Today I’d like to discuss two very different hockey teams.
The first team is consistently one of the least penalized teams in the NHL, drawing very few penalties per game. Let’s call this team “Team Passive“. The other team, by comparison, is one of the most heavily penalized teams in the league, averaging significantly more penalty minutes than most — “Team Aggressive“.
Let’s compare each team’s penalties in minutes (PIMs) per game over the span of a season:
The differences are pretty clear. Team Passive rarely exceeds the league average of about 9.7 PIMs per game while Team Aggressive does in more than half of their games. But I’d like to dig deeper than simply penalty minutes. As you can see, even Team Passive has the occasional 40 PIM tilt where all hell breaks loose. Let’s look at each team’s minor penalties per game. I want to remove the statistical noise of fighting infractions and coincidental minors, since these are always 2-sided penalties. Let’s focus on those tripping, hooking, boarding calls that might give us a better idea of each team’s play style. Here is how each team compares to the league average of 3.4 minor penalties per game:
These charts look fairly similar to the PIMs charts above, but they start to tell more of a story about individual games. Note that Team Passive has not exceeded 6 minor penalties once in the season while Team Aggressive has done so 11 times! Conversely, Team Passive played 6 games without drawing a single minor penalty; a feat that Team Aggressive could not accomplish a single time. Note that, as predicted, removing fighting majors and coincidental minors has pushed each team’s above/below league average frequency further to its respective extreme.
So what’s the real story here? Perhaps one team plays a more physical style and the other relies on speed and skill? Is it possible that these teams’ different styles of play simply lead to more/fewer penalties called in the games in which they participate? Let’s compare their minor penalties per game to their opponent for that game, rather than the rest of the league.
This view adds an interesting perspective. Specifically, games in which both teams and their opponents had the same number of minor penalties; a stat which, perhaps surprisingly, is almost equal between both. It’s worth noting that the discrepancy between teams is much smaller here than in the previous charts. The difference between teams in the “fewer minors than opponent” category is only 16% whereas in the comparison to league average it was 40%. This is due to the fact that to a small extent, there actually is a difference in how many penalties each team’s opponent draws on average.
Team Passive‘s opponents drew an average of 3.2 minor penalties per game, while Team Aggressive‘s drew an average of 3.8. Considering an overall league average of 3.4 minors, these are fairly significant variances, particularly in Team Aggressive‘s case.
Where are you going with this?
By now I’m sure some of you are saying “So what? Different teams play differently”. You’re right, but that’s just it; teams Passive and Aggressive are the same team.
Let me present to you, Team Passive–Aggressive:
If you haven’t figured it out yet, Team Passive–Aggressive is the Calgary Flames. As of January 19th game against the Nashville Predators, they have now played 82 games since the now-infamous “Wideman Incident” (which, ironically, happened in a game against the Predators). So yes, I played around with the facts a little bit when calling each team’s “season” a season. They are in fact two 82-game segments which have straddled the last 3 seasons, going back to the halfway point of the 2014/15 season. Now, I know that the point has been raised many times already, more recently even by team management. But I wanted to take a more critical look at the “Wideman Effect” as fans have coined it. How real is it, how drastic was it, and also, how can it still be a factor almost a calendar year later?
First, let’s try to understand where the Calgary Flames were before the incident. Here is a historical look at the Flames’ discipline compared to league averages over the past few years:
So many things jump out of this chart. You can see the steadily declining league average, indicating the less physical nature of the game, even over a 10-year span. You can see how much impact a coach and his system have on a team’s discipline (or at least, it’s propensity for taking penalties). Keenan’s Flames played a tough, physical game; Hartley’s Flames were a quick skating dump-and-chase team, and Sutter’s Flames were very… average.
There is no doubt that the Wideman incident led to backlash and more stringent penalties called against the Flames in the second half of the 2015/16 season. There is no other way to explain such a dramatic change in a team’s identity halfway through a season, in particular as the Flames were all but out of the playoff race by this time and the intensity of their games would have likely waned, not increased. Look at each coach’s “identity”, Hartley’s system did not change mid season, his approach did not all of a sudden cause in influx of penalties against.
This does lead to an interesting question however: what is Gulutzan’s identity? The Flames’ penalties per game have actually increased in the first half of 2016/17, under Gulutzan’s watch. Has officiating bias really followed the Flames through the off-season? Or perhaps Gulutzan’s system simply has the Flames playing a game more similar to Keenan’s, with the added calls being a byproduct of a hard-nosed system? To answer these questions, we’ll need to look at penalty calls against individual players, and hopefully find more insight.
