The majority of the talk lately seems to be about penalties and the NHL’s ballyhooed crackdown on slashing infractions.
Now, I’m probably a little more…motivated…when it comes to this topic than I am most others. After all, I’ve spent two seasons tracking infractions and have presented in my officiating review what I believe to be reasonable evidence that only about 16% of total infractions committed on the ice are penalized.
That 16% means that about one in six infractions gets called. This rate changes depending on the kind of infraction committed, be it boarding, cross-checking, hooking, and so on, but in no situation does the rate of a call climb above 30%. Slashing was, by far, one of the most frequently committed infractions I logged, sharing this distinction with interference and hooking, both of which are more technical fouls and less likely to result in an injury.
Overall stick infractions such as slashing had become a very real problem for the NHL and anything that increased attention to and enforcement of them was overdue.
If we’re going to explore this issue, we first need to return to how big a problem it was.
Johnny Gaudreau missed roughly six weeks due to a fractured finger as a result of receiving 21 slashes to the hands and wrists during a single game against the Minnesota Wild.
21 slashes in a single game on a single player. All to the hands and wrists.
That’s a problem.
Last season I reviewed 40 games split between the Oilers, Flames and other NHL teams. During that time I recorded roughly 2090 infraction incidents, some penalized, many not. From that data I published my findings at Oilers Rig and Flamesnation. The core conclusion I came to was that the officials were being directed by the Board of Governors to enforce the rules such that a minimum number of power plays were taking place within the game and that players were likely expected to adjust accordingly.
I believe that the impetus for this direction from the BoG is due to an internal but misguided desire within the league for “parity”. But not parity in an economical sense, instead one where every GM wants their 4th line, $1 million dollar foot soldier to be able to not have his head caved in against another team’s $7 million dollar superstar forward. So, they say “let ‘em play, this is hockey not ballet!”.
That appears to have changed this summer when apparently GMs realized that the overall product was suffering and that allowing players to target the hands of stars sometimes results in injury to those talents whom the paying public has come to witness. Also, it doesn’t look good for a league to have people sitting out a game with impromptu amputations. Just as Mark Methot.
But is the current NHL crackdown going too far? We’re only a few days into the pre-season but fans are, of course, reacting emotionally to what they’ve witnessed in a small, highly-circumstantial period of time.
Let’s begin by looking at the games that took place on Sept. 18th. Counting the games of EDM @ CGY, CGY @ EDM, WSH @ NJD, TOR @ OTT, CAR @ BUF, MIN @ WPG, and NYI @ NYR (MTL @ BOS data was unavailable at the time of this writing), there were 99 power play opportunities handed out for an average of just over 12 per game, enough for 6 power plays for each team.
Now, on average, I recorded anywhere between 40 and 60 infractions per game, with a 16% call rate that came out to about 8 penalties being called per game, four power plays a side. An increase to 12 would mean a penalty call rate of roughly 24%, still allowing 3 out of 4 infractions to go uncalled.
In my study I broke down infractions based on severity, types 1, 2 and 3. Type 1s were the kind nobody wants called, ticky-tack calls that generally get groans and raised eyebrows from fans and observers alike. The game doesn’t need to be called at that level and nobody would welcome it. Type 2 are fair calls, they meet the criteria in the rule book and by eye and deserve to be called. Type 3 are the really glaring ones – a boarding on a vulnerable player, a high stick that drops the victim to the ice, a slash that breaks a player’s stick.
The highest rate of call from the previous two seasons were those in the type 3 range at about 30%. That means 1 in 3 get called for something so obvious the guys in the nosebleed section can see it. Simply said, that isn’t good enough for any league that describes itself as “professional”.
What we’re witnessing here is a nominal increase in overall call rate to about 24% and on only a limited range of infraction, namely slashing. It remains unclear whether interference, cross-checking, boarding, and the like will continue be held to the same questionable standard.
So why am I so fired up over the NHL’s new focus? Because not only is it long overdue, but because there are already voices criticising it, saying that it disrupts the flow of the game, that one team constantly getting power plays isn’t fair, that referees are deciding the outcome of the game.
Let me take a moment to step up onto my soap box and say a few words about a team getting penalized too often and what that means with regards to fairness.
These arguments are, if you’ll forgive me, complete and utter bull.
Arguing that penalties disrupt the flow of the game is like saying speeding traps disrupt the flow of traffic.
Saying that one team getting more power plays isn’t fair is the logical equivalent of saying that both teams should get a point for showing up or that the better team should have to scratch their best player. That’s not how sport, or life, works. If we assume that penalties are being evenly called and without bias (a bold leap, I’ll grant you) then the best advice I give to you about your team taking fewer penalties is to stop committing them.
Complaining that referees are deciding the outcome of the game by enforcing its rules is an argument so bereft of any kind of mature reasoning that I’m afraid I can’t even formulate a reasonable reply. Provided the referees are calling the game evenly, without prejudice towards veterans or stars, then a referee calling a penalty isn’t deciding the outcome of the game. The player who took the penalty did.
And if calling penalties for actual, real infractions like slashing results in more goals per game, well, what could possibly be wrong with that?
