Should Zenon Konopka stay out of the penalty box?

What an unusual and inspired journey to the NHL for Zenon Konopka: Undrafted, he didn't achieve "NHL regular" status until age 29 in 2009-10 -- his fifth NHL season, on his third NHL team (plus nine AHL/ECHL squads), still working less than 10 minutes a game. That year he made his name with the Lightning by leading the league in PIM (265) while skating just 8:08 per night.

But when Garth Snow signed him for the Islanders this summer, while many wondered, "Is Snow really replacing Richard Park with an enforcer?", there was that one other attribute that stuck out: Konopka's 62.3% faceoff success rate on 462 draws. (Despite such minimal ice time, that was fourth-most on the team, about half as many draws as Steven Stamkos took, and a third as many as Vincent Lecavalier.)

In eight games as an Islander -- getting a second-lowest-on-the-team 10:38 of TOI -- Konopka has already taken a team-high 141 draws, winning 61.7%.

Faceoffs - 2010-11 W L Win% PKW PKL EVW EVL Tot
Konopka 87 54 61.7 21 20 65 32 141

But Konopka is also leading his team (again) in another category: PIMs. So I ask: Should he be?

The Asset: A Unique Set of Skills

You already know this if you're watching the games, but what taking the most draws on the team while skating the fewest non-Trevor Gillies minutes tells you is Scott Gordon deploys Konopka very carefully and strategically: Lots of shorthanded faceoffs -- which, when won and cleared, can shave 10-15 seconds off the opponent's powerplay -- and lots of defensive zone draws for him to win, then sub off as the team rushes up ice. On the PK, he's already taken 25 more draws than Frans Nielsen (41 to Nielsen's 16).

If he is so clearly the team's first choice on important draws, then do the Islanders want him spending time in the box that he can avoid?

To be fair, despite a gaudy 21 PIMs in just eight games, Konopka has only taken three minor penalties -- at least two of which I can objectively tell you were absolute crap referee error. (The most recent one was Saturday night in Florida, when he drove the puck to the net -- literally hitting the side of the net -- and was unbelievably called for goalie interference, despite not actually making contact with the goalie, with 15 minutes left in a tied game.)

So at this early date, you can't call him a careless penalty taker: He's not both putting the Isles short and depriving them of their best PK faceoff guy.

 

Fighting: A Peculiar Institution

But Konopka is choosing to fight so far (three in eight games), whether to fire up the team, "switch the momentum" or even partially settle old scores. Since Trevor Gillies is playing and only getting a couple minutes of TOI per night, wouldn't we prefer Gillies take those fights?

The role of an enforcer in today's NHL is much debated -- I laid out my own theory about this cognitive pretzel last year -- but one trend is that, for the most part the "heavyweights" only fight each other. That means guys who skate ~5 minutes per night only "police" a fraction of the game and quickly cancel each other out, which is why the Rangers' giant contract to Derek Boogaard is so laughable, and their claims of making him more of a h-o-c-k-e-y player so downright entertaining.

Enforcer A: "Hey, don't hit our stars."

Enforcer B: "Oh yeah? I'll hit who I want!"

Enforcer A: "No you won't."

Enforcer B: "What are you going to do about it?"

Enforcer A: "Fight you."

Enforcer B: "Oh, okay." {they fight}

{both spend next five minutes in box, then rest of game on bench. All stars are now deemed safe via Ambiguous NHL Code Section IV(b).}

So these days, to the extent (if you believe it) that fighting still serves a role in today's game, you almost need a non-heavyweight available if a non-heavyweight on the other team is doing something that needs "policing."

Since Konopka isn't exactly a minutes-muncher, having him take on players who wouldn't dare take on Gillies seems appropriate. But since his unique skill at faceoffs is strategically important, you'd want him to either avoid fights altogether (note: That's not happening) or, at minimum, not get into them at critical "close-and-late" points of the game.

It's early, but so far Konopka's at least observed the latter concern. As the season goes on and Gillies likely makes way for other returning forwards in the lineup later, it will be something to watch how Konopka handles his availability to drop the gloves.

On the one hand, he performs an important skill at a level few other than Manny Malhotra can match. On the other hand...6 in 10 versus 5 in 10 -- in 1 60-minute game, shouldn't the other Islanders centers make do for the five when Zenon isn't available?

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