Kyle Wellwood can only shrug and shake his head when he's asked about penalties.
The Winnipeg Jet forward has become something of an anomaly on his team. The Jets are among the most penalized clubs in the NHL, having given up 132 power plays so far this season entering the NHL schedule Monday, second only to the Ottawa Senators' 133.
So how many of those 132 power plays are because of Wellwood? Just one. That's right. On a team that averages almost five minor penalties a game, Wellwood has taken one so far this season, a tripping call on Oct. 13 in a game against the Chicago Blackhawks.
"That's pretty normal for me," Wellwood said recently when asked about his low infraction rate. "I don't know how they are getting the penalties. I don't really understand their side of it."
Remarkably, while some of his teammates have spent 25 minutes or more in the penalty box this season, including top young forward Evander Kane, none of them has asked Wellwood for tips. "I've never had a player ask me about staying out of the box," Wellwood said.
Maybe they should.
Wellwood, 28, learned from a young age how to play without taking penalties. He went two seasons with the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League without spending a single minute in the penalty box. He earned an OHL award as the most gentlemanly player and a similar sportsmanlike honour for all of Canadian junior hockey in 2002-03. During his seven seasons in the NHL, the most time he has ever served in the box was 14 minutes in total during his first full year with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2005-06.
"It seems natural to me to be able to avoid penalties," he said. "It's pretty clear what the referees are looking for as far as where you can hook a guy, where you can jab a guy. You can hook certain areas, you can't in others. You can cross-check in some spots that are never going to get called. Some guys have a knack for it and some guys don't."
One of the simplest tricks, he added, "is making sure that when you do get called you don't make a scene about it because the refs are human and if you get on their bad side, some calls that maybe they'll let go every once in a while, you are going to get pinched. And I think our team has some guys like that."
Gaining a reputation as a clean player also helps. "It's just familiarity that I'm not doing things to take penalties. If it's close [referees]will give you leeway. We've got a young team and guys are playing hard and getting frustrated with the refs, and [the referees]are going to have their eye on them more."
Wellwood acknowledged that his careful play means he takes fewer risks, which can hold him back when it comes to goals and assists (he has seven goals and 11 assists, ranking him fifth in points on the Jets). "Over the course of a season, yeah, maybe it takes away three to five points. But in the grand scheme of things it's a trade off – me going to the box isn't going to help me or the team."
Jets coach Claude Noel said much of Wellwood's success comes from getting into the right spot on the ice. "Penalties, a lot of times, are caused because of poor positioning and fatigue. … Wellwood is a smart positional player and he's not a reacher and you can't reach in today's game. When you reach to check people you are getting yourself in trouble, whether it's hooking, holding or slashing."
Jets goalie Chris Mason said that, from his vantage point, players simply use their sticks way too much, something Wellwood avoids. "I just seems like maybe it's instinct to get your stick up," Mason said. "I just remember out of the lockout [in 2005]that was the biggest thing – don't get the stick in the gloves, don't get the stick on the body. If you even touch a little bit or interfere on the play it's going to be a penalty. A player like Kyle he knows that, he doesn't put himself in that situation."
The Jets have been doing better lately in terms of giving up fewer power plays, taking as few as three penalties in some recent games, which has been Noel's target. That's still more time in the penalty box than Wellwood will likely spend all season. "I just think it's a style of play," he said. "And once you start a certain style you just kind of stick with it."
Sixty-nine of the 760 players who've suited up in the NHL this season for at least one game haven't recorded a penalty minute yet, as of Sunday. But just three of them are regulars (defined as playing 20 or more games this season):
Andrew Brunette, Chicago Blackhawks, 30 GP
Daniel Paille, Boston Bruins, 24 GP
Brad Boyes, Buffalo Sabres, 21 GP