Friday, December 30, 2016

From First to One of the Worst: Theories Behind the Flames Extreme Increase in Penalties

Going from first to one of the worst in anything can be a curious, head-scratching, aggravating and frustrating journey.

It's no different for the Calgary Flames, who have gone from being the most disciplined team in the NHL for a over a season-and-a-half to being one of the two least-disciplined teams over the past 11 months.

Why the sudden and extreme change?

It's a great question and is a topic of conversation that has been heating up in the halls of the Saddledome the last few days.

Now there a couple logical theories behind the spike in how frequently the Flames have been shorthanded. Both have credence.

1. New Coach - For 38 games this season, they've played under Glen Gulutzan, who has implemented a new style of play in which he expects his players to be more aggressive all over the ice. Reflected in the team's win-loss record over the first five weeks of the season in which they started off a league-worst 5-10-1, there's been a steep learning curve. It has taken the players time to get comfortable with the new system and the coach's expectations.

2. New Personnel - When you bring in aggressive, physical players the likes of Matthew Tkachuk, Garnet Hathaway and Troy Brouwer, you're naturally going to be a more penalized team than you were when the line-up featured the Lady Byng-likes of Jiri Hudler, David Jones and Mason Raymond.

But are those two reasons alone enough to explain the vast change that has seen Calgary -- almost over night -- go from being shorthanded an average of 0.75 fewer times per game compared to the league average (3.07) to being on the penalty kill an average of 0.48 more times per game than the league average (3.17) over this recent period.

While sure, some of the roster has changed, two-thirds of the team remains the same.

More To It?

Asked on Wednesday if his team's new style of play is a reason behind why Calgary is the league's most penalized team in 2016-17 -- 145 times shorthanded, compared to 136 for Winnipeg, who ranks second -- Gulutzan had an interesting response.

"I think that plays into it," he acknowledged, but he did not stop there. "I would say there's a bigger dividing point to when all the penalties started and it was probably before me."


Despite the cautious choice of words, it seems hard to believe that this was just blind speculation. It's as if the team has already circled a date on the calendar last year when the quantity of penalty calls against them started to rise.

What shook down at the Saddledome when the Nashville Predators were the visiting team on January 27, 2016, is history Gulutzan will be very familiar with, despite being a Vancouver Canucks assistant coach at the time.

Of course, that was the night of the infamous Dennis Wideman incident with linesman Don Henderson. The Flame defenceman was originally suspended by the league for 20 games for contacting an official. On March 11 after the suspension was appealed, independent arbitrator James Oldham reduced the suspension to 10 games, although by then, he had already sat out 19 games.

While the Wideman suspension may be over, are the Flames still paying the price as a team for the actions of their player?

It's an extremely far-fetched theory to me and to be clear, no one within the organization is saying Calgary has been targeted by officials. In fact, they've denied it whenever the question has been posed. Nor has anyone come out and referenced the Dennis Wideman incident in particular.

But there is certainly a faction of fans that aren't nearly as skeptical.

Conspiracy Theory

In the world of sports, fan sites and social media are what they are. They're locations and outlets for fans to vent to an audience of sympathetic listeners.

It's where back in that tumultuous start to the season, Gulutzan was fired multiple times. It's where assistant coach Dave Cameron (in charge of the power play) was fired even more often than that. It's where Dougie Hamilton was traded and it's where Chad Johnson has already been given an extension. That's just what goes on in these places.

One other topic that has been a constant in those same circles going back to last season has been what fans have dubbed the 'Wideman Effect'. Pleas from the Flames passionate fan base since that January 27 incident is that Calgary is essentially being targeted by referees as payback for the incident with Henderson, in which he reportedly had to undergo neck surgery in the summer and has not worked an NHL game since.

While it's never been spoken of beyond those fan circles, Brad Treliving did broach the topic of penalties and team discipline on Wednesday and he sent some eyebrows raising with one of his comments.

While an injury update on Troy Brouwer was the main reason for him speaking, when the topic changed to the team's penalty issues, Treliving offered up this.

"I’m kind of in the middle of a little study on that," mused the Flames general manager. "No. 1, we’ve got to hold our players accountable. You’re not going to have success in this league if you’re taking five or six minor penalties. You can dodge it, but it’ll bite you. We’ve got to be a more disciplined team."

But then much like the coach, he did not stop there.

"But it’s a little odd. For a year and a half, we were the least penalized team. We went a 130-game block of games where we had the least amount of penalties. There’s been 72 games where we’ve been the highest penalized team. That’s a little interesting," said Treliving.

"I don’t know what’s gone on. Before we start looking at the sniper in the bush, we want to make sure we’re looking at ourselves first to see if there’s things we can manage."

