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Photo Credit: NATHAN DENETTE

Countdown to season question #12: Will NHL continue to call stick infractions?

Coming out of the 2005 lockout the NHL vowed it would crack down on obstruction. During the 2005/2006 season the league did exactly that. Teams combined for 14,390 poweplays and 2,538 PP goals. The average powerplay success rate was 17.6%.

Last season the NHL had a total of 7,349 powerplays and 1,405 PP goals (19.1% avg). Teams averaged 479 PP opportunities in 2006, and last season they averaged 244. In eleven years we’ve seen powerplays cut in half. I recognize the average player skates better today, and over time players would adapt to the rules, but it is painfully obvious to anyone who watches the game the NHL has simply stopped calling the rule book.

We see far too many stick infractions go uncalled. The new trend is to hack at the hands of the puck carrier without punishment. Thankfully the NHL has woke up and plans to actually enforce the rule book this season.

The burning question for everyone watching, covering and playing the game is: will it last? Does the NHL have the courage to call the rule book all season long?

I completely understand those who doubt the NHL’s willingness to enforce the rules for an extended period of time. After 2006, the penalties started to dip again, and while a small factor was from players figuring out the new standards, the ugly reality was the NHL simply stopped calling the rule book and the game has eroded back to pre-lockout standards.

In fact, last year was much worse than 2003/2004, when the NHL felt obstruction was an issue.

In 2004, teams combined for 10,427 powerplays and 1,715 goals (16.4% league avg). That was still 3,078 more powerplays league-wide than what we witnessed last season.

In 2004 it was holding and obstruction, but the past few seasons the amount of slashing, hooking and holding the league has turned a blind eye to has become ridiculous.

It was time for a crackdown, and I’m sure there will be some growing pains.

In 2004 the Oilers had 338 powerplays and only 44 goals. They had the worst PP in the NHL at 13%.
In 2006 Edmonton had 485 powerplays and 86 goals, good for 18.1%.
Last season the Oil had 245 powerplays and 56 goals for a stellar 22.9% success rate.

That’s a whopping 240 fewer penalties than 2006, and 93 fewer than 2004, when obstruction was deemed rampant.

Don’t be fooled. The NHL is in dire need of a reset, and while you might not like all the penalties called in the preseason, it is the only way to regain control of the never ending, unnecessary stick work.

It is important to show the massive difference in how the game is being called today, or more accurately how it isn’t being enforced.

Edmonton Oilers Ryan Smyth celebrates a goal by teammate Jason Smith (not shown) against the Annaheim Ducks during the second period of NHL hockey action at Edmonton’s Rexall Place on Thursday, January 18, 2007.
(CP PHOTO/Jimmy Jeong)

WILL IT LAST?

It damn well should, but of course we will be skeptical. The elite players are faster and more skilled today, but we rarely see it because the league has been seemingly oblivious to what is unfolding on a nightly basis in NHL arenas.

I went back and looked at the Oilers 2005/2006 season and broke down their PP and PK opportunities from each quarter of the season. I used 21 games in quarters one and three and 20 games in quarters two and four. Due to the uneven number I’ll showcase the average PP and PK/game as well as the total, but the average works better.

** Powerplay Opportunities per game are PPO/G. Times  Shorthanded per game are TS/G .
Actual amount of PPO and TS are in ( )**

Quarter            PPO/G               TS/G

1st                  6.19  (130)         6.14 (129)
2nd                 6.4  (128)          6.15 (123)
3rd                 6.38 (134)          5.71 (120)
4th                  4.65 (93)           5.3   (106)

The Oilers actually had more PP chances in quarters two and three than in the first 20 games, which would suggest the league didn’t change their approach, however there is a drop in the fourth quarter. This is only one team, but I’d be surprised if the Oilers were a clear outlier statistically to the rest of the league in a quarter-by-quarter breakdown.

What about the playoffs, did we see a massive drop there?

The Oilers played 24 playoff games in 2006. (To our young readers, yes going deep in the playoffs has occurred in Edmonton. Don’t worry, your time to enjoy playoffs in June is coming).

In those 24 games the Oilers averaged 5.875 PPO/game (141). They had averaged 5.91 in the regular season.

