Parade to the box: The Lightning have an early season penalty problem

Stay out of the box!!!

The Tampa Bay Lightning have developed a nasty habit of taking penalties and then allowing goals on the ensuing power play. This is what analysts like to call a “sub-optimal” approach.

The problem has been obvious to anyone watching the games and has become a talking point on Twitter and in the recaps here at Raw Charge. But the thing with this type of trend is that it can be deceiving. Penalties are the sorts of things that tend to stick in the mind. And if the puck ends up in the back of the net in the next two minutes, that only exacerbates the stickiness. So instead of just yelling about it, let’s see if we can get a handle on the extent to which it really is a problem, if at all.

This article requires a couple disclosures. First, I originally looked at these numbers before Wednesday’s game against the Devils and they weren’t as bad as I expected. Then the Lightning went out and took five more penalties while only drawing one. So I’ve possibly chosen a convenient time to write this article. We’re early enough in the season that a few games where the calls go the other direction could make this a non-issue.

And second, we’re going to use expected goals a lot in the following analysis. There are still issues with the NHL’s shot location data from the first five games of the Lightning season but using location data that has accuracy issues is better than using shots without any location information at all.

As a first step, let’s see if this penalty problem that seems so obvious exists or if our eyes are lying to us. The following plot shows each NHL team’s penalty differential per game played. All data for this plot and the ones that follow come from Evolving Hockey.

The Lightning rank 26th in this measure so yes, we have a real issue here. The Bolts are among the worst teams in the league in taking more penalties than they draw through the first month of the season.

But taking penalties isn’t a problem. The problem is what happens after you take a penalty. Specifically, that the other team gets to have more players, which means they are more likely to score a goal.

The next chart looks at how the Lightning penalty kill has performed after the penalty is committed. It compares the amount of goals the Lightning would be expected to allow to the number of goals the team has actually allowed.

This information gives us another key piece of the puzzle. The Lightning penalty kill has been about average in terms of the number and quality of shots they’ve allowed. But many of those shots have ended up in the back of the net. That suggests that the goaltenders have struggled. To confirm that, we can take a quick look at the team’s save percentage on the penalty kill. And lo, they are second last in the NHL in that statistic.

So to recap what we’ve learned thus far: the Lightning take too many penalties and while they don’t play particularly poorly on the penalty kill, the puck ends up in the back of their net at an inordinate rate.

To turn those words into a picture, here’s a chart!

The Lightning are on an island here. They take more penalties than they draw. And after they take those penalties, they give up goals at an alarming rate. That’s a bad combination. We should again keep in mind the relatively few amount of games we’re measuring here and the fact that both measures could change meaningfully in only a few games. But if it seems like the Lightning are taking lots of penalties and being punished for it so far this season, that’s because they are.

As a final step, we can look at which players have been the biggest contributors to the penalty problem so far this season.

To no one’s surprise, Luke Witkowski has been the biggest offender. He’s taking nearly two penalties more than he draws per sixty minutes. When we did our ten game report earlier this week, he was the worst player in terms of impact on expected goals. This is another metric that doesn’t flatter him.

But if we’re highlighting Witkowski, Mikhail Sergachev deserves mention as well. He’s been nearly as bad in terms of penalties. While he does contribute positively in other areas of the game, he needs to get the penalties under control. The team can’t afford to give him top four minutes if he’s going to put himself in the penalty box this often.

On the flip side, Pat Maroon has been excellent in this area. In many ways, he’s an example of what a useful version of Witkowski looks like. Both are physical players. But one helps the team and the other doesn’t. The qualms with Witkowski are never about the style of play but about the impact on winning and losing. It’s possible to play a traditional, physical game and make the team better. Maroon is evidence of that. If Witkowski wants to stick in Tampa, he needs to show he can do that as well.

With only 12 games played so far this season, identifying whether early season results are a trend or a mirage is impossible. We’ll need more time to see if this is just an opening month anomaly. But whatever happens in November, this was a real problem in October and one the Lightning would do well to erase over the remainder of the season. Winning in the NHL is hard enough without constantly putting yourself at a disadvantage.