The Math Checks Out

Do the math and sure enough, that pivot point -- that 130 game mark he's referring to -- coincidentally (or not) takes you back to that Jan. 27 evening at the Saddledome. Might the "sniper in the bush" wear a No. 6 on the back of his camouflage jacket? Read into it what you want.

The topic of team discipline came up again last night at Gulutzan's post-game press conference.

Throwing more fuel on the fire, while also throwing water on the fire at the same time, Gulutzan was asked after Calgary's 3-1 loss to Anaheim if his team appropriately handled the agitating ways of the Ducks and in particular, Ryan Kesler.

"I thought we did for the most part. I’d like to rewind a couple of those penalties we took, I certainly didn’t see them the same way (the referees) did. I hope everybody is watching video after games, not just coaches.”

Although asked immediately after if he feels the Flames are being unfairly targeted, Gulutzan responded with a very deliberate, "No."

Special teams were prominent in the setback. Calgary gave up two power play goals on six tries while being blanked all four times they had the man advantage.

The Before and After

So left only to do some speculating ourselves, what might Treliving's "study" have revealed? I'm not privy to his findings but here's the before and after statistically, as extracted from the NHL's website.

Flames Penalty Breakdown From Start of 2014-15 through Jan. 27, 2016 (130 games)
  • Minor penalties - 301, fewest
  • Times shorthanded - 342, fewest
  • Average Times Shorthanded Per Game - 2.32, lowest

Flames Penalty Breakdown Since Jan. 28, 2016 (72 games)
  • Minor Penalties - 302, second-most behind Arizona (304)
  • Times Shorthanded - 263, tied for the most with Arizona
  • Average Times Shorthanded Per Game - 3.65, second-highest behind Arizona (3.81)

Pump those figures into a calculator and the Flames are on the penalty kill an average of 1.33 more times per game now than previously. Over the course of an average week if Calgary plays three times, that equates to four extra opposition power plays.

Based on the Flames current 80.7 percent penalty kill, more often than not that's going to lead to one additional opposition power play goal per week and depending on when it occurs, that could cost the team a victory. Last night, for example, Calgary led until the Ducks tied it 1-1 and took over the game's momentum with a power play goal 6:16 into the second period.

Individual Numbers

Going back to that same Jan. 27 date, here is a breakdown of how the average minor penalties per game has changed for individual Flames that have had large enough sample sizes (approximately 30 games minimum) both before and after.

As you can see, Sam Bennett is being penalized far more, as are most Flames.

Penalties Taken, Before-After Comparison (average minors per game)

1. Sam Bennett, +0.31
2. Mark Giordano, +0.16
3. Dougie Hamilton, +0.16
4. Michael Frolik, +0.15
5. Mikael Backlund, +0.08
6. Deryk Engelland, +0.06
7. Sean Monahan, +0.06
8. Matt Stajan, +0.03
9. Lance Bouma, +0.01
10. Johnny Gaudreau, 0.00
11. Michael Ferland, (-0.02)
12. Dennis Wideman, (-0.03)
13. TJ Brodie, (-0.04)

What about non-calls? In response to the pleas from some that the number of infractions on Flames players being missed or not called is also up since Jan. 27, here's a before-after breakdown of the statistic called 'Penalties Drawn per 60" which looks at minors drawn by players based on playing 60 minutes.

What it indicates is Johnny Gaudreau is drawing more penalties that he has in the past, but overall, most Flames are drawing less -- and in the case of Bennett, considerably less.

Penalties Drawn per 60, Before-After Comparison (average minors drawn per 60 mins)

1. Johnny Gaudreau, +0.66
2. Deryk Engelland, +0.25
3. Mikael Backlund, +0.16
4. Dougie Hamilton, +0.09
5. Sean Monahan, (-0.03)
6. Dennis Wideman (-0.06)
7. Matt Stajan (-0.10)
8. Micheal Ferland (-0.10)
9. Michael Frolik (-0.12)
10. Lance Bouma (-0.13)
11. TJ Brodie (-0.14)
12. Mark Giordano (-0.21)
13. Sam Bennett (-0.67)

Next is a breakdown of the new players and their penalty taken rate along with the same for notable players that are no longer with Calgary (or in the NHL).

