As another Oilers loss, which dealt an horrific blow to the post season odds settles in, I decided to take some time and go through Ethan Moreau’s work this season – specifically, the penalties he’s taken that put the Oilers shorthanded.
In 71 games, Moreau has taken 31 penalties that have put the Oilers a man down and two more when they were already a man down. For a sense of perspective, with 30 teams in the league, each dressing 18 skaters a night, if all of those players gave the opposition .437 power play opportunities a night, the NHL would have about 19,440 power plays over the course of a season. As of the beginning of tonight’s action, the total was 9,491, so, unless things pick up over the final games, it would seem to be pretty clear that Moreau gives the opposition an astonishing number of power plays and probably all the more so if you figure that defencemen are more likely than forwards to taken penalties that result in power plays, as seems likely to me.
Here’s Moreau’s rap sheet at the left hand side. It’s pretty straightfoward. A couple of games jump out at me as ones in which Moreau’s penalty led to a key goal against – the HNIC game against Colorado on November 15, 2008 where Moreau makes it a 5 on 3, although I don’t remember the penalty and it may have been a good one. On November 26, 2008, Moreau took a double minor for high sticking and the Kings popped one in a 2-1 game, although not until Dustin Brown got in the box for interference. On February 3, 2009, he took an interference penalty against Chicago with the score 1-0 at 1:15 of the second; the Hawks scored and never looked back. The Dallas game on February 19, 2009 was basically performance art – he takes a penalty that the Stars score on to take a 3-2 lead and then wipes out any chance at a comeback with a rampage that leaves the Oilers SH for the final three minutes.
Of course, giving the opposition power plays doesn’t just increase their chances of scoring – it also hurts your own chances of scoring. When I last checked, the league was averaging about 2.5 GF/60 at ES and about 0.9 GF/60 on the PK. At that rate, a two minute penalty costs you 0.053 goals for. Moreau’s put the Oilers down a man 31 times this year; it seems fair to argue that this has cost them a goal, somewhere. Maybe in the 3-2 (OT) loss to Colorado. The 2-1 loss to LA. Maybe the 4-2 loss to Vancouver that saw the Canucks score an empty net goal. The 3-2 OT loss to Anaheim in December. The 3-2 OT loss to Calgary on Feb. 21. The 1-0 loss to Columbus on Feb. 26. The 2-1 win over STL on Mar. 17. Last night’s 3-2 loss to Minnesota. Maybe not, maybe it was in a game where they got blown out or blew the opposition out. It’s all about the odds though and he’s shifted the odds the wrong way in a number of close games.
I want to be clear about this criticism: every player takes penalties. You can comb through the records and find moments for every player in which he’s taken a penalty and the result has been bad. If you think that the PP goals against are largely random, in that the player has little control once he’s in the box as to whether a PP goal will occur, some guys will get burned taking very few penalties, while some guys will get away with taking tons of them. I don’t think it’s fair to necessarily pick through the events, find one and say: “This! This is why they’re not making the playoffs.” I’m interested in identifying the stuff that slants the odds against you.
Moreau’s been a liability in that he’s obviously taking an inordinate amount of penalties, which makes the hill for the Oilers to climb that much steeper. This isn’t a new problem for him – he took 33 penalties that created power plays for the opposition in 2005-06. While it’s unfair to point to a specific moment and blame the season on that and you can’t expect him to take no penalties but he’s taken enough that you can, I think, fairly make the argument that he’s probably cost the team a point or two through penalties that had no point.
There are some larger questions raised by all of this too. If you accept, as seems likely, that the difference in value between players is pretty small as you move away from the extreme right end of the tail on the bell curve of hockey talent, stuff like a proclivity for taking pointless penalties will really hammer a guy’s value. It’s long seemed obvious to me that a single hockey player doesn’t make that much of a difference – you can pretty much play .250 hockey with a team of replacement level players so a team that plays .500, plus a few points for OTL has about 55 points of actual value to spread over 23 guys or so. You can see where taking enough penalties to cost your team a point or two in the standings could have a real impact on your value overall.
For an example of something similar, there’s a fellow named Mitchel Lichtman who has taken a pretty aggressive position on Manny Ramirez’ value for a long time; essentially he says that his defence is so bad that Manny is no better than many other so-so players. I don’t necessarily buy that analysis (I think Fenway Park screws up the defensive numbers) but the point remains the same – if Moreau’s number of penalties that lead to power plays is as excessive compared to the margin as I think it must be, it must put a real hit on his value.
For reasons that I don’t understand but that I suspect relate to the fact that he’s a pretty good interview, comes across as a decent fellow, works hard and does things that get noticed on the ice, Moreau has largely escaped criticism from the media for the penalties this year. Anyone who watches the Oilers knows that an inordinate amount of them are just stupid penalties – the man has fifteen offensive zone penalties – but media guys go to great lengths to praise him. Ron MacLean almost criticized him a while back and then cautiously mentioned that “We love Ethan Moreau but he’s easy to coach.”
If Moreau’s easy to coach, I can’t figure out how he takes so many penalties. No coach could want this.