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Benson’s Phantom Penalties Are Not The Norm



Zach Benson penalty

The Buffalo Sabres game in Florida was full of controversial penalty calls on Tuesday, and two centered around rookie forward Zach Benson. The frustration boiled over for head coach Don Granato, who erupted on the bench in the third period after the second call on Benson to earn a penalty of his own. The Granato penalty was a notable one. The Panthers were able to cash in on the five-on-three powerplay and bank the eventual game-winning goal.

Must Read: Granato Gets Heated; Sabres Burnt in Florida 3-2

“You got to stand up for your team…you can’t sit and watch,” Granato said after the game. The coach’s actions and comments earned him a healthy $25,000 fine from the league, which is trying to discourage outbursts against its referees.

The coach’s frustration reflected something Sabres fans have been discussing for a while now – Benson’s odd treatment from the officials.

Benson Penalties

Zach Benson has a questionable reputation with the referees in his first season in the league, and his two penalties taken in Florida are the latest proof. The first one was a holding penalty awarded to Benson to offset the interference penalty taken by Panthers defenseman Dmitry Kulikov. Kulikov put both arms around the Sabres forward in a race for the puck on a pending icing call, driving him into the boards at high speed.

It was a dangerous play that could’ve – and probably should’ve – resulted in a Sabres powerplay. Instead, Buffalo found themselves in a four-on-four situation.

Benson’s second penalty of the evening was for tripping, as his stick got lodged against the back of the Panthers’ net at the feet of Niko Mikkola. Mikkola toppled over, drawing the obvious penalty. What was also apparent in the play was that Benson was stumbling forward thanks to a shove from Brandon Montour. Since the Sabres rookie did not have the puck, the shove fell under the definition of interference. In essence, the Mikkola trip was the Panthers’ own doing.

These are two of the latest examples of a handful of phantom penalty calls on Benson this season. Theories about why he is receiving unfair treatment usually boil down to his age and playing style.

“18-year-olds don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt.”

“Young players have to earn the respect of the refs.”

“50-50 calls in battles will go to the veterans.”

In sifting through the last 16 years of data those theories are not only debunked, rather, the contrary is supported.

18 Year-Olds

Since the 2007-2008 season, 88 18-year-old forwards have appeared in an NHL game. That’s an average of 5.5 per season. This season there are four – Connor Bedard, Leo Carlsson, Adam Fantilli, and Benson. Regarding penalty differential, Bedard has drawn 10 more penalties than taken and leads the way. Carlsson is second at seven more drawn than taken. Fantilli is third at plus-four, while Benson brings up the rear at two more penalties taken than drawn for a minus-two.

Only 14 of these 88 players finished their 18-year-old season with a negative penalty-differential. Only five players finished worse than where Benson currently stands. Nail Yakupov, Alex Galchenyuk, and Juraj Slafkovsky all finished their first seasons with a minus-three penalty differential. Benson is on pace to pass that.

That leaves Gabriel Landeskog (-8) and Andrei Svechnikov (-13) as the only ones with a worse penalty differential than where Benson projects to end up. Both players are much bigger and apt to initiate contact more than the Sabres rookie.

So what do these players that must “earn their stripes” around the league average in penalties?

The average number of penalties drawn is 10 among 18-year-old rookies. That’s four more than the average of six penalties taken. Of course, that’s over the average 38 games played in their first season. Extend that out to Benson’s projected total of 66 games and, on average, he should see about seven more penalties drawn than taken.

Jeff Skinner

The biggest debunker of the 18-year-olds don’t get preferential treatment theory is the Sabres’ own Jeff Skinner. As a rookie with the Carolina Hurricanes, Skinner drew a whopping 55 minor penalties. He was the culprit of an infraction only 23 times. That’s a +32 penalty differential, which is tops among the class. Skinner also posted 31 goals and 63 points in his 18-year-old season back in 2010-2011, so to say he burst onto the scene after being drafted 7th overall is an understatement.

Skinner’s box score statistics, excluding penalties, rank him the 30th most similar to Benson out of the player pool of 88. To see if playing style affects penalties being determined, let’s see how other players have faired that graded more similar to Benson in that age range.

Other 18 Year-Olds

With an astounding 93% similarity score to Benson, Alexis Lafreniere had the closest comparable 18-year-old season to the rookie. The 2020 first-overall pick didn’t quite shoot as often as Benson, but scored more goals and hit at a higher frequency. Despite being more physical, Lafreniere posted a positive penalty-differential at plus-two.

The remainder of the top 10 most similar forwards based on box score similarity are Jesse Puljujarvi, Mikkel Boedker, Nail Yakupov, Kaapo Kakko, Eeli Tolvanen, Nino Niederreiter, Kent Johnson, Filip Zadina, and Patrik Laine. Altogether the top 10 averaged about two more penalties drawn than taken. This proves that playing style does not correlate with Benson’s treatment either. If anything, those comps should perhaps signify another alarm as there are some scary names included.

If the phantom calls on Benson were not made, he’d be in the same company.

So what does all of this tell us?

Well, it’s fair to say Benson is getting unfair treatment from the refs. That’s without even getting into the details of each penalty. Everyone has calls that don’t go their way at times. It’s fair to think that he could at least be rewarded by drawing a few more penalties as well.

Benson is already in the 82nd percentile at drawing these calls, so perhaps the penalty differential issue will be resolved over time. In the meantime, it’s fair for Benson, his coach, and Sabres fans alike to have a gripe.

**Stats courtesy of PuckLuck and Evolving-Hockey*