New Additions (average minors per game)

1. Matthew Tkachuk, 34 gm, 21 min, 0.62
2. Garnet Hathaway, 32 gm, 14 min, 0.44
3. Troy Brouwer, 36 gm, 9 min, 0.25
4. Alex Chiasson, 38 gm, 9 min, 0.24
5. Jyrki Jokipakka, 44 gm, 8 min, 0.18
6. Kris Versteeg, 26 gm, 4 min, 0.15

Departed (average minors per game)

1. Brandon Bollig, 87 gm, 22 min, 0.25
2. Curtis Glencross, 53 gm, 12 min, 0.23
3. Josh Jooris, 91 gm, 17 min, 0.19
4. Markus Granlund, 75 gm, 10 min, 0.13
5. Ladislav Smid, 45 gm, 6 min, 0.13
6. David Jones, 115 gm, 12 gm, 0.10
7. Mason Raymond, 86 gm, 8 min, 0.09
8. Jiri Hudler, 119 gm, 11 min, 0.09
9. Raphael Diaz, 56 gm, 5 min, 0.08
10. Kris Russell, 124 gm, 9 min, 0.07
11. Paul Byron, 57 gm, 4 min, 0.07

Final Word

For all we know, the date insinuated by Treliving of January 27 for when the frequency of penalty calls seemed to change is merely a coincidence and has nothing to do with the incident in the second period that night involving Wideman. Much like November 15 is a date I use for a before/after of when the Flames turned their current season around -- despite losing Johnny Gaudreau to injury that night.

If you're watching the games impartially, you have to admit Calgary is taking far more undisciplined penalties than they have in the past, especially in the offensive zone.

The real question is how many more.

While Calgary's penalty total with the addition of scrappy guys like Tkachuk and Hathaway is obviously going to increase, should the difference be so extreme that Calgary goes from being the least penalized team to the second-most? That is the question that doesn't have an answer.

For now, the only remedy for the team is to perhaps play a little safer and also, cut down on retaliation penalties. Thursday night, they let the Ducks frustrate them. They have to rise above that or it's going to cost them.

Calgary has a much-improved penalty kill, but it's not perfect and they're going to give up a goal most nights when they are forced to kill five or six penalties.

Exercising more discipline and restraint in not putting themselves in a bad situation where the referees can make an easy call, will go a long way in determining if come April 9, the Flames are preparing for the playoffs, or cleaning out their lockers.

If it's the latter, rest assured that it will be more than a conspiracy theory that keeps them out.

By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Go there and do so now. It's just another way to be alerted to new Calgary Flames articles that I've written.


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  1. It's a lot of leg work, but I'd love to see a line graph of each game, or each week, or maybe each month, for the entire timeframe referenced in the article that shows penalties. It's fine and well to say we're taking more penalties now, but if we break it down game by game were we already trending in that direction prior to Jan 27?

    1. This is not as comprehensive as you're looking for but let me provide you with this sampling as it's all I have time to do. As the game in question was game 48, here is the number of opponent power plays in the 2015-16 season leading up to (and including) that night broken into four-game chunks. So it's the total number of opposing power plays combined over those 12 four-game blocks.

      I defer to you and what you may see in there for trending but I don't see any gradual build-up whatsoever. It seems rather sudden.

      Games 1-4, 4
      Games 5-8, 6
      Games 9-12, 10
      Games 13-16, 12
      Games 17-20, 11
      Games 21-24, 11
      Games 25-28, 10
      Games 29-32, 8
      Games 33-36, 7
      Games 37-40, 8
      Games 41-44, 7
      Games 45-48, 11

      Hope this information is useful. Cheers.

  2. There may be something to the "Wideman Effect," especially when the officials handed a penalty shot to Connor McDavid earlier in the season when Wideman was back-checking. Far worse infractions have taken place this season where nothing was called.

    Still, the Flames have received the 8th-most power play opportunities this season (tied with the Oilers) with 128 opportunities on the man advantage. According to Sporting Charts, the Flames are 128 on PP and 149 on PK, so while there is a discrepancy, I'm not sure how much of it should be on the officials.

  3. Look at the last game against the Sharks, off the top of my head is 2 uncalled broken sticks, an empty netter that wasn't called either. I get that most hockey writers and commentators are hesitant to criticize the referees. But surely there are some correlation between that Wideman incident and the way the Flames games are called.

    1. Your voice is certainly part of a choir that is thinking along the same lines. For me, two things. 1. I refereed minor hockey for many years. Call me naive and I know it's a far different level, but I'd like to think reaching the NHL and being the very best at doing that job would mean you are not prone to a lack of integrity that is being suggested by the theory. 2. If it was true, this type of league-wide favouritism by officials would be a major, MAJOR sports scandal. I'm just not buying it. I appreciate what the stats and optics suggest, but I'm just not prepared to go there. Are there some select officials that historically have not been good ones for the Flames, probably, but perhaps like umpires in baseball, they haven't been very good, missing calls, etc. for many NHL teams.

      So I understand your frustration, but that's a little background on my thinking. But you have the right to think what you want so carry on. Cheers.

  4. It's always hard when your favorite team meats such a difficulties( My favorite team was crushing in the 2013, but then they change roster, troubles started. And only after this summer they start to win again. I used all my discounts by to write the positive letters to them. And now at least they are again cool