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At Long Last, the Caps are on the Right Side of Penalty Differential

The Caps have shown a great deal of discipline to start the season

Washington Capitals v Columbus Blue Jackets Photo by Ben Jackson/NHLI via Getty Images

As the season was getting ready to launch last year, we hypothesized that the arrival of Peter Laviolette, and his reputation for hyper-discipline and structure, would reverse a trend a decade-and-a-half in the making. We thought that finally, maybe, the Capitals would take fewer penalties than they drew by a meaningful margin.

We were sadly mistaken, and for the fifth consecutive season, as well as for the 11th time in 14 seasons, the Caps were presented with the task to kill penalties more frequently than given the opportunity to take advantage of a powerplay.

But maybe discipline takes time. About a quarter of the way through Laviolette’s second season in the Nation’s Capital, it looks like the penalty-ship has been course corrected. With a net penalty differential of +11 through 15 games player, the Capitals are good enough to be tied for third-highest in the League. And while positioning against the League matters, perhaps breaking the organization’s own trend in this regard is even more important. Take a look at this plot of penalty differential rate by season.

Now that’s more like it. So what’s driving the difference? Or rather, are there any players in particular who have seen the errors of their criminal tendencies and now walk towards the light? Here’s a look at the Capitals roster and their relationship with the sinbin one way or the other, this year and last.

First things first, let’s address that huge negative bar attributed to Connor McMichael last year. McMike only played in one NHL game last season, but did manage to take a penalty therein, and so his data is skewed. What’s really worth noticing are there are relatively few blue bars (representing 2020) with a positive value. Alex Ovechkin, Conor Sheary, Lars Eller, and Tom Wilson were really the only guys who had the referees pointing their arms in the right direction. But this year, we see all those guys doing it again, with Sheary doing so to even greater effect, with negative-to-positive changes from Daniel Sprong, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Garnet Hathaway, John Carlson, and Justin Schultz.

Here’s a look at the year-over-year delta value for each player.

Only Anthony Mantha, Carl Hagelin, Dmitry Orlov, and Lars Eller have seen their penalty differential rates decrease.

Of course, all this would matter significantly more if Blaine Forsythe could get his power play back on the rails... but if Laviolette can sustain this trend reversal for the boys in red, it’s only going to mean good things on the scoresheet and in the standings.