Sunday, November 29, 2009

Authority Always Wins

When I watched Travis Moen get called for a non-existent headshot on Rick Nash last week, just seconds after failing to draw a penalty when Nash slammed him face-first into the boards right in front of a ref, I started to wonder if there's possibly any truth to the Habs-fan paranoia that officials treat the Canadiens unfairly. Then I dismissed the idea, because there's nothing more whiny or unsportsmanlike than blaming a team's losses on bad officiating. It's the easiest thing to say and the hardest thing to prove, and every team's fans think their favourites get the worst of the ref's mistakes.

The impression stayed with me though, as I watched the Penguins game on Wenesday, and as I thought back on some of the other incidents of missed calls that would have favoured the Habs, and phantom calls that went against them. To put the matter to rest I decided to look at the numbers, and there it was, in black and white.

The Canadiens get an average of 3.04 PP opportunities each game, for a total of 76 man advantages in twenty-five games this season. That's the fewest power plays in the league. Ottawa also has had 76 PP chances, but in two fewer games, for a total of 3.30 power plays per game. After those two teams, it's not even close. Dallas has had 118 power plays this year, Carolina 112 and Pittsburgh 109.

While the Canadiens don't seem to draw many penalties, on the other side of the sheet...taking penalties...they're close to the top of the league. In terms of total penalty minutes per game, the Habs don't fare too badly. They're fifteenth overall, with a total of 13.6 minutes in the box each night. But a closer look at the penalty breakdown tells a different story. The Habs have been handed 126 minors, fourth-most in the league. Their thirteen major penalties are very modest compared to Calgary's league-high 27, so most of the Canadiens penalties come in the form of discretionary minors.

In looking back over the Habs' first twenty-five games, the team has taken 64 more penalties than it's drawn. That's the biggest differential in the league. Only Ottawa and Philadelphia (the league's most penalized team) are close, with differentials of -61 each. Three teams, Detroit, New Jersey and Nashville have more PPs than PKs. Most other teams range anywhere from a -1 to a -40 differential.

There's no question the Habs get a lot more penalties called against them than they get power plays. So, I started to wonder why that's happening. I looked at the referee pairings for each Habs game, and there's no outstanding pattern. No ref has worked more than three Habs games all season, but the penalty result is the same. Only three times in twenty-five games have the Canadiens had more PPs than their opponent. All three were home games, but there were six different refs involved. I see no connection with particular officials who might have it in for the Habs.

So, having eliminated the possibility of a referee bias as a cause, I looked at the typical reasons why teams draw penalties and, conversely, take them. Usually teams will draw penalties if they're skating hard, forcing the other team into hooks and holds, trips and crosschecks. With the exception of a couple of notable games, the Habs have been hustling. They've been going to the net and they've been using their speed in the offensive zone. I see no reason why the Canadiens should fail to draw more penalties than they do.

In terms of the penalties they take, however, it's possible the lack of mobility and strength on the back end with the extended absences of Markov and O'Byrne has played a role. If a D is caught up ice, or is overmatched, he'll end up taking a penalty to illegally accomplish what he can't within the rules. The fact that the two most penalized Habs, by a fair margin, are Hal Gill and Paul Mara would seem to back that up.

But taking penalties because the D is overmatched doesn't explain why the forwards aren't drawing more when they're pressuring the other team's defence, unless they're not really pressuring the other team much at all. The Canadiens scored first in ten of their twenty-five games, winning nine of them, which would indicate at least a strong start on many nights. The goals are few and far between most of the time though. The Habs are 27th in the league in goals scored per game. That's either an indication there's not enough talent in the lineup to score more, or a reflection of all the injuries the team has sustained, either of which could mean there's not much Canadiens pressure on the opposing net that would force the opposition into penalties. But that guess can be debunked as well, when you consider that the three teams that have scored less goals than the Canadiens per game have smaller penalty/power play differentials. Nashville is actually one of the three teams that get more powerplays than penalties, yet they score less often than the Habs.

Whatever the reason for the Canadiens' failure to draw penalties, it's a big problem. With games so often decided by special teams, taking nearly twice as many penalties as power plays it gets puts a team at a decided disadvantage. It makes the penalty killers work harder and keeps the scorers on the bench for longer. I'm sure there's a deeper analysis of the problem going on in the Canadiens' coach's room. If there's not, there should be, and the sooner the better. This is costing the Canadiens games, and with the parity in the standings, losing games now could very well mean losing a playoff spot later.


Coach K said...

Hi J.T. This is my first post but definitely not my first read of your work. I really enjoy your analysis and humour.

Nonetheless, as compelling as your observations are, the same thing applies to the pros as does the peewee team I coach. I've told them that regardless what the officials do to us, at the end of the day, the refs can't keep the puck out of your net nor do they score goals for your team.

As for our Habs, I'd like to see the data that shows where on the ice the majority of their penalties occur (O-zone or D-zone) and who (defence or forwards) is getting them. I suspect that information would go a long way toward fixing what is wrong.

As for not drawing them...I think that controlling the puck in the o-zone is the key. Chip and chase hockey won't get it done if you're always last to the puck. Maybe the forwards don't have sufficient puck-possesion time perhaps, due to a lack of skill, size or determination. As such, they really aren't considered enough of a threat to warrant taking a penalty. Could the explanation be that simple?


Number31 said...

If you watch when Nash slammed Moen from behind, you can see the ref raise his whistle and hesitate. It almost looks like he realized the name and number said "Nash 61" and decided against the penalty. Then Moen finally gets up and misses Nash and gets called. That's what I call crap. Stuff like trips, hooks, and even high sticks I understand get missed or miscalled with the speed of the game (and the quality of the dive), but when it happens right in front of their eyes, especially with hits from behind... Yea, that's garbage. And when it happens to be the most consistent thing about the inconsistent officiating, it gets the conspiracies rolling. The Superstar Rule vs the Regular Joes Rule.

DB said...

Why the difference in penalties? I think there are two reasons:

1) This team has a lot of trouble clearing its own zone. As a result, the D gets tired and takes penalties.

2) The Habs rarely have substained pressure in the offensive zone. Whether this is related to the size of the forwards, the system or something else I don't know. What matters is that the opposition doesn't seem to have much trouble clearing its own zone so they rarely are forced into taking penalties.

J.T. said...

@Coach K and DB:
I think you both are probably barking up the right tree with the puck control theory. The Habs very often can't complete a pass to save their lives, and as a result, they have trouble breaking into the opposing zone and maintaining presence there. They also have problems effectively moving the puck out of their own end because of their poor puck control. As a result, our guys take desperation penalties while the other team isn't forced to do that.

I don't think it's a matter of size, skill or the system, however. I think it's partly the injuries that mean lines and D-pairings are mixed fairly often. And it's partly the fact that these guys just met each other three months ago. I think it would help if they spent a lot of time in practice focussing on short, crisp passing under pressure. Just passing. So much of the game depends on it, and the Habs generally don't do it well.

That's just a theory though. I have no empirical proof of it. Maybe some brilliant soul with a lot of time on his/her hands can go through the game summaries and determine how often a Habs penalty comes immediately after a D-zone giveaway. Maybe I'll do it myself, in the interest of science, if I ever get a spare hour!