbowing, boarding, and charging, for example
  • Other: includes delay of game and fighting
  • Penalties that result in penalty shots

First, here's the five-category breakdown of penalties taken by Caps player.

Pens taken2

That's not a good reflection on Tom Wilson. Even after removing fights (the light blue), he still tops team forwards despite only ranking 12th among team forwards in ice time, thanks to 12 discipline-type penalties. His sitting in the box so much goes a long way toward neutralizing his greatest strength (see below).

Brooks Orpik also doesn't come out looking too good either. Defensemen take more penalties than forwards, and we'd expect shutdown defensemen to take more than blueliners playing easier minutes. But he's far and away the leader here at 22, despite having only taken 13 all of last season. Is it system related? Has he just lost a step? Something that bears watching moving forward.

Jason Chimera has also been sitting in the box more than he should be given his ice time (and it has cost him). Curiously, his personal retaliation penalties have usually still fallen under the "obstruction" category.

On the other end, half of Alex Ovechkin's penalties committed this season have been aggressive penalties — maybe another sign of Barry Trotz's emphasis on playing hard and Ovechkin's unique skillset.

On a positive note, John Carlson plays more than any other Capitals player but only ranks sixth in penalties taken, and given this breakdown, might be able to cut down on penalties even more.

Finally, it's probably a safe guess that the lack of discipline-type penalties is one reason why Trotz is comfortable giving important ice time to Joel Ward, Brooks Laich, Jay Beagle, and Karl Alzner.

Let's move on to penalties drawn:

Pens drawn2

The first thing to notice here is that Ovechkin and Wilson are lapping the field. Wilson, in fact, ranks first among forwards in penalties drawn and second overall (to Dion Phaneuf). As many penalties as Wilson takes, he draws enough to have added a net nine power plays in Washington's favor so far this season, apparently doing it the way one might expect — getting under the opponent's skin and irritating them into taking penalties of aggression.

At this rate, with a 25% power play, Wilson's penalty differential will be worth about a point in the standings over the rest of the season, which could certainly be helpful in what's shaping up to be a photo finish in the Metropolitan Division.

On the blueline, Orpik plays the Wilson role, drawing penalties of aggression. While he falls well short of breaking even in penalty differential, it does slightly mitigate the impact of the lack of overall penalty discipline he's shown this season.

There are some other ways we can break down penalty data. For example, you may have noticed that the Capitals have been taking more penalties recently than they were in the early going under Trotz. That's certainly easy to see here:

Taken roll2

(Note: The rolling line graphs do not include fighting.)

The biggest change appears to be that the team is taking more discipline-type penalties. If Washington is reverting to old habits, it's a big problem. But this could also be a reflection of score effects. Money quote:

As with outshooting, there is a positive relationship between even strength goal differential and penalty differential when the score is tied. Based on data from the three seasons in question, each net goal is worth 0.26 in net penalties drawn. We're able to use this figure to determine what kind of penalty advantage we'd expect the trailing team to have, based on its goal differential.

As the table indicates, we would expect the trailing team to do only slightly better than the leading team in terms of penalty differential on the basis of its advantage in even strength goal differential. Thus, however which way you approach it, referee bias must account for a substantial part - and probably almost all - of the penalty gap.

Without referee bias, in theory, the only big acceptable uptick in penalties taken would be in the "obstruction" category, thanks to possession-related score effects. But with referee bias, Washington could be getting whistled for borderline discipline infractions it ordinarily wouldn't, and while it would be nice to get the team to be more disciplined, that may detract from its overall play.

All said, the Caps are still roughly league average in times shorthanded, and with a half-decent penalty kill (still a work in progress), should be fine on the penalties-taken front.

Here's what the penalty-drawing picture looks like:

Drawn roll2

The Capitals have gone on the power play 60-70 times per 20 games, or 3-3.5 times per game, for most of the season. Over 82 games, with a 25% power play, that difference is worth 3-4 standings points. Their recent uptick, at least initially, was driven by aggressive penalties. Although that trend probably won't last much longer, it was sorely needed —t he Caps only rank 24th in penalties drawn this season, a year after ranking 2nd. (The primary culprits, this year compared to last, appear to be penalties of obstruction and aggression.) By year's end, that could be a difference of about 40 power plays, or 3-4 standings points for a team with an elite power play.

While there's nothing wrong with being a team that keeps play at five-on-five, Washington's greatest strength is on the power play, so it only makes sense that the team should consider making concessions in other parts of its game, if necessary, to go on the power play as frequently as possible. A better penalty differential would well equip the team to continue racing up the standings even as its PDO comes down.