The pros and cons of NHL playoff officiating

Tell me you know NHL playoff officiating is atrocious without telling me that you know NHL playoff officiating is atrocious.

“We’re going to have situations where things don’t go our way. We can’t control what their thought process or decision-making is,” said Montreal Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher, when asked his thoughts about the standard of officiating in the Stanley Cup playoffs. “I mean, everyone’s been watching [the playoffs].”

A sampling of what we’ve watched in the 2021 postseason:

Those are some of the lowlights.

It’s canon that the Stanley Cup playoffs are officiated to a different standard than the regular season, but if you feel that they’ve been called with fewer penalties in recent postseasons, you would be correct.

The average penalty minutes per team per game in the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs is nine minutes and 18 seconds, according to Elias Sports Bureau research, which tabulated the PIMs through Tuesday night’s game. That’s the second-lowest PIM per team per game in any of the past 30 NHL postseasons. The lowest total? That would be the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs, when teams averaged just 8:44 in penalty minutes per game.

The two least-penalized playoffs in the past 30 tournaments happened in the past two postseasons held outside a pandemic bubble.

What’s going on here?

One theory is that the NHL has instructed its officials to call the playoffs more loosely, something that would theoretically produce longer series and the potential for more upsets as power-play success is deemphasized.

Not so, according to NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly.

“Officials are directed and encouraged to call the same standard as in the regular season. That’s always been the case, but it’s been an even greater point of emphasis in recent years,” Daly told ESPN this week. “What changes in the playoffs is the way the game is played on the ice, and that changes how officiating is perceived.”

In other words, the refereeing isn’t different. The style of play is different. Although one could argue the style of play is different because the refereeing is different.

“You’re not getting very many [power-play] looks in a game. In the regular season, you’re getting four or five,” said Montreal defenseman Jeff Petry. “[Officiating] is a little more lax, so you have the opportunity to make it hard for guys to come to the front of the net. Knowing that, we have to continue to play our game and be hard on guys.”

Joshua Smith has heard complaints about postseason officiating in the eight years he has operated the NHL officiating website Scouting The Refs.

“It just feels like it’s more so this year. I even get screenshots on icing calls, showing me the position of the linesmen and the referee in relation to the puck,” he said.

Smith is one of hockey fandom’s most noteworthy pro-officiating pundits, or at least one who has advocated for measured criticism instead of venomous trashing of officials.

On any controversial play, his first visit is to the NHL rulebook to find any nuance that might have been missed. Then he considers the perspective of the officials on the ice: Maybe his view was obstructed?

But when Smith was sent video of Suzuki getting punched in the face without a penalty … yeah, he had nothing.

“I just sent a shrug emoji. You can’t contend that it doesn’t look like you’ve lost control of the game if you allow someone to get punched in the face right in front of you. I couldn’t explain it,” he said. “I don’t understand the decision. It’s frustrating. There’s definitely a reality for the standards shifting for the playoffs vs. the regular season.”

What’s even more frustrating is the unshakable notion that the different standards might … not be a bad thing?

Raise the Stanley Cup, and you’ve done so after a war of attrition that’s unmatched in professional sports. The concept of tightly played “payoff hockey” defines that journey. The very game management that we decry results in series that “the players decide” rather than the referees.

It’s undeniable that there are pros and cons to the shifting officiating standards from the regular season to the playoffs. Let’s take a look.

Pro: Actually, the standard is consistent

Players and coaches are justifiably outraged when a bad call or non-call impacts the outcome of a game. But for the most part, they’re not looking for seven power plays a night. They’re looking for equity, hoping that the game officials hold both teams to the same standard.

“You could sit here and complain about one play or another, but if the standard’s the same on both sides, then it’s fair to the teams,” said Vegas defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, who has played in 110 NHL postseason games. “As long as they’re calling it the same way for both teams, then we understand what the standard is for both teams.”