Recently Darcy McLeod of Woodguy fame published an article investigating the rate of calls within the game and the scoring changes that would likely result. It is a well-researched and thorough argument and I would highly recommend reading it. In building off of Darcy’s work for this article, I cannot think of any hockey fan I know or follow who would not welcome an increase in scoring, be it 5v5 or through special teams.
Hockey is a contact sport, but there are rules. They exist so that all the players execute the game we love within consistent boundaries limited only by the skill and training they bring to the rink. If you want to win against a team with superior skill, you use discipline and all the defensive schemes your coaches are paid to develop and drill into you to do so.
Waterskiing behind a star because you can’t keep up isn’t a viable method of “levelling the playing field”. Neither is slashing a player’s wrists or hands with the intent of injuring them because they possess a superior skill set.
And no, I’m not using hyperbole here to make a point. You can go back to the Gaudreau link above and watch the game clips that illustrate the sad state the game was in last year and replicate that for approximately 80% of every single team’s games of the season.
So I get that a lot of power plays makes the game seem interrupted, but there is an option for either team being penalized – stop committing the infractions. Because here’s the thing, those are the rules of the game, breaking them in an obvious fashion SHOULD result in a penalty. They don’t exist because of some obscure whim or arbitrary fancy, they are there to reinforce the validity of the game as a means of entertainment and to justify the end result for whichever team wins.
In essence, the league is faced with a choice: dumb the play down so that Dustin Brown can appear to contribute as much to the game of hockey as John Tavares, or enforce the rules and demand a better game, a smarter game, from its players.
Now, here’s where we can take a moment and discuss the slashing penalty itself.
I’m sure some will say “yeah, but there were calls there that should never have been made, it was hardly a slash. Are you going to call every one of those? Because then the game will just be shinny and you won’t be able to touch anyone!”
There are always questionable calls, but I can tell you with absolute certainty that the incidence of phantom calls in the NHL is so far away from being anywhere near a serious concern that it is almost negligible.
Remember those 2090 incidents I mentioned earlier? That included infractions that were called and uncalled. In all those thousands of infractions I recorded only 10 phantom calls, where a penalty was given when no infraction occurred. 10 out of 2090. Compare that with the approximately 1460 infractions that were committed with no penalty given and I think we can say that any system that errs on the side of giving out more penalties for infractions is an improvement over the current one.
On top of that, let’s take a moment to look at the wording of the NHL rule book on slashing and see what it says.
Here is the NHL rule book for 2017-2018 season and the section on slashing (Rule 61.1, 61.2, 61.2, 61.3). By the way, so far as I can tell it is unchanged from previous seasons, having reviewed the rules prior to each season when I would begin my officiating reviews.
“61.1 Slashing is the act of a player swinging his stick at an opponent, whether contact is made or not. Non-aggressive stick contact to the pant or front of the shin pads, should not be penalized as slashing. Any forceful or powerful chop with the stick on an opponent’s body, the opponent’s stick, or on or near the opponent’s hands that, in the judgment of the Referee, is not an attempt to play the puck, shall be penalized as slashing.
“61.2 Minor penalty – A minor penalty, at the discretion of the Referee based on the severity of the contact, shall be imposed on a player who slashes an opponent.
“61.3 Major Penalty – A major penalty, at the discretion of the Referee based on the severity of the contact, shall be imposed on a player who slashes an opponent. When injury occurs, a major penalty must be assessed under this rule (see 61.5).
These are the rules regarding slashing that the NHL has had on its books for years now, indeed even last season when it became such a problem.
So the rules exist, the league merely lacked the will or desire to enforce them.
Would you re-write these rules to a different standard? Do you think anything you could offer would be a better guide for officials?
And here’s the thing about calling rule infractions like slashing or interference. The more you call it, the less likely the players are to commit it.
When the NHL took out the two-line pass rule many said it would result in constant cherry-picking and a breakdown of proper 5-man play.
Teams adjusted, players adjusted, schemes adjusted. Were there more breakaways? Of course, but while they increased, they remained relatively infrequent within the game and I don’t know anyone who would say today that the 5-man system in the defensive zone is in disarray as a result. And in the meantime one of the most exciting plays in hockey was re-introduced to the game.
If the NHL decides to start looking at calling slashing penalties, they are going to find them because they necessarily exist. Continue long enough and they will eventually begin to diminish because players will understand that it isn’t in their best interests to spend time in the penalty box or sitting on the bench because their coach won’t risk playing them.
Hockey is a dynamic sport, one that is constantly evolving in an environment where every inch on the ice is explored for potential competitive advantage. In the 70s it was brute strength, in the 80s speed and skill, in the 90s trapping and defensive lockdown. Throughout the generations the rules have changed and players have adapted, partially because those who don’t adapt find themselves replaced but also because new players coming into the league have likely never known otherwise and simply accept it for what it is.
The rules have been around, in their most basic form, for nearly as long as the game has been played. What we as fans have witnessed over our lifetimes is equal parts evolution of the sport and a league’s capricious instincts in policing it. Perhaps the league will backtrack on their current crackdown (history would certainly suggest it is likely), or perhaps they will be rewarded with accolades for the improved on-ice product and stick with it. If so, I expect the game will improve and so will our enjoyment of it.
But for heaven’s sake let’s at least give it a try. It might just make this game better.