Thursday, May 08, 2014

Drawing Penalties: The Illegitimate Child of Offensive Play

When you live  Boston series for a few days in a row, you really get the sense of living in a completely different world from the opposing fanbase. Besides the difference in player drafting and development philosophies, it's the complete divergence on what is hockey and what is not.

To the Bruins, there should be no penalties. Their players know the rules and that should be enough. Let them be the ones to interpret how things can be taken -- given the game situation. The Canadiens believe quite firmly in penalties and are happy to derive strategies with the fact-of-NHL-life at the centre.

Among all this is the art of drawing a penalty. To Boston this is no art, but a black mark on the integrity of the sport. To Montreal, well I've given it away: it's an art form. Coming from where I am these days, my antenna-only, CBC coverage of the series, I get the distinct feeling that more people fall close to the Boston camp on this than to ours. I must ask why.

To me, a player in the offensive zone has a few choices with the puck on his stick, among them:

1) Shoot (regardless of coverage and position)
2) Throw puck to net 
3) Clean pass
4) Dump into an area for a teammate to retrieve
5) Take on defender individually

Similarly, there are choices for players without the puck, among which are:

1) Fight for space in front of net
2) Float into areas of no coverage
3) Fight for space in other key areas

In tight games most of these activities are contested. And it goes without saying that in contests, there is often a winner and a loser. It's sometimes what happens after the battle within the rules as they have been written that ends up defining the play.

When a player does lose the battle, the loser goes beyond the scope of the rules to "win" the battle back.

For illustration, I can note a couple of plays in this series that Boston holds up for dispute, but which Montreal will say is part of their game play.

First, the very rare overtime penalty taken by Matt Bartkowski on Dale Weise. What happened on this play was very interesting, and it's easy to see why a Boston defender in particular would be caught out. Montreal was establishing the zone with the line that was on and were now in possession behind the net. The play that Boston would have made would be a safe pass that eventually finds the point. In its stead, Dale Weise decides to make a personal drive into the crowd ahead of Rask (presumably he sniffed a wrap-around goal). Having beaten Bartkowski cleanly for position, he already has an edge. In a split second reaction, Bartkowski reacts by slowing Weise's legitimately won path and ends up holding on so long to haul him down and prevent a shot. Penalty.

What was going through Dale Weise's mind? Well we'd have to ask him to know for sure, but I expect he was thinking goal. But years of hockey will have also taught him that making a flash dash into a danger area brings other good things besides just goals. One of those things is a powerplay for your team if a defender is caught doing exactly as Bartkowki did.

It was a valid call and a completely legitimate offensive tactic in my eyes, though I know Boston fans still just label the call offensive.

The second instance also resulted in a Canadiens powerplay goal. It was a four-on-four after a pointless scrum behind the Bruins net. The Bruins starting to assert their offensive chances, no doubt thought they'd add the garnish of physical assertion. Whatever. 14 seconds after the resumption of play, Montreal was claiming zone superiority briefly. Battles along the boards were won by Plekanec and his linemates and the puck was running back and forth. In the last battle, Plekanec squeaked in and won the puck off Andrej Meszaros. The puck was loose, but Plekanec was taken prisoner, first with a stick to the face, then a hold then a throw to the ground.

Though I think it would be silly for anyone to suggest that Plekanec dove, it would be fair to suggest that these types of plays had been left unpunished before. But that's rather the thing here: being unpunished before does not make a play unpunishable in the future. The fact remains, Plekanec won the battle and was accosted when he tried to win the fruit of it. He probably never expected a penalty call himself, but he nonetheless put a bid in by making the key puck winning play and forcing the over-the-line response.

What I mean to illustrate here is that drawing penalties is a legitimate approach to gaining advantage in terms of goals and wins. It is as legitimate as any weak shot or blocked shot into known traffic. In terms of possession, it is underrepresented. Maybe it's time this illegitimate child is somehow brought back into the fold. There must be an equation by which we can derive the importance of a penalty drawn. It would paint a fuller picture of offensive zone possession, anyway. After all, a penalty drawn has a 20% chance of becoming a goal in the next two minutes. How many blocked shots from the point does it take to equal that?

It might also help many to grasp how a team that has been dominated in the stats they choose to add together can be conducting a series on equal footing.


  1. Talk about missing the point...

    The double OT was a penalty to those in Boston too... sometimes that stuff goes uncalled in OT, but taking a scoring chance away because a defender is out of position and resorting to holding should be penalized.

    The point is Montreal dives more than any team in the league. See the PK Subban trust fall for example, or when Emelin got "hooked" down this year, otherwise known as seeing a parallel stick near your body and having your legs mysteriously fall from under you.

    The Bruins win just as many battles, if not more if you look at possession numbers, and while they do embellish occasionally just as any team/player does, they opt more frequently to take their chances and stay on their feet to make a play rather than resorting to cheap tactics.

    That's what annoys people. Montreal is simply cheaper than most.

    1. "The point is Montreal dives more than any team in the league."

      (Borrowed from a comment I liked much): You need to show your work...

      Yours are repeated claims with little if any basis in proof. If I started saying Boston dives on national TV after every game, I'm sure a few undiscerning fans around the league who don't watch would simply come to accept it as fact too. This is how marketing/propaganda works. Repetition is often enough.

      What's more, it is not enough to show several examples. If you want to say "most" in the claim, you must quantify.

      As for possession, we are unfortunately at a bit of a loss. What we know is that shots and missed shots are correlated to possession. Some teams do throw low percentage shots at the net as a strategy. Throw enough and the low percentage is surmountable. It's legitimate. But "double-counted" for possession. The bad shot the paradox -- groan inducing at the time, counted positively later. We don't count PP shots either, so a penalty drawn has no effect at all on possession, as it were, because it never happened in the 5-on-5 scheme of things. Yet, a drawn penalty changes games more than "99%" of bad shots.

      If we could really quantify possession, perhaps all this would be moot. But until we do just ditch the proxy, I still suggest improving it.

      For me drawing penalties counts. I don't think that should be sold short because a PR campaign started by a desperate playoff rival years ago runs counter to it. What's more Montreal should not be shamed for using the natural product of one of their few advantages in the offensive zone.

      I don't ask for diving. I ask for drives that cause tripping, holding, hooking.