Penalties by Player
Let’s first jump back to the immediate post-incident impact. Here is the player-by-player breakdown of penalty calls before and after the Wideman hit. We are looking specifically at the 2015/16 season, and only players that played at least 20 games before and after the incident.
It is pretty clear. 11 of the 15 players saw an increase in their minor penalties per 60 minutes (used in order to compare all players regardless of average ice time). Interestingly though, the average of all players went from significantly below career levels to just slightly above. This could indicate more of a “return to norm” rather than blind vengeance by the officials (more on this later).
Let’s see what’s happened to these players’ penalties per 60 minutes under Gulutzan (excluding players no longer with the team):
This chart paints a less clear picture. Some players have reverted back to their career average (both upwards and downwards), other players remain above or below theirs. The team average seems to have remained slightly above average, but I believe it is being buoyed by a small number of players. If we exclude Frolik, Hamilton, and Bennet from the average, we see an almost perfect return to the pre-incident average among the other 10 players. Is this a bit of a stretch? Possibly. But let me present one more item before drawing conclusions.
“Wideman Effect” or New Identity?
Let me clarify: I have no doubt that the final 34 games under Bob Hartley were officiated under a very different standard than the previous 48, or the final 34 games of any other NHL team for that matter. I am more interested in what is happening today, and whether the Flames have simply become “that kind of team” now, while the doubt cast by last season’s events has obscured that fact from most.
First, let’s establish something pretty critical: Hartley’s “Passive” Flames were much more statistically unusual than the current “Aggressive” iteration. If we take the same 164 game time frame and break it down to two 82 game segments for every team, the resulting 60 “Teams” have had a minor penalties per game distribution that looks something like this:
Note that the Flames on the low end were significantly further from the average than the Flames on the high end. In fact, only the Carolina Hurricanes even come close to Calgary’s level of discipline. By comparison, the Aggressive Flames are outdone by Winnipeg and Columbus, both of whom took more penalties per game (both during the Passive Flames period). My point here is not to diminish the reality of the Wideman Effect, but to set some parameters around it. Statistically speaking, the Aggressive Flames are much more likely than the Passive Flames, all other things being equal.
But enough about probabilities, what is this “New Identity”? We’ve established what happened to the individual players’ penalty frequency during the period after the Wideman incident and in the first half of 2016/17, but what about the players that have come and gone? Much of the team’s identity lies with it’s core players, true, but there have been many significant moving pieces around them. In order to isolate player movement and to compare this season to the last season more specifically, here is a comparison of the first 48 games of 15/16 (the end of the Passive period) and the first 48 games of 16/17:
And there it is. While the core group of players has certainly gained some penalties per game, the net effect of players in and out of the lineup is just as drastic. If we look at players with values greater than 0.1 (equivalent to 5 minors per 48 games), the Flames replaced 2 such players with 5. Tkachuk alone replaces the minor penalties of the 7 lesser penalized players to leave the team (Smid to Colborne). Furthermore, and to pick up on the “Average excluding some players” from before:
Excluding Frolik, Hamilton, Bennet, and the addition of Brouwer, Chiasson, and Tkachuk, the Calgary Flames are no more or less penalized today than they were before the Wideman Incident.
There are obviously many different ways of looking at this. You can present data in various ways to prove your point. It is probably worth noting that I am indeed a Calgary Flames fan, and have tried (to the best of my ability) to take an objective view on this whole issue. After looking at the facts and figures presented above, I believe that there was absolutely an immediate impact after the Wideman hit last season. In all honestly, it would be kind of ridiculous to expect some backlash. The incident itself was unfortunate, and the NHL’s handling of the investigation, Wideman’s own behavior and attitude afterwards, and the team’s philosophy of protecting their own all led to a very tense period. Referees are human after all, and they have biases too.
Looking closer at the individual players’ numbers however, I am more skeptical of any real “Wideman Effect” in the 2016/17 season. I think that Calgary is simply a much more physical team under Glen Gulutzan. They have drafted, traded, and promoted tougher players than those they let go (with Tkachuk in particular becoming a league-wide pest almost instantly). As long as Gulutzan remains behind the bench – and Burke as president of operations for that matter – I believe that this is the new reality for Calgary.