Their TS/game actually went up in the playoffs. They averaged 6.58 TS/game in the playoffs up from 5.82 in the regular season. So the theory they let more go in the playoffs wasn’t true for the Oilers in 2006. Of course, it is impossible to accurately compare the amount of infractions that went uncalled in the playoffs compared to regular season, but since the games are much more intense I do wonder how much, if at all, that plays into the amount of calls that went unpunished. The stats do show, however, that in 2006 the NHL did not suddenly shy away from calling the game how they officiated it between October and April.

WHAT ABOUT LAST YEAR?

Here is how the Oilers PPO and TS played out last season.

Quarter            PPO/G             TS/G

1st                  3.00  (63)           2.85  (60)
2nd                3.4   (68)            3.15 (63)
3rd                 2.33 (49)            2.47 (52)
4th                 3.25  (65)           2.4  (48)

They actually had more PPO later in the season than they did earlier, but they did see a slight drop in TS. Overall the Oilers averaged 2.98 PPO/game and 2.71 TS/game. The NHL average was 3.12 PPO/game in the playoffs.

In the postseason they actually had more PPO/game at 3.23 and their TS/game was much higher at 3.76.

We would have to breakdown the amount of uncalled infractions in the regular season to playoffs to get an accurate calculation on whether officials actually let more go in the playoffs. It seems that way, but I also believe we watch the games closer and critique much more in the postseason, not to mention the heightened emotions from every fanbase during the playoffs. If a call is missed in game 45 it isn’t dissected or discussed as much as a perceived missed hook or slash in game six of a playoff series.

WRAP UP

Will the NHL continue to call slashing and hooking all season? I sure hope they do, and based on the data from 2006 it seems they did, at least when calculating the Oilers numbers.

The NHL needs to reset their standards. The stick work is out of control, even more rampant than obstruction was in 2004.

It will take some time, it might take an entire season for players to change their habits, but what the NHL has to do this time, is not give up after one season when the inevitable general managers meetings produce a lot of bitching and moaning.

Everyone needs to recognize the league needs to enforce the rules and call penalties. If some players can’t adapt, then coaches will find players who can.

In 2006 there were 14,390 powerplays league wide. It dropped to 11,935 in 2007. By 2009 it was down to 10,228, which was already lower than the 2004 numbers when people hated obstruction. And it has been on a steady decline ever since.

I believe the NHL will stick with the new protocol through the season. My concern is if they have the courage, strength and vision to continue calling penalties in future seasons.

Will this time be different? What say you?

Recently by Jason Gregor:

  • T Ambrosini

    While I wish they would call the game according to the rules, I agree, it will not last. The whistles will become ever more silent during the playoffs again. I hope I am wrong and the league sticks to their guns this time around.

  • OilCan2

    What a great way to teach the young and future stars. It’s okay to cheat as long as you don’t get caught. Cheat ten times and only get caught twice means you are getting the advantage 80% of the time. Good coaching. The NHL lies to the fans by artificially creating “parity” meanwhile destroying the basic premise of fair play based on even application of the rules. Sounds just the way big business and big government work; in a complete moral vacuum.

    • Retired Secret Agent

      Well said Sir. I agree completely. I don’t go to a game or watch on TV to see the best in the world get hacked, whacked and held. I want to see them play our favorite sport at their best.

    • NoBuBlackOPS

      100% disagree with your comment on parity. With just the Canadian teams going from all 7 missing the playoffs. To 5 making it last year that’s 33% change in teams making the playoffs. That also doesn’t account for the American teams that missed and made it last year.

  • Spydyr

    Like all other NHL crackdowns it will be called lots in the preseaon,less as the season goes on and only the blatant hacks will be called in the playoffs. The NHL tries to condition its players not to do certain things in this manner almost every season.

    • 99CupsofCoffey

      which is an asinine approach. The though being “Don’t let the referee decide a playoff game, let the players decide it.” It makes no sense though. By NOT enforcing rules in the playoffs set down during regular season games, the referees ARE deciding games… by swallowing their whistles.

    • Jason Gregor

      Except the above numbers state that isn’t the case. There was not a drop off during the 2005/2006 season. It occurred next season after GMs whined in the summer.

      • Spydyr

        The numbers you provided where for all penalties not for specific offensives that they are cracking down that particular season. The flavour of the month this year is slashes on the hands. A few years ago it was hooking with a stick parallel to the ice.

        • Dan 1919

          Yeah exactly, could be wrong but I find it very hard to believe that the game has eroded back to the water skiing days. I think the more likely case for the decreased penalties is the players learnt how to hook and grab less. But I still support their new mission, completely eliminate slashes to the hand now, they have absolutely no business in the game.

  • Leef O'Golin

    By the time the playoffs roll around it’ll be the same old thing. Slashing is out of control and so is cross-checking. The league just doesn’t have the backbone to make any real changes to increase scoring or protect its players.

    • BobbyCanuck

      The League will wake up and smell the future, unfortunately it will take a watershed moment, along the lines of BOTH Mathews & McDavid suffer career ending injuries this season…the refereeing in the NHL has put a serious damper in my desire to watch the play-offs, but like all of us I will watch

  • if you can get some huge corporation to sponsor power plays, the league will call penalties all game long. Coca Cola Power Play, or this power play brought to you by Chevrolet. That’ll get everything called. Put a billion $$ into it.

  • Dr. Merkwurdigliebe

    The league needs more offence. Anything to help that is a good thing. McDavid needs to perennially get over 100pts, and we need more 50 goal scorers.

  • Serious Gord

    How about the blades of sticks and players gloves being rigged so that a light Goes off when an opponents stick contacts a player’s glove? No room for referee discretion then.

    • madjam

      On the contrary , how many players use back and front of gloves to move another players stick to an area that benefits the puck carrier ? There are many that even take players stick under arm before diving , and some that will even take opponents stick and slap in on their face to draw a penalty . Happens frequently in course of game does it not – faking out the officials is part of game for many . Taking it further it would make it easy to cheat and deliberately use your glove to slap another players stick and thus draw a penalty , and i’d guarantee this will be flagrant with new rule if implemented fully . Almost an extension of techniques used in diving . It is a sticky situation (pun) on just how far to implement it . Flagrant abuse penalize , but don’t change rule to much for other tactics to override the integrity of the game while also limiting the final option which is official disgression on severity and whether it adversely effects the play . The stick work that goes on around goal area is incredible and could literally leave every team a penalty on every shift . That not beneficial for the game and hockey integrity . The bone of contention is making more calls on flagrant abuses , which has not always been the case for years now .

  • Pouzar99

    An extremely well written and well researched article on an important issue. Thanks Jason. I like the fact that you emphasize that the league, i.e the owners, is to blame. The players will always go as far as they are allowed to go and that is fair. The referees make some mistakes of course but they are bound to follow the constantly changing standards that are passed on to them from above, a near impossible task. Their sin is applying very different standards to young players than they do to veterans, especially in the playoffs. The owners are the problem. They think rough, tough, dirty hockey is more entertaining and will sell more tickets, not realizing that the speed and skill of today’s game is the best it has ever been, but the endless slashing, cross checking and other stick fouls is marring the game. I fear they also prefer low scoring games to create a false parity within the games and within the standings. They may stick with the standards we saw Monday night, or they may not. LIke the old saying, hockey is a great game and it has to be to survive the idiots who run it.

  • Oilerchild77

    We’ve had many of these discussions about rule crackdowns in the past. Will they continue to call this, will they continue to call that, and the answer has always been no. So… No.

  • Not a First Tier Fan

    Unless they find a way to inject a spine and manufacture a conscience for these gutless hacks that wear the stripes, I wouldn’t expect this ‘crack-down’ to last long.

    If an NHL ref and a slimy lawyer were trapped in a burning building and I could only save one of them I’d be saving the lawyer every time.

  • CMG30

    It will not last because too many people consider hacking, slashing, clutching and grabbing to be real hockey. When refs call these infractions fans are upset that the refs are ‘deciding the game’ and they should ‘let the players play’.

  • singlemalt

    When refs use discretion and decide not to call an infraction (because it is late in the game and the score is tied or it is an important game) on the premise that they don’t want to affect the outcome, unwitting they are doing the very thing the claim they are avoiding! And as for the argument that calling everything affects the flow of the game, that presupposes that the players are somehow unable to figure out what is and what is not a penalty. If everything is called as written it won’t be long until the players get it and not only will the flow be restored but the game will be played as intended and not at the discretion of a ref each of whom have their own interpretation of what should and what should not be called. A ref’s job is to be impartial and to be as humanly accurate as possible in calling all infractions. This will not prevent wrong calls as they are human but it will restore some some consistency and take referee interference out of the game.

  • BingBong

    A little off-topic, but I can’t believe the league/GM’s don’t feel the need to fix the ridiculous goaltender interference rule.
    We all saw what happened last year, and it was a complete gong-show.