Many times while watching an NHL contest the play-by-play man or color commentator will cite a teams penalty minutes. Often the viewer will hear the phrase, this team is the sixth-most penalized team in the National Hockey League. If only the coach could instill some discipline into this squad, their chances of success would be greatly enhanced. The intention of the commentator in this particular case is actually quite admirable. In truth, taking less penalties does increase your time at five-on-five, lessen your time on the penalty kill and thereby increase your chances of scoring and winning.
I have wondered just how much of a correlation exists between total penalty minutes and minor penalties. If a team takes a lot of penalties but a significant portion of those penalties are via fighting majors and ten minute misconducts, the penalized team is not affected by the number of players on the ice post-penalty. Sure, the offending player cannot play for the duration of his penalty, but his team is not on the penalty kill. On the other hand, what if a team is not penalized very often, but when that team is penalized, it is consistently for tripping penalties and hooking penalties that leave the team down a man for two minutes or less?
Within the penalty minutes stat lays a fair amount of ambiguity. In order to get an idea of the relationship between a teams penalty minute total and the total minor penalties the team has taken, I have looked at these specific statistics for the past three NHL seasons:
2007-08 Minors PIM 2008-09 Minors PIM 2009-10 Minors PIM
COL 318 973 MIN 314 869 NJD 264 843
TBL 336 1022 CAR 322 786 NASH 276 698
LAK 337 930 FLA 331 884 DET 298 707
NJD 339 956 PHX 333 1074 CHI 300 908
BOS 362 1051 COL 346 1044 BOS 300 929
SJS 363 1061 BOS 353 1016 FLA 304 961
WSH 366 953 CHI 353 1129 DAL 313 955
PHX 369 1175 SJS 354 1037 COL 326 1001
NYR 372 1142 TOR 354 1113 PHX 329 905
MIN 375 1086 NJD 356 1038 BUF 333 902
ATL 378 1057 DET 361 810 TOR 333 1071
NSH 381 1015 NSH 366 982 NYI 334 928
PIT 384 1155 NYR 376 1175 CGY 338 1129
BUF 385 990 EDM 380 1227 WSH 339 920
MTL 386 1072 DAL 385 1134 CAR 343 944
DAL 387 1162 NYI 388 1198 MIN 345 914
EDM 390 1149 BUF 389 1105 LAK 345 963
FLA 393 1002 CBJ 390 1207 EDM 348 1115
CAR 395 1165 STL 394 1226 OTT 359 1115
DET 403 933 PIT 397 1106 NYR 364 1137
TOR 405 1079 OTT 398 1084 MTL 365 920
STL 409 1137 CGY 403 1281 CBJ 365 1070
NYI 417 1023 LAK 408 1191 ATL 372 1045
CBJ 431 1303 WSH 414 1021 SJS 374 1137
VAN 433 1458 ATL 414 1244 VAN 380 1261
CGY 434 1328 VAN 425 1323 STL 386 1296
OTT 438 1153 TBL 433 1280 ANA 389 1317
CHI 444 1371 MTL 437 1223 PIT 391 1183
PHI 461 1457 ANA 442 1418 TBL 399 1357
ANA 480 1465 PHI 446 1408 PHI 402 1350
Not surprisingly, there is a significant correlation between the two side by side columnsthe more minor penalties you take, the more you increase your teams total penalty minutes. The question, of course, is how significant is the correlation.
Lets work from three seasons ago and then move towards last season. In 2007-08, the correlation between minor penalties taken and total team penalty minutes was 0.79. As you can see, the correlation is there but a gap does exist. For instance, look at Detroitin 2007-08, the Wings were the second-least penalized team in the league, but took the 11th-most minor penalties in the entire NHL. Conversely, the Phoenix Coyotes tallied the 7th-most team penalty minutes in the National Hockey League, but were the 8th-least penalized team in terms of minor penalties.
In 2008-09, the correlation between minor penalties and total team penalty minutes increased from 0.79 the season prior to 0.82. Yet, there were still some teams that fared well in one category but not the other. The high-flying Washington Capitals took the 7th-least total team penalty minutes but were 7th-most penalized team when it came to taking minor penalties. The Edmonton Oilers, on the other hand, had the 7th-most total team penalty minutes but took the 14th-least minor penalties in the NHL.
In 2009-10, the correlation between the two rose, once again, from 0.82 to 0.85. The issue here is not that the correlation is strongthat much is expectedbut to see how strong is fairly interesting. As in years prior, there are a number of teams that stand out as successful in one category but not the other. The Habs finished 8th in the NHL with the least total team penalty minutes, but actually took the 10th-most minor penalties in the entire NHL. A gap also existed between the Maple Leafs totals, although not as much of a gap as their hated rivals. Toronto finished 12th in total team penalty minuteswe know how Mr. Burke likes his scrappersbut did take the 11th-fewest minor penalties in the NHL last season (which was the best way to avoid poor penalty killing).
As an aside, I realize that the total penalty minutes figure does include major penalties that are not fighting majors, but those penalties are pretty rare and were excluded for the purposes of this article.
The next time an announcer cites a teams total penalty minutes statistic, you may want to head over to the NHL website to check where that team ranks in terms of total minor penalties taken, as those are the penalties that most hurt a club over the course of a long season. Sometimes teams that do not rack up a ton of team penalty minutes actually put themselves on the penalty kill more often than you would think, like the 2007-08 Detroit Red Wings.