Officiating in the NHL is not an exact science. Not only are the officials unable to see everything, but there are certain places and times when they are either more or less reluctant to make a call. Certain players never lose their cool, and know what they can get away with, and pick their spots accordingly. Others have tempers quick to flare, and are sent to the penalty box every time they so much as sneeze on someone. Knowing when and how far to push the boundaries, that's what discipline is all about.
Rating a player's discipline on their penalty minutes per game sounds reasonable. Basing it on their actual playing time is even more reasonable, since some players play more often than others. Given that comparably very few penalties are taken while on the power play or killing penalties, it is most reasonable to base it on their even-strength playing time.
There is also a more reasonable alternative than looking at penalty minutes. Technically speaking, drawing a 5-minute major for fighting doesn't hurt your team, since it does not place them into a short-handed situation. Similarly, 10-minute game misconducts may leave your team a player short, but don't otherwise cause them any harm, so we should remove them from consideration when examining a player's discipline. By the same token, we may wish to remove coincidental minor penalties, but those aren't always harmless. Sometimes the opponent had the original penalty, and the coincidental minor is a result of a player retaliating. In that sense, he cost his team a power play, and therefore we should include them when considering his discipline.
Measuring players based on the number of minor penalties they draw for every 60 minutes of even-strength play, we get a list of very well-established gentlemanly players.
MP60: Minor Penalties per 60 minutes of even strength playing time
Player Team MP60
Niklas Hagman Toronto 0.13
Kyle Wellwood Vancouver 0.15
Martin Skoula Minnesota 0.22
Brad Richards Dallas 0.23
Tomas Kaberle Toronto 0.24
Anthony Stewart Florida 0.27
Andrew Murray Columbus 0.27
Jason Williams Columbus 0.30
Martin St. Louis Tampa Bay 0.34
Loui Eriksson Dallas 0.34
(Minimum 50 Games)
I was expecting to see all forwards, presuming that defensemen pretty much have to take penalties from time to time. Instead, 2 of the 10 least penalized players are defensemen. Assuming that the best defensive players are grittier, I was expecting weaker defensive players, but with the exception of Stewart, they are all at least capable defensively.
The most surprising player on this list is Andrew Murray of the Columbus Bluejackets, because unlike the other players, he is known to throw hits. Murray has an ability to know when reasonable defensive play requires him to play physically, and yet when and how to play physically without creating a disadvantage for his team. That's discipline.
To find the players in the league that have the best discipline, we look for hits divided by penalties. The disciplined players will be able to throw many hits for each minor penalty taken.
H/MP: Hits Thrown Per Minor Penalty Taken
Player Team H/MP
Anthony Stewart Florida 38.5
Andrew Murray Columbus 29.4
Mike Grier San Jose 29.4
Cal Clutterbuck Minnesota 20.9
Antti Pihlstrom Nashville 20.0
Brad Lukowich San Jose 19.5
Ryan Callahan New York R 17.7
Steve Begin Dallas 16.8
Nigel Dawes Phoenix 16.8
Matt Bradley Washington 16.4
(Minimum 50 Games)
When studying discipline, it's not entirely appropriate to remove the concept of defensive play from the equation. If a player is poor defensively, he's not exactly practicing good discipline by throwing hits only when there's no chance of taking penalties. After all, if he backs off a hit to avoid a penalty, and the player winds up scoring, then he wasn't exactly exercising good judgment. Preferably we wouldn't separate the concepts of discipline and strong defensive play. That's why Grier, Lukowich and Callahan are the most impressive players on this list, because they throw many hits relative to the number of minor penalties, and yet don't sacrifice from their defensive play. Take someone like Douglas Murray of the San Jose Sharks, for instance, who throws 13.5 hits per penalty, and yet is one of the finer defensive defensemen in the league.
The other issue with this metric is that there is an element of subjectivity to the hits statistic. The number of minor penalties taken is purely objective, and recorded the same way everywhere you go, but there is a lot of fluctuation from team to team about what qualifies as a hit. Seeing players like Grier, Lukowich and Murray with so many hits per minor penalty suggests that politely coughing on someone might qualify as a hit in San Jose, whereas you might have to commit manslaughter to get awarded a hit in Vancouver.
Many statistics taken by themselves don't offer a great deal of insight. In combining them together we can arrive at more meaningful statistics, much like we can create a great dish by mixing together the right ingredients. Combining hits, playing time and minor penalties tells us who are the most disciplined players in the league. As it stands, 2008-09 saw Niklas Hagman and Kyle Wellwood ahead of the pack in straight discipline, Anthony Stewart, Andrew Murray and Mike Grier in the lead when balancing it against the physicality of their play, the latter two of whom lead the pack when also considering quality defensive play. For the most part these lists may not carry the big names, but discipline is certainly an important part of the game.
Robert Vollman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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