Con: The only solution is more embellishment

There are penalties in the playoffs. Just not marginal ones. So if you’re Connor McDavid, and you haven’t drawn a single penalty in your past eight playoff games while averaging 1.31 penalties drawn per 60 minutes in 407 regular season games, what do you do?

“Connor McDavid battles through so well and he’s such a strong player that maybe he doesn’t lose possession or doesn’t get a shot on goal. That makes it less likely that penalty is going to be called,” Smith said.

Is this an argument for more embellishment in the playoffs?

“I don’t want this to turn into soccer, but you make a good point. Every penalty is so important. Penalty calls are hard to come by,” responded Smith. “If they’re not going to call the penalty, are they going to call the embellishment? It almost begs you to try.”

Pro: Playoff overtime rules!

Casual sports fans know a few things about the NHL postseason. They know the Stanley Cup, and drinking from it. They know the majesty of playoff beards. And they know the absolute marathons that can occur in playoff overtimes, as games stretch beyond midnight on the East Coast and become the ultimate tests of stamina, fitness and focus.

One reason they exist: a lack of penalty calls in playoff overtimes. In the past four seasons, there have been 79 overtime games of varying lengths. In those games, there have been 78 total penalty minutes.

Con: Rules in playoff overtimes

Again, it’s tough to truly laud playoff overtimes when the referees completely pocket their whistles. If the playoffs are a different standard than the regular season, then playoff overtime is an entirely different standard than both.

“This is why they’re never getting rid of the puck-over-the-glass rule. It’s not subjective. It’s black or white. You wouldn’t have a penalty in a playoff overtime without it,” one NHL general manager said to me recently.

Pro: The playoffs are a different season in all sports

If you’ve checked on our friends in the NBA, complaints about the standards of officiating are legion, from the nature of foul calls to coaches complaining about disparities. The officiating in the NFL’s conference final rounds and in the Super Bowl is inconsistent, especially in relation to the regular season. Hockey’s just another sport in this grand tradition, but that doesn’t mean Smith is happy about it.

“I think Game 1 of the regular season and Game 7 of the Cup Final should be officiated the same way,” he said. “I don’t think it’s fair to the players and I think it misrepresents the game. I know playoff hockey is hardcore and it has a great reputation as a battle of attrition, but it’s frankly unfair to the players.”

Con: You can’t market stars without stars

Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper told me recently that there might have been some teams that could have won the Stanley Cup had they only made the playoff cut. “It’s finding that hybrid of teams that can win in the regular season and the playoffs, and I think that we’ve built this team in that regard,” he said.

One NHL general manager told me recently that Montreal fooled everyone by being a team built for the playoffs rather than the regular season. “Someone like [Shea] Weber can thrive better in the playoffs because of the style of play in the postseason,” he said.

But the NHL isn’t marketing Shea Weber. It isn’t trying to attract new fans with Ryan Pulock. It’s hyping McDavid, Auston Matthews and Nathan MacKinnon.

That’s easy in the regular season, when their high-flying teams are putting goals on the board. That’s much harder in the postseason, when “playoff hockey” limits their artistry at 5-on-5 and reduces their chances for power plays. None of the top 10 scorers in the NHL from the regular season took part in the third round of the playoffs.

“If a team squeaks into the playoffs, they shouldn’t all of a sudden have a penalty advantage in the playoffs that carries them through,” Smith said. “Perhaps there’s a value in having more games played. But if you’re leveling the playing field then you’re downplaying the effectiveness of your superstars. If the NHL wants to market high-tempo hockey and scoring, then it should be called fairly.”

How to fix this

Is fairness too much to ask? How about clarity?

The NHL would do well for itself to have more transparency with its officiating. Think about the Department of Player Safety for a moment. Agree or disagree with its rulings, we at least understand the rationale behind them in those explainer videos that accompany a suspension. They’ve helped educate media, fans and those inside the game. They’ve become essential.

Smith