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Travis Yost's Sabre Metrics: How penalty differential is helping the Sabres

Travis Yost has been involved in the world of hockey analytics for a decade and is part of TSN's Hockey Analytics team. Prior to joining TSN, Travis was a contributor at the Ottawa Citizen, the Sporting News and NHL Numbers, and has been a consultant for an NHL franchise. He will be contributing breakdowns on the Sabres for The Buffalo News this season. Follow Travis on Twitter: @travisyost

One of the more curious things about National Hockey League coverage? For as much as we talk about the importance of strong special teams play, we really don’t drill into the underlying cause of those special teams events.

Yes, having an elite power play and robust penalty kill and going to add goals and wins. That is not a point in dispute. But even the league’s best power play units struggle to exceed a 25 percent conversion rate, and even the league’s best penalty kill units will still concede goals 15 percent of the time. Over hundreds of penalties, there are a lot of goals (and wins) coming from these percentages.

Take last year’s Nashville Predators as an example. They killed 82 percent of penalties, which was sixth-best in the NHL. However, they were comfortably the most leveraged penalty kill unit in the league, shorthanded 299 times. If Nashville had taken 75 less penalties with the same penalty-kill success, they would have been about 12 goals better in the standings. That’s a huge difference.

In that light, you start to understand why penalty differential is so important. And it’s actually one of the areas in which the 2018-19 Buffalo Sabres have had some success. In fact, through the first 20 games, the Sabres are carrying one of the league’s most favorable per-game penalty advantages:

They aren’t the Florida Panthers, sure, but if you are a half-penalty better than your opponent every night, that’s a pretty considerable advantage. And it is worth noting that this is a bit of uncharted territory for the Sabres – outside of the 2015-16 season, the Sabres haven’t realized this sort of penalty advantage in years.

This is how the Sabres have trended since the 2010-11 season, again on a per-game basis:

The logical question here is what changed and who is driving these numbers in a more favorable direction. The obvious starting point is that the Sabres  own much more of the puck this season than in years past. Having more of the puck means less stick work, less chasing the play and, more generally, less opportunity to draw the whistle of an official for stepping over the line. But it also means more opportunity to force your opponents into those same uncomfortable scenarios – the more opposing skaters are chasing the play, the more at risk they are of illegally impeding a Sabres puck carrier.

Puck possession, to that end, pays dividends in the penalty department. And while the Sabres aren’t emphatically out-possessing their opponents, it’s markedly up over where they were just a couple of seasons ago.

But puck possession can’t be the only driver of the change. After all, the Sabres were almost mercilessly outshot during the 2015-16 season and somehow emerged from the season with a fantastic penalty differential. So we must start to look at the individual level – what players have the unique ability to either draw more penalties or avoid taking penalties, and to what degree?

The graph at right shows each player’s penalty differential per-60 minutes this season, and I think it’s pretty telling.

 

The table is sorted from the players driving the best penalty differentials to the worst. And at the top of the list are a number of players who are truly fresh to the organization – from Casey Mittelstadt, to a depth forwards in Tage Thompson and Evan Rodrigues, to top-line forwards in Jeff Skinner and Jack Eichel.

Thirteen of 20 regular Buffalo skaters have favorable penalty differentials, and only a couple (Zach Bogosian on defense, and more troublingly, Kyle Okposo up top) are really struggling early this season.

It will be interesting to see if this trend holds up through all 82 games, particularly when the competition stiffens. But generally this type of team discipline is predictive in nature – teams that show discipline in earlier parts of the season tend to remain disciplined as the season progresses, and vice versa.

Combined with a high performing power play and penalty kill, that’s a pretty lethal weapon at coach Phil Housley’s disposal.

 

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