NHL’s officiating issues don’t end with the big blown calls in the playoffs

There are deep rooted problems with the way NHL games are refereed.

Pass it to Bulis

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When all goes well for the NHL, the referees and the calls they make recede into the background. This is particularly true in the playoffs, when the adage, “Let the players play” comes into full effect. In the playoffs, the NHL rulebook, like the pirate’s code in Pirates of the Caribbean, is more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules.

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Unfortunately for the NHL, the officiating in the playoffs has taken centre stage thanks to a series of controversial calls. Somehow, a couple of the biggest botched calls have benefited one team: the San Jose Sharks.

The Sharks won their first-round series against the Vegas Golden Knights partly because of a five-minute major called on what should have been, at most, a two-minute minor. The Sharks, down by three goals in Game 7, scored four goals on the five-minute power play.

In Game 3 against the St. Louis Blues in the Western Conference Final, the Sharks scored the overtime winner off a missed hand pass. There’s no denying that the refs blew the call and the NHL didn’t even try to deny it.

“That was the wrong call,” said NHL Executive VP Colin Campbell. “It’s should’ve been a whistle if the referee had seen it live...It’s so unfair that the game ended that way. The wrong way.”

Those are two egregious calls that significantly affected the results of key playoff games. You can blame some combination of incompetence, the speed of the game, and natural human error for these mistakes, but that will do little to assuage the anger of aggrieved fans.

These big mistakes, however, are not the biggest problem. Mistakes are unavoidable, to a certain extent. No amount of video review will entirely remove human error and endless reviews can cause more problems. For example, look to another controversial call that benefited the Sharks: the Avalanche had a goal in Game 7 of their second-round series overturned because of a video review that spotted Gabriel Landeskog a millimetre offside as he attempted to open the gate at his bench for a line change. He wasn’t involved in the play and had no effect on the goal, but the endeavour to remove human error instead removed a piece of human excellence.

The bigger issue is the intentional, purposeful decisions made by referees (and their bosses in the NHL front office) to “let the players play” and to manage games instead of just calling the rules as written. Letting the players play doesn’t actually let the players play. Instead, it only leads to more clutching, grabbing, hooking, and holding that goes uncalled, limiting the ability of the league’s best players to play their best.

The five-minute major that was called on the Golden Knights was a result of a high crosscheck by Cody Eakin on Joe Pavelski off a faceoff. Many fans complained that it shouldn’t have even been a penalty as similar crosschecks go uncalled all the time, but why do we accept that? Those other crosschecks, which are dangerous and unnecessary, should be called more consistently, in hopes that they’ll disappear from the game.

Similarly, the hand pass that led to the Sharks game-winning goal in Game 3 against the Blues only happened because Timo Meier was blatantly tripped by Jay Bouwmeester a moment earlier. That obvious trip was about to go uncalled and it was the only reason Meier was on the ice with the puck by his hand in the first place. If he wasn’t tripped, Meier could have stepped around Bouwmeester and passed the puck legally with his stick instead.

Hockey fans have become inured to these types of missed calls, but they’re far more frequent than the big blown calls that cause so much controversy, and the result is a slower, less entertaining, and more dangerous game. Too often, referees are more concerned with keeping things even than making the right calls.

In the regular season, teams that drew the most penalties also got called for the most penalties, while the teams that drew fewer got called for fewer. There’s a very clear correlation between the two, when there’s no reason there should be. Why don’t faster, more talented teams draw more penalties than they take? It’s “game management,” where refs feel compelled to keep things “fair” and “even” by balancing out penalties between two teams instead of just calling the penalties as they occur.

Penalty minutes taken and drawn are highly correlated

What’s the solution? There needs to be more accountability, more clarity in the rulebook, and less focus on “evening up” penalties. The NBA has set an example here: they publish reports after every game explaining calls in close games and have an official Twitter account for their referees that engages with fans, discusses calls, and shows transparency.

Big Numbers

5.84 - In the 2018-19 season, there was an average of 5.84 power play opportunities per game. That’s the lowest average in the history of the NHL. This season, referees called far fewer penalties than ever before.

13 - Canucks prospect Michael DiPietro won 13-straight games with the Ottawa 67’s in the OHL playoffs. When he got injured, however, the 67’s lost four straight to the Guelph Storm in the OHL Final to fall short of the OHL Championship.

Stick-taps and Glove-drops

A tap of the stick to Troy Stecher and Team Canada, who qualified for the semifinals at the World Hockey Championship in Slovakia with a miraculous win over Switzerland, with Damon Severson scoring a goal with 0.4 seconds left to get the game to overtime.

A tap of the stick to Great Britain, who improbably came back from being down 3-0 to defeat France in one of the most entertaining games of the World Hockey Championship. The win saved Great Britain from relegation and they’ll play in the top division again next year.



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