Islanders Grades: Zenon Konopka, PIM and faceoff specialist

I have a theory about enforcers that may not be popular: They are "good in the room" not simply because it is in their nature, but because it is in the interest of job security. In terms of the NHL, they are a variation of the class clown -- the guys smart enough to realize early on that they couldn't be class jock or bully so they better find another route to relevance. For Paul Bissonnette in Phoenix (48 GP this season, zero in the playoffs), that entails being a fearsome fighter and creating the most hilarious athlete Twitter persona fans have seen.

Enforcers, by definition, fight often because they couldn't do the other things that would get them to the NHL. A few of the better ones fight to prove themselves in this league, then lay off the gas thinking they've "earned" the right to pick and choose their spots. Then their GM wonders why they signed their glitzy enforcer to a long-term deal.

Zenon Konopka never had that problem -- he again led the league in PIM this season on a one-year contract. But his larger than life personality and popularity among fans comes in part through the nature of his position, which is one of thankless work and tenuous job security. He's an unrestricted free agent who was shopped at the deadline and has yet to be re-signed despite expressed interest on his end. He was brought in to do a job, and he did it. But for enforcers, that isn't always enough to earn another deal. Konopka, though, isn't your typical enforcer.

Faceoff Maestro

Faceoffs are Konopka's "class clown" skill: They make Konopka different and more useful than the average enforcer. And the Islanders used him in that role to the fullest extent:


GP G A P +/- PIM Fights Hits TOI PKtoi FO FO% PKFO%
2010-11 - Zenon Konopka 82 2 7 9 -14 307 25 110 (6th)
10:11 1:32 1075 (2nd)
57.7% 52%

Ranks in parentheses are Konopka's rank in that category on the Islanders. So he took the 2nd-most faceoffs (behind John Tavares) despite logging barely over 10 minutes per game. He was sixth on the team in hits, behind only Matt Martin, Blake Comeau and P.A. Parenteau among Islanders forwards.

But there's way more to Konopka's extreme faceoff role than simply a large aggregate number of faceoffs taken: There's where he took them. According to Gabe Desjardins' Behind the Net data, Konopka began his even-strength shifts an almost unbelievably low 30% of the time in the offensive zone. (In contrast, the top offensive line of John Tavares, Matt Moulson and P.A. Parenteau began about 55% of their shifts in the offensive zone.)

At even strength defensive zone draws, Konopka's line won 240 draws and lost 177, a lofty volume and winning percentage unmatched on the Isles even by the Frans, the myth, the Grabner (those two were roughly 155-155 on D-zone draws). Essentially, when the Isles are backed into their own zone with a faceoff pending, both Scott Gordon and Jack Capuano relied heavily on Konopka's ability to win the draw and bail them out.

 

Fighting, PIMs and Misconducts

According to hockeyfights.com, Konopka got into 25 scraps this year, where voters put his record at 8-9-8.

Some fights, frankly, seemed silly, like his opening faceoff scrap with Chris Stewart (then of Colorado) that supposedly settled some offseason score. If Konopka is an important faceoff specialist, it seems sometimes he too easily took himself off the ice for five (and often 10) minutes. Particularly early in the season, I and others had trouble discerning the purpose and timing of some of these.

All that fighting helped fuel his league "lead" in PIM (307) for the second consecutive year. But fighting wasn't the only reason Konopka was nearly 100 PIM ahead of the 2nd-ranked guy (Chris Neil, 210): Konopka received 10, 10-minute misconducts, also a league high (Neil was second, with seven).

Now, I and others have complained that the Islanders received an unreasonable amount of short-fused calls by NHL officials, as demonstrated by the fact even Frans Nielsen was receiving 10-minute misconducts. As a team, they received 31 of those, with Edmonton the next in line at only 20. To me that's a ridiculous display on the officials' end, but it also must be a reflection of a reputation that Konopka may not be helping. Between pre-game warmup jawing at center ice and making a vocal 1-2 combo with his buddy and fellow frequent pugilist Trevor Gillies, is Konopka inviting or feeding some of this reputation?

In short, even if it's not an issue of the Islanders' own making, is Konopka doing what he can to avoid exacerbating the issue?

 

Do You Re-Sign Him?

Many enforcers state they want to be hockey players in this league, but that loses sight of how they became enforcers in the first place: Their considerable hockey talent maxed out at a level before the NHL. The only way to continue on was to adapt. Konopka's faceoff ability adds another layer to that adaption. (Also: Co-custody of Hoppy the Bunny.) And his fascinating family history and outlook makes you think he'd never become one of those "comfortable" enforcers who thinks he has it made, even if he were handed a multi-year deal.

Further, he's obviously been the proverbial "glue" presence in the room, a vocal rally guy who considers everyone on the team "family" and hasn't met a teammate who wasn't "Cousin" so-and-so. His role in making sure the Islanders took no more cheap crap from teams like the Penguins is pretty clear. (And people who think Feb. 11 was about avenging the Brent Johnson-Rick DiPietro fight haven't watched Islanders games, and Isles-Pens meetings, with a very critical eye. There was so much going on there before the fights began.)

As demonstrated by his extreme defensive zone starts, limited minutes, and limited linemates, Konopka can't much be faulted for not putting up more offensive numbers. He has a niche role -- a rare combination of specialized jobs -- and he's done it.

The question on resigning him probably comes down to:

  • Can the Islanders find better guys to do the faceoff role (either within by sharing the load, or without by finding a free agent/trade upgrade)?
  • Can the Isles rely on others to fill the middleweight fighting role when NHL frontier justice comes knocking (e.g. Matt Martin, Micheal Haley)?
  • Is Konopka's personality and presence too much, either within the locker room or in the minds of referees who dole out the extra PIMs like candy?
  • How big will the loss be, in tangible and intangible terms, if he's not on next year's squad?

The Grade

But those re-signing questions are for discussion purposes. The poll below is about grading his 2010-11 season. Consider what you expected of him before the season began, and grade him on that curve. But first...

 

...The Poem

Mele, Zen-on Kon-op-ka is a thing to say
On a cold, February Nassau day
Mele Zen-on Kon-op-ka is a thing to see
When your team's been taking liberties

Zenon rallies his cousins when you've crossed the line
The response no doubt brings out your inner whine

So you may claim all your late hits were clean
And you may decry that bad boy Zeke is mean
But one thing's clear for any Zenopka hater:
You can't hide forever behind the instigator

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