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Thinking and playing outside the box: The importance of discipline for Subban, Eller, & Prust

With shot-based analysis gaining prominent support among NHL front offices, it is becoming more and more important for hockey sabermetricians to seek out other metrics in order to find an on-ice edge.

Bruce Bennett

After doing some digging, I was able to come to a somewhat startling conclusion: in theory, it is possible for the Habs to get a 15-goal bump over the course of a season (or the difference in raw offensive production between David Desharnais and someone like Evgeni Malkin), with zero roster moves (but a minor philosophical shift). Over 82 games, those 15 goals translate to about 5 standing points – the difference between a playoff bubble team and a potential division winner.

Thinking outside the Box

At the NHL level, you just can't find 15 marginal goals in the streets. Indeed, looking at Hockey-Reference’s Goals Created metric, only 6 Habs players managed to create 15 or more goals in the 2013-14 regular season – Pacioretty, Desharnais, Subban, Plekanec, Gallagher and Gionta. So how were we able to "find" that kind of production at the margins of the team’s performance? For one thing, we can look at the number of minor penalties its players have drawn.

Relative to their roles on the Canadiens, Brandon Prust, P.K. Subban and Lars Eller were some of its least disciplined players, in terms of avoiding taking minor penalties. Per 1000 minutes on ice, Prust takes, on average, 27 minors. Subban, 19. And Eller, 23. Assuming that the opposing powerplay converts at a 20% clip, in 2013-14, the three players combined to cost their teams approximately 17 powerplay goals against. That number would have been somewhat higher, too, had Prust played more than 52 games.

The inevitable rebuttal

Now, we can more or less agree that Lars Eller should be taking fewer penalties, considering the high proportion of stick penalties and offensive zone penalties he takes, but what about Subban and Prust? Aren’t they more predisposed to taking minor penalties due to their toughness? It’s a valid question, but when looking at some of their teammates, we see that the answer is "no, they shouldn’t be."

In 2013-14, Josh Gorges, Dale Weise and Manny Malhotra took on similar minutes for respective teams as Subban, Prust and Eller. Yet, while the latter combined for 69 minors per 1000 minutes of play, the former only were called for just 20 minors in the same span of time. Gorges’ discipline was especially impressive, considering his reputation as a rough-and-tumble defensive specialist who plays mostly without the puck. In 66 games played, he had only 12 PIMs. So, it would seem that you don’t need to take many penalties even if you play in defensive situations, and even if you play a physical style.

The conclusion

A brief look at the numbers confirms that attempting to buy toughness by looking at a player’s PIM column is probably an ill-fated gesture. This reflection also yields a clear mandate for coaches.

At a team level, the Habs were the 5th least disciplined team in the NHL last season. If, through teaching and positive reinforcement, Michel Therrien and his assistants are able to help Subban, Prust and Eller take as few penalties per minute as Gorges, Weise and Malhotra, the positive effects on the bottom line would be just as impressive as if the team were to acquire a legitimate top-6 winger, or swap David Desharnais for one of the best offensive centermen in the world.