Fantasy Hockey Value: Penalty Minutes Add Value, Not a Focus of Value

PK Subban
PK Subban
Sergei Belski USA TODAY Sports

Talking about penalty minutes within the context of fantasy hockey value can always be a bit misleading. I ran into this problem ranking P.K. Subban before the lockout-shortened season. I wanted to put Subban as a top-5 defenseman, and ended up ranking him 7th overall. There’s a reason for this:

In 2011-2012, the 6th through 19th top-scoring defenseman were separated by nine points. Assuming Subban would get up to the 45-point range (in an 82-game campaign), there would need to be a reason to put him in the top-10 that separates himself from everyone else. Alas, he amassed over 100 penalty minutes in each of his first two seasons. There was the difference-maker.

That’s the point that I want to hopefully make by the end of this piece. Penalty minutes are by no means a statistic that should be looked at as an end in and of themselves. I will look at this from a couple of different approaches.

Penalties Are Bad, Mmmkay

There used to be a time in the NHL when racking up penalty minutes meant that you were one of the baddest, toughest guys in the league. While guys like Bob Probert and Tie Domi most certainly can be included here, taking a fighting major and taking a minor penalty are two different things. The first likely gets a team’s lowest-skilled player off the ice for five minutes but his team isn’t left short-handed (good); the second gets a random player from a team off the ice and his team is left short-handed (bad). It seems simple, but it’s amazing how often this very obvious detail gets overlooked.

There is a litany of data available on why penalties are bad, but I’ll sum it up in a few points:

  • Hockey Prospectus writer Richard Pollock found a pretty significant inverse relationship between penalty minutes and team point accumulation (r2 of minus-0.31). Over the course of the 2005-2009 seasons, the teams that had fewer total penalty minutes tended to finish better in overall standings. Shocker.
  • Why do teams accumulate fewer points in the standings with more penalty minutes taken? That should be obvious, but here’s the math from Hockey Analytics: Teams are more than twice as likely to allow a goal while short-handed than while playing at even strength. Also, the rate at which a team scores goals between playing at even-strength and while short-handed declines by a factor of six. No wonder that teams who put themselves in such a bad situation more often find less success.
  • I would say all this should be obvious, so trying to create as much of a positive penalty differential for teams should be a goal. The data, as gathered and analyzed by Eric Tulsky formerly of Broad Street Hockey, points that this doesn’t occur with player deployment. Players that draw more penalties do not see a time on ice increase, but those that take more penalties do see a time on ice decrease.

It’s amazing how pervasive the thinking is that penalties can be a good thing. Sure, once in a while, holding that guy at the blue line instead of letting him burn by you will probably save a scoring chance. How often does that really happen in a game, though?

The one thing fantasy hockey owners should take away from this is that time on ice for players decreases with more penalties taken. In that sense, if you’re in a league that counts time on ice as a category (and there are a lot of those leagues), a player with a lot of penalty minutes stands a good chance of cannibalizing his value by contributing nothing in the TOI department. In that sense, the argument that “penalty minutes help expand the player pool” is a fairly poor one. In a sense it does, but that doesn’t mean that the expanded player pool is helpful.

Penalties Aren’t Important To Breakout Seasons

There are players where penalty minutes will help add value. Guys like Subban, David Backes, and Gabriel Landeskog have seen a big boost in their fantasy hockey value in seasons past from a solid penalty minute total. That’s what the penalty minutes did, though, they added value. They weren’t a foundation of value, and that’s a significant difference. Look at the breakouts from the last few years and see how many penalty minutes these guys had:

These guys all posted elite seasons for the first (in Ladd’s case, second, time in their careers) in fantasy hockey and none of them had high penalty minute totals.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Remember this from the first two posts:

plus minus forward value

So in this sense, penalty minutes are not a vital source for looking for a fantasy hockey breakout. In fact, if your league includes time on ice, as I talked about earlier, avoiding penalty minutes is probably the best course of action.

There are a lot of issues with the way fantasy hockey players are valued. The emphasis on penalty minutes is misguided. If I’m looking for a guy to breakout in the 2014-2015 season, I don’t look for penalty minutes. Backes, Subban, and others have their fantasy value helped immensely by penalty minutes. But those players are few and far between, and are becoming fewer and further between:

  • Ten players had 80 or more penalty minutes and 41 or more points in 2013-2014.
  • Fourteen players had 47 or more penalty minutes and 24 or more points in 2013.
  • Eighteen players had 80 or more penalty minutes and 41 or more points in 2011-2012.

Players that can contribute significantly in penalty minutes and points are becoming more infrequent. This provides immense value further down the draft boards, but lifts very few players to elite status.

*Thanks to Hockey Reference for their resources. 
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Michael Clifford
Michael Clifford was born and raised in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada and is a graduate of the Unviersity of New Brunswick. He writes about fantasy hockey and baseball for XNSports and He can be reached on Twitter @SlimCliffy for any fantasy hockey questions. !function(d,s,id){var js,fjs=d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0],p=/^http:/.test(d.location)?'http':'https';if(!d.getElementById(id)){js=d.createElement(s);;js.src=p+'://';fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js,fjs);}}(document, 'script', 'twitter-wjs');