Who's driving the Sharks' league-leading penalty differential?

In his defense, Dan Hamhuis was just launching a preemptive strike against a Joe Thornton four-goal celebration. - Christian Petersen

No team in the NHL has had more power plays or fewer penalty kills than the Sharks. We look at which players are responsible for the league's best penalty differential.

On Saturday night at the Tank, the Sharks took three minor penalties while the Boston Bruins were whistled for one.  That marked just the fourth time in San Jose's 46-game-old season (just the second time against a team other than the Los Angeles Kings, for whatever that's worth) that the club had fewer power play opportunities in a game than their opponent. Of all the numbers that get tossed around on broadcasts, media reports and even this very website, one that hasn't received a lot of coverage despite playing a significant role in explaining the Sharks' success is the fact that they've been on the power play this season 58 more times than they've been shorthanded.

That's a massive number and breaking it down into its component elements is even more stunning. San Jose has had 178 power play opportunities this season, more than any other team in the league, and been shorthanded 120 times, fewer than any other club. Obviously that makes their plus-58 penalty differential the best mark in the NHL as well, and it isn't even by a slim margin. The next closest team is the New York Rangers with only a 20-point spread between power plays and penalty kills. Expressing it as a percentage, the Sharks have earned 59.7% of all power play opportunities in their games this year. No team in the league has finished a season with a percentage that high since the 2005 lockout.

The advantage of generating so many more power play opportunities than your opponents is easily apparent but let's quantify it anyway. Given the Sharks' 19-percent power play and 83-percent penalty killing, they would have scored three more power play goals than they would have allowed to this point in the season if they were a league-average penalty differential team. In reality, they've scored 14 more. That 11-goal swing represents more than half their overall goal differential after removing shootout "goals" and empty-netters. It's a significant reason the Sharks are currently second in the league's best division, which is perhaps why Patrick D. dedicated an entire post to the importance of penalty differential in his series on predicting special teams performance last summer. Here's his conclusion from that piece:

Although we won't know the absolute impact [penalty differential] has on wins until a multivariate regression is performed, it's already been suggested that it is a skill independent of merely possessing the puck. If anything, this validates the Canucks' "Jerk-Puck" system to goad other teams into more minor penalties. Teams benefit from additional opportunities independent of their skill on the power-play.

So has JerkPuck made its way to San Jose? Which players are driving the team's league-leading penalty differential? Thanks to the indispensable extraskater.com, we can begin to tease out the answer. Here's a player-by-player look at minor penalties taken and drawn, the difference between the two, and the difference between the two per sixty minutes of play, sorted by raw individual penalty differential:

Player Penalties Taken Penalties Drawn Penalty Differential Penalty Differential/60
Tomas Hertl 1 9 +8 +0.9
Tyler Kennedy 10 17 +7 +0.7
Logan Couture 6 13 +7 +0.5
Joe Pavelski 9 15 +6 +0.4
Joe Thornton 5 11 +6 +0.4
Dan Boyle 7 11 +4 +0.3
Patrick Marleau 4 8 +4 +0.3
Marty Havlat 3 4 +1 +0.2
Matt Nieto 4 5 +1 +0.1
Andrew Desjardins 17 17 +0 +0.0
Mike Brown 11 11 +0 +0.0
Brad Stuart 10 10 +0 +0.0
Jason Demers 10 10 +0 +0.0
Brent Burns 7 7 +0 +0.0
John McCarthy 2 2 +0 +0.0
Tommy Wingels 12 11 -1 -0.1
James Sheppard 10 9 -1 -0.1
Justin Braun 6 5 -1 -0.1
Matt Irwin 6 5 -1 -0.1
Marc-Edouard Vlasic 5 4 -1 -0.1
Scott Hannan 12 5 -7 -0.7

It's worth noting defensemen, particularly defense-first blueliners, are at a clear disadvantage when it comes to this stat given how infrequently they handle the puck or venture to areas of the ice in which fouls are more likely to occur. That said, it's impressive that none of the Sharks' defensemen outside of Scott Hannan, who still clutches and grabs like it's 2003, take a great deal more penalties than they draw. Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun in particular have managed to keep their penalty totals extremely low while neutralizing the best forwards in the league on a nightly basis.

The Sharks as a whole seem to benefit not from having a handful of gaudy penalty differentials on the roster but from a team-wide lack of players who get called for minors more frequently than they find themselves on the other side of the whistle. Speaking of gaudy penalty differentials, though, Tyler Kennedy has had a mostly disappointing debut season in teal but at least he's finding a way to contribute in an oft-overlooked but nevertheless important area.

The team-wide nature of the Sharks' penalty differential advantage might perhaps add fuel to the fire of diving accusations that have been levied against them (hello, Mike Yeo!), and while there's undoubtedly more to it than that, it's also dishonest to suggest embellishment isn't playing a part. Personally, I don't have much of a moral objection to players calling extra attention to opposing infractions. On a team with as dangerous a power play as the Sharks', it would be silly not to.

But that discounts the other half of this equation: that the Sharks have also been shorthanded on fewer occasions than any other team, which doesn't have anything to do with diving. It would be interesting to further break down the areas in which the Sharks are drawing penalties to gauge patterns and evidence of systemic influence as well as compare that to the team's play in their own half of the ice where they're rarely getting called for minors.

While a lot of it certainly has to do with the fact the Sharks spend a lot more time attacking than they do defending, the Kings are the best possession team in the league and currently sit 29th in penalty differential so there are likely other factors at play here. Perhaps the Sharks' preference to dump-and-chase at the offensive blueline while yielding the defensive blueline moves the needle on interference and other obstruction minors in their favor but that's just a theory. Regardless, what's clear is that a large part of San Jose's success this season has been predicated on an unparalleled ability to force opponents into making far more trips to the penalty box than they do and that's something to keep in mind when handicapping their chances over the second half of the season and beyond.

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