Blackhawks’ veterans to blame for early season penalty increase

It’s not the rookies who are causing all these penalty kills.

Back in September, the Chicago Blackhawks admitted they were adjusting to the league’s adjusted penalty rules. "We went over the quota," coach Joel Quenneville said after a preseason game that saw 17 penalties between the two teams. "It was early and often."

At the time, Quenneville told reporters his players would learn from their time in the penalty box to adapt. The Blackhawks were far from the only team expressing frustration at changes to faceoff rules that Bruins star Brad Marchand had called “an absolute joke.” It was only preseason, anyway.

But now we’re 19 games into the real deal, and the Blackhawks’ learning experience with the NHL’s latest rule tweaks is ongoing. As a result, only one team (Nashville) averages fewer minutes at 5-on-5 than the Blackhawks’ 42:27 per game this season. It’s another wrinkle in the team’s ongoing effort to break out of a funk that’s led to an 9-8-2 start.

Maybe the final two periods in the 6-3 win against the Rangers, where the team committed zero infractions, will be a jumping off point.

Penalties had not been an issue for the Hawks under Quenneville in recent years. He’s a coach who has long emphasized a controlled aggression on the ice. That discipline is absorbed by his players through countless hours of practice. Here is the Blackhawks’ league ranking in penalties per 60 minutes under Coach Q:

2009-10: 4th
2010-11: 2nd
2011-12: 5th
2012-13: 1st
2013-14: 2nd
2014-15: 3rd
2015-16: 3rd
2016-17: 2nd
2017-18: 17th

That’s a remarkable stretch of low-penalty teams that helps show why Quenneville is one of the best coaches in hockey. It also makes that 17th-place standing for this season stand out in a big way. This is a team killing far more penalties than it ever had to in recent seasons.

NHL penalty rates have fluctuated over the years, which is why it’s useful to look at the leaguewide rankings, but the Blackhawks’ diminishing discipline can be seen plainly in the numbers. From 2014-15 through 2016-17, Chicago was second in the NHL with just 3.29 penalties per 60 minutes. This season, that number has risen to 4.34. It’s not quite as bad as the 6.01 penalties per 60 being racked up by the Predators, but it’s still an increase of over 30 percent from the previous three seasons.

Part of the issue is personnel changes. Guys like Niklas Hjalmarsson, Marian Hossa, Teuvo Teravainen, Trevor van Riemsdyk, and Dennis Rasmussen were relatively good at avoiding penalties. They’ve been replaced with guys like Tommy Wingels, Lance Bouma, and Jan Rutta, who are each averaging more than a penalty per 60 minutes. Wingels is last on the team with 2.14 penalties per 60.

But we’ve also seen a number of key players see substantial increases in their number of penalties committed. This one is harder to peg on management’s moves.

Veteran penalty issues

Player2014-17 penalty rateThis season penalty rateIncrease
Richard Panik0.942.041.1
Brent Seabrook0.461.471.01
Jonathan Toews0.811.270.46
Duncan Keith0.270.50.23

Over those previous three seasons, those four players committed a combined 129 penalties in 13,715 minutes, good for a group rate of 0.56 penalties per 60 minutes. This season, they’ve already taken 32 penalties in 1,557 minutes, an average of 1.23 penalties per 60. That’s an increase of more than 50 percent.

Seeing the Blackhawks’ increase in team penalty rate, a good portion of that stems from these four veterans. Younger players Nick Schmaltz, Gustav Forsling, Brandon Saad, and Alex DeBrincat have combined for four penalties altogether. Rather than a matter of inexperience leading to mistakes, it is Chicago’s older players who have been the prime culprits in the penalty increase.

That’s hopefully an indication that it’s a solvable issue as guys like Toews and Panik continue adjusting to the new norm. But well over a month after Quenneville said his players would learn to adjust, that process isn’t over yet.