When it comes to taking penalties, Alex Burrows is Mr. Versatility

The Canucks are taking far too many penalties this season. At least, that’s what it feels like just 18 games in. It doesn’t help that the Canucks are currently 19th in the NHL in penalty killing at 79.4%. Penalties tend to be a lot more memorable when a goal is scored during the subsequent powerplay.

Sunday’s game against the Red Wings is a good example. While there were certainly some questionable calls by the officials, it was the Canucks’ lousy penalty killing that helped make them part of the story of the game. With some better penalty killing in the second period, the Canucks would actually have had a chance to get a point out of that game instead of it becoming an 8-goal debacle.

Over the past couple seasons, the Canucks have had one of the league’s best penalty kills, which played a big part in their back-to-back Presidents’ Trophy wins. This season, the Canucks have given up 15 goals while shorthanded. At 5-on-4, they’re tied for the second most goals-against in the league. That has to be a combination of their poor penalty killing and taking too many penalties.

The biggest culprit so far has been Alex Burrows, who has found himself in the box far too often this season. This just makes matters worse, as he is also one of the Canucks’ best penalty killers.

Over at Backhand Shelf this morning, I looked at the trends in penalty minutes across the entire NHL. I’m going to do the same here, focussing on the Canucks.

The two most drastic drops in penalty minutes in the above chart happen to coincide with two of the Canucks’ biggest improvements from season-to-season. The Canucks improved by 13 points between 2005-06 and 2006-07, going from 4th in the Northwest Division and missing the playoffs to 1st and home ice advantage. Then, between 2009-10 and 2010-11, the Canucks improved by 14 points, while their penalty minutes hit their lowest point since the lockout.

It’s important to note that this could easily be correlation and not causation: a team that is trailing during a game is likely to get called for more penalties as they attempt to claw their way back into the game. Also, the Canucks’ third biggest improvement in points came in 2007-08, as they improved 12 points to go from 5th in the Northwest to 1st, but that season saw only a modest drop in penalty minutes.

This season, the Canucks certainly are taking more penalties, both major and minor penalties. It’s interesting to note that the Canucks fought just 29 times in 2010-11, their best season in franchise history. That year, they were in the bottom third of the league in fights, but have seen a significant increase since then.

The easy explanation is to call it a reaction to the Stanley Cup Final series against the Boston Bruins, but it’s hard to say whether that’s accurate. The Canucks don’t employ a traditional goon, with Aaron Volpatti (and not Jannik Hansen, that dastardly Dane) being the closest they’ve got. Volpatti, however, has shown himself capable of starting shifts predominantly in the defensive zone and still posting reasonable possession statistics. At the very least, he’s not useless, as many goons around the league are.

Instead, the Canucks have two-way players like Dale Weise and Maxim Lapierre doing the bulk of the fighting, with Zack Kassian stepping into that role as well.

The Canucks have also seen an increase in minor penalties this season, but the same is true league-wide, as the NHL has tightened their standards on obstruction, particularly in regards to interference. So what are the trends for the Canucks when it comes to minor penalties?

The biggest increases have come in interference and tripping penalties, both of which are also up league-wide. At the same time, they also have seen a decrease in hooking minors, which is surprising. Up until this season, that was the Canucks’ most frequent penalty.

It’s not any one player that is causing the increase in these two categories. Ballard has the most interference minors, with 3, while 4 different players lead the way in tripping with just 2 minors, including Alex Burrows.

Burrows is leading the Canucks in total minor penalties. He hasn’t been able to get away with much this season, particularly in front of the opposing goaltender, and he currently has 13 minor penalties, tying him for 4th most in the league. Those penalties have come in many different ways: he has 3 roughing minors, 2 each of hooking, tripping, and slashing, and 1 each of interference and cross-checking, to go with 2 unsportsmanlike conduct penalties.

That’s an impressive array of penalties, particularly when you consider that those ahead of him in the NHL have a speciality. Derek Dorsett, Chris Neil, and Brandon Prust have picked up the bulk of their minor penalties on roughing calls, while the league leader in minor penalties, Braydon Coburn, has specialized in interference. Burrows is, instead, a jack-of-all-trades or factotum, capable of taking almost any minor penalty as the situation requires.

Considering the increase in penalties league-wide, this increase for the Canucks would be far less of a concern if they were killing them off more effectively. While it’s not going to cost them a playoff spot by any means, it could certainly cost them once the playoffs start.

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  1. J21 (@Jyrki21)
    February 26, 2013

    “Also, the Canucks’ third biggest improvement in points came in 2007-08, as they improved 12 points to go from 5th in the Northwest to 1st,”

    That’d actually be 2008-09.

    Before freaking out too much over being “19th” league-wide in penalty killing (although that’s technically very much middle-of-the-pack in a 30-team league anyway), it is worthwhile to consider that moving 5% either way from the Canucks’ figure actually encompasses 21 teams, or 70% of the league, so it’s not like the deviation here is enormous. (Except for Boston — at 94.8%?! And Winnipeg, at a horrible 69.0%).

    That said, yeah, in the tiny sample size that is the playoffs, PP goals end up being huge. And no matter how good the Canucks’ special teams are in the regular season, they always seem to take a dive come playoff time.

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  2. best behaviour
    February 26, 2013

    The graphs are nice and all, but everybody knows how the NHL officiating goes. A tripping call doesn’t mean there’s been any tripping. It could just mean the refs are tripping as usual. (Wish I knew their ice cream man.)

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  3. Wetcoaster
    February 26, 2013

    My day was diminished by the fact that you did not see fit take advantage of the opening to pun up with “Jerk-of-all-Trades”

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    • Daniel Wagner
      February 27, 2013

      Well, damn. Now my day is diminished.

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  4. Fruzenius
    February 27, 2013

    Not having Manny in his final faceoff form also doesn’t help our penalty kill rate :(

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