We all have that one player who we would hate if it were not for the fact that they play for our favourite team. Players like these are usually classified as “pests” and are notorious for aggravating the other team. They do this to draw penalties, which improves their teams’ chances of scoring and, ultimately, winning. Although they draw plenty of penalties and take few themselves, the most annoying part of their game is that they can also score often and make plays. As a Leafs fan, the player who best fits this description for me is Nazem Kadri. While his offensive talent is obvious by both the eye test and the numbers, Kadri has often been labelled an embellisher and is not exactly a gentleman on the ice. But when he plays by the rules, he is a highly effective skilled agitator who is loved by Leafs fans and despised by everyone else.
This season, however, Nazem Kadri seems like a much different player. Kadri had the best offensive season of his career this season, scoring 61 points in 82 games, despite losing a core component of his game: his ability to draw penalties. Indeed, the whistles seem to have gone silent for him this year. This was especially clear in the early stages of this season, when Kadri could not draw a penalty if his life depended on it. Now that the regular season has ended, I decided to dig into the numbers to see if the statistics support what we see on the ice. Is Nazem Kadri drawing less penalties this year than in the past, or is the eye test deceiving us?
In order to answer this, we need to know how frequently he was able to draw penalties in previous seasons and compare it to how often he did so this year. The graph below shows his penalties drawn per 60 minutes in all situations throughout his entire career (according to data from corsica.hockey):
Kadri did not get much ice time in the beginning of his career so the results for the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons should be taken with a grain of salt (and are coloured lightly as a result). Once he earned a regular spot in the Leafs lineup, Kadri frequently enabled the Leafs to go on the powerplay, drawing 2.738 penalties per 60 minutes in the lockout shortened season. While that year was a career high for him in this area, we can clearly see that this season is likely a career low due to sample size issues in 2011-12. For every 60 minutes of ice time Kadri played, he drew nearly one less penalty this year compared to last year. That is a significant drop for any player in a large sample of ice time, and is especially noticeable for a forward who plays a shutdown role against the opponents top forward lines. The data confirms the eye test when we approach it from this angle.
The sudden decline in Kadri’s ability to draw penalties tells us that our eyes have not deceived us this season, but it does not tell us how costly it has been to the Leafs. By framing this drop in terms of goals, we will learn how it has effected the Leafs as a team. This can be achieved using a component of a statistic called “Goals Above Replacement” (or GAR for short) by @DTMAboutHeart. While you can read a more detailed explanation of it here, the basic idea is to quantify the value of a player in terms of how many goals their play is worth. A player provides value to his team if he is worth more goals than what you would expect from a replacement level player (i.e. an AHL caliber player). One component of a players GAR measures how many goals he is worth solely from his ability to draw penalties; at the risk of sounding redundant, I’d like to clarify that if a replacement level player was given playing time in the NHL, we would expect his penalty drawing ability alone to be worth 0 goals above replacement. The graph below displays the value of Kadri’s ability to draw penalties, expressed in terms of GAR per 60 minutes:
The peaks and valleys of this graph look identical to the previous one, except Kadri’s 2011-12 season is missing from GAR (and this graph) due to an insufficient sample size of TOI. Nazem Kadri’s penalty drawing abilities have always been positive and have therefore never hurt his team. Last season, Kadri’s penalty drawing ability was worth ~0.35 goals above replacement level every 60 minutes of ice time, which dropped to ~0.08 per 60 minutes this season. In total, his penalty drawing ability plunged from 7.44 GAR last year to 1.80 GAR this year, costing him 5.64 goals above replacement. That dramatic drop in value is too large to be explained away by bad luck alone. Drawing penalties was obviously a significant aspect of Kadri’s game and the referees have taken that away from him this season. Both the data and the eye test tell us that the referees have caught on to his embellishment tactics and are consequently reluctant to give him the benefit of the doubt.
For additional context, it is also useful to look at the penalty drawing rates of his linemates as well to see if it is effecting them too. We want to know how often Kadri’s linemates drew penalties in previous seasons and then compare those rates to this season. To measure this, I simply found out how often the Leafs drew penalties when Kadri was on the ice and then subtracted the penalties that were drawn by Kadri. The following graph contains data from corsica.hockey and displays how often Kadri’s linemates drew penalties with him on the ice:
The top line shows how often the Leafs drew penalties when Kadri was on the ice, while the bottom line illustrates the rate at which Kadri’s linemates drew penalties. The top line tells us that the Leafs are drawing penalties less often with Kadri on the ice than they have in the last two seasons. Earlier in this post, we learned that Kadri himself is drawing penalties less often than before and now we can see that his entire team is suffering because of it (whenever he is on the ice). Despite this, the slight uptick in the bottom line shows that Kadri’s linemates are actually drawing penalties more frequently than last season. However, an increase of 0.367 penalties drawn per 60 minutes is not very much especially given the variability of Kadri’s own rates throughout his career. The penalty drawing rates of Kadri’s linemates suggest that Kadri’s inability to draw penalties at a high frequency this season is an issue that is isolated to him alone.
While this is an interesting way to explore Kadri’s penalty drawing rates, no method is perfect and we must be aware of the flaws of our analyses. When we analyze the penalty drawing rates for Kadri’s linemates, for example, we are not accounting for the fact that Kadri does not play with the same four skaters every shift of every season and that players may vary in their capability to draw penalties. It is therefore possible that the slight uptick in the rate of penalties drawn by Kadri’s linemates can be explained away by the possibility that one of those linemates this season is also good at drawing penalties. Nevertheless, all three approaches we have seen thus far have painted a clear picture that matches what many fans have noticed throughout this season.
By analyzing Kadri’s penalty drawing abilities from different perspectives, we have observed that the data passes the eye test. Kadri is drawing less penalties than ever before while the penalty drawing rates of his linemates have remained virtually unchanged since last season — a signal that this issue has not become a problem for his linemates too. He personally drew 0.926 less penalties per 60 minutes compared to last season, decreasing his value in this area by 5.64 goals above replacement. Although this particular drop is not as large as the one from 2012-13 to 2013-14, this one is more noticeable because it is recent and examples of blatant non-calls against Kadri from this season come to mind easier than examples from three years ago. This is confirmed by the data, which reveals that the value of his penalty drawing abilities is at an all-time low. It makes sense, then, that many fans including myself have noticed so many non-calls against Kadri this season in particular. Altogether, the data and the eye test both paint the same picture of silent whistles (belonging to the referees) and loud complaints from Leafs fans. While Kadri still plays like a skilled agitator, he is less effective in that regard without his ability to send his team to the powerplay. Hockey fans who cheer for other teams and dislike Kadri for his embellishments should rejoice if this trend continues, but Leafs fans should hope that the whistles don’t stay silent for long.