Despite a call for crackdowns on obstruction, holding and hand slashing, NHL teams in 2017/2018 still have the fifth lowest PP/game average over the past 54 seasons. Despite more speed among the elite players of the game, they are managing to get fewer powerplays than ever before.
I love hockey — always have — but over the past few seasons, I find myself watching fewer games than I used to. I get frustrated by the amount of missed calls, and I find the games are less exciting than before. I was ecstatic when the new TV deal came out a few years ago, knowing we’d see more than just the Toronto Maple Leafs or Montreal Canadiens on Saturday nights. More channels meant more options and more opportunity to see the stars of the game.
However, after watching more games involving the best players, I’ve sadly realized the NHL is the only league that seems hell bent on punishing their best players. They want them to fight through infractions rather than enforce the rulebook. I don’t need an endless parade of penalties, but if the NHL would actually crack down on infractions, the players would adjust. And if they had to stop hooking or holding it would allow the incredible speed of today’s players to shine through more often.
Why wouldn’t the NHL want their most skilled players to be able to show off their incredible skill more often?
Since 1963/1964, only during five seasons have NHL teams averaged 3.2 penalties/game or less.
This year it is 3.2
In 1977/1978 it was 3.19.
In 2015/2016 teams averaged 3.11.
In 2014/2015 it was 3.06
And last season was the lowest ever, with teams averaging 2.99 powerplays/game.
So in the past 54 NHL seasons, four of the five lowest PP/game averages have occurred in the last FOUR NHL seasons.
I’d say it is a trend in the wrong direction.
And it’s down by a significant margin.
From 1980 to 2008, the average PP/game for a team was between 4.00 to 5.85 pp/games. The highest was in 2005/2006, when teams averaged 5.85 PP/game, but as recent as 2008 teams were at 4.16, which is basically one more PP game than what teams average now.
Don’t be fooled into believing players are that much more disciplined today. They aren’t, but they get away with much more holding, slashing and obstruction. During the 1990s when Mario Lemieux accurately complained about all the obstruction, teams still had way more powerplays than we see today.
From 1990 to 1999, the yearly average for powerplays/game for a team was 4.58, 4.57, 5.02, 5.28, 4.85, 4.36, 5.04, 4.10, 4.64 and 4.38.
From 2010 until this season, teams have averaged 3.71, 3.54, 3.31, 3.32, 3.27, 3.06, 3.11, 2.99 and 3.20 power plays per game.
Why the drastic decrease in penalties?
WHY FEWER CALLS?
I spoke with former NHL referee Kerry Fraser about the drop in penalties.
He turned the table and asked me, “Where do you see the potential infraction not being called most often?
I replied, “When a player has the puck with speed either though the neutral zone or entering the offensive zone. I see the most missed calls in those areas.”
Fraser then explained why. And he did it in great detail.
“I absolutely agree with you, and I’ll tell you why, because that’s where the play transitions. The transition through the neutral zone is really quick in the game now and that’s where the officials get caught flat footed. They start to back up from their positions, some of them retreat so far back they’re making long distance calls or they can’t support the puck when the play is down on the far end, and you watch, you’ll see guys standing back, red line or even beyond the red line towards the blue line when the play is deep in the other end. Those are the guys who are a little nervous about a quick transition and are not able to move backwards quick enough,” explained Fraser.
“You (refs) should be able to get out quick. When you read the play, when you see that there is a Connor McDavid starting to spring and he’s moving in open ice and he’s going to be a potential outlet once that Oilers guy regains possession of the puck, it’s at that moment that you read the play, you backup. you start, you always stay ahead of a McDavid or anybody and you’ve got to get moving your feet.
“Some guys don’t see that. They’re puck watchers, all of the sudden they get surprised. ‘Oh my God, the puck’s passed, McDavid has it’. Now you’re playing catch-up as a referee.
“So those elements of seeing the play in advance, reading it, knowing the outlet, when the guy gets the puck, what are all of the outlets, and you do that by setting up freeze frame pictures. You might have to have a [Milan] Lucic on the one side, he might be just inside the blueline. You might have the centremen, McDavid, up high and the other winger is down low supporting the puck. So you’ve got to know when the puck is obtained, where the defensive players are and where the best outlets are as a referee.
“You’ve got to move, you’ve got to see it, you’ve got to angle yourself in such a position that you’re going to have the best view because when that puck is passed to a guy like McDavid, he skates as fast, if not faster with the puck than without it. And you’ve got to be prepared to move and get an angle because refs have a short window, just like defensive players have a short window to try to catch the fast players like McDavid, Jack Eichel, Nikita Kucherov and the other fast stars. And how often that happens quickly, it’s going to happen almost as quickly as he gets the puck, because that’s usually the closest proximity to the defending player will have. Because once they light it up, look out,” said Fraser.
So the speed of the game is making it more difficult for officials to get in position to make the call. It makes sense, but there are two referees on the ice now compared to the one-man system we used to see and one referee would call more infractions that two do now. That doesn’t make much sense to me.
POSITIONING & THINKING
Many fans around the NHL get frustrated when their best player is impeded or obstructed and there is no call.
Fraser explained what he sees specifically about McDavid, but also said this happens to other stars around the league who carry the puck a lot.
“There are situations with McDavid, based on his speed, the ability to really ignite it, to have the puck a lot, that I believe should be called more. He’s so quick and I think that he’s almost, I hate to say this, he’s almost too quick for the officials. You’ve got to move and get into a position ahead of him to really see the contact, the restraint and when officials get caught a little slow, a little flat footed backing up as this guy ignites and explodes, all of the sudden the referee’s focus, I believe is, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve got to get moving,'” said Fraser.
“Then they drop their eyes, which you should never do anyways, you should be able to skate backwards without looking down at your feet. But there’s that pause, that pregnant pause that ‘Uh oh, I gotta go,’ and ‘I’m going to get caught,’ and then they start getting out of the way and that’s when things can be missed. You’ve got to set yourself up in advance. You and I have talked before about seeing the game in advance. You talk about Wayne Gretzky, nobody saw it better than him, incredible vision, knew where the puck was going to be two, three, four chess moves down the board.
“And that’s what the officials have to develop. They (NHL) have a lot of young officials, some have just finished playing and the league is on this let’s recruit former players — American League, East Coast League, kind of guys that know the game, or should. That’s terrific, I endorse that, but they’ve got to be taught how to referee. Because when you drop your stick as a player and you put on a whistle on your hand, you’ve got to totally adjust your philosophy. Players attack the puck, but officials have to retreat from the puck and that’s where that vision of understanding the game for sure as a former player will need to change. They have to transition into the referee mindset. Which is totally reverse from attacking the puck,” explained Fraser.
NEEDS TO CHANGE
I’m really perplexed why the NHL is so stubborn in enforcing the rule book. It’s mind boggling.
They will bring in needless rules like offside review and eliminate goals because a skate is off the ice, even though the player is not across the blueline and has no actual advantage, but refuse to crack down on officials for missed calls.
The game is faster than ever, but it isn’t as exciting as it used to be. The NHL needs to address this now.
Just call the game by the wording of the rule book. Empower your officials to call the enforce the rules and ensure they are in the best position to see the play.