It has been a big week for Pittsburgh Penguins winger Brandon Tanev. Over the previous five games he has scored two game winning goals (Montreal and Vegas), one late game-tying goal to help set up another win (Arizona), and continues to be a part of the team’s dominant shutdown defensive line alongside Teddy Blueger and Zach Aston-Reese.
By doing so, he continues to make a lot of people (like me) that were initially critical of his contract look kind of dumb. He has been outstanding, and everything the Penguins could have possibly hoped for him to be.
Aside from the recent run of big goals, Tanev brings a ton of qualities to the table. He is a great penalty killer and defensive player. His speed has been a huge addition and, along with some other recent additions, has helped the Penguins regain the identity and style that they recently won Stanley Cups with. That speed also helps him draw a lot of penalties, something that he received quite a bit of attention for in the first month of the season. It seemed like almost every single time he stepped on the ice he was doing something to help the Penguins get on the power play, and over the first month of the season had drawn more penalties than any other player in the NHL.
The ability to draw penalties is one of those small, under-the-radar skills that can in theory make a big difference. It keeps your power play on the ice, gives you the advantage, and puts the other team on the defensive. If you have a bunch of players that are good at it, it helps.
Over the past couple of months something has stood out to me when it comes to Tanev — he is no longer getting the calls he did earlier in the season when it comes to drawing penalties. There has been more than one occasion recently where I’ve seen Tanev skate with the puck, or fly through the neutral zone, or go into the offensive zone where he’s been hooked, slashed, held up, or been obstructed without any call. There was a great example late in the third period of Sunday’s game in Arizona where he was hauled down, again with no call.
When you look at the numbers, it backs up that observation.
Below is a look at the Penguins’ all-situations penalties drawn per 60 minutes numbers over a handful of stretches this season.
For the month of October. Since November 1. Since December 1. Since January 1 and the beginning of this month.
They are sorted by their October number.
Look at what has happened to Tanev’s number as the season has progressed.
There is obviously some fluctuation there for everybody, but nobody has seen as drastic of a consistent drop as the season has gone as Tanev has. Hornqvist is really the only other one that compares, but he also missed nearly 20 games in the middle there due to injury and was not playing as much.
Tanev’s drop is sudden, striking, and consistent.
It also stands out because there is really nothing different about his play. If anything, he has probably been on the ice with possession of the puck even more given the success of his line, and he still plays the same style.
Even before arriving in Pittsburgh, Tanev was one of the better forwards in the league at drawing penalties. For the three-year stretch between 2016-17 and 2017-18 he drew 1.57 penalties per 60 minutes in Winnipeg. That was third best on the team during that stretch, and tops among players that played in at least 100 games (neither player ahead of him played more than 60 games). He also never had a season where he drew less than 1.44 penalties per 60 minutes, and he never had an extended stretch as low as the one as he has had since December 1 of this season.
(All penalty numbers in this post via Natural Stat Trick)
Some thoughts on what is happening here.
— October of this season was a fluke and set an unreasonably high standard for this particular skill. No player is going to draw that many penalties over a full season and this is just some natural regression taking place.
— Or maybe this most recent stretch from December 1 is the fluke. We know how inconsistent penalties can be in the NHL and this is just a random outlier stretch where things are not going his way. What his number looks like in the second half will help decide if that is the case.
— The other theory: The officials are on to him and watching him closer. Officials know players. They know reputations. They may not be consistent with their calls, you may not like the job they do, but they are not dumb or oblivious to their surroundings. They no doubt knew how many calls Tanev was drawing earlier in the season and the attention he was getting for it. There is a part of me that wonders if they think, A) he embellishes, or B) he was getting too many calls and are not giving him the benefit of the doubt any longer.
As much of a skill as drawing penalties can be (and it is a skill), I still question how much of a value it actually brings to a team from a big picture perspective. This is part of the reason why. NHL officiating is all about evening things up. Even though individual players can be good at it, teams are going to see that made up for somewhere else, whether it is a penalty getting called against them later on, or another player not getting a different call.
In any case, Tanev has been a great addition to the Penguins’ lineup and he is still playing great hockey for them.
It is just strange to see this particular change in recent months when the numbers have been so consistent throughout his career. It is also something completely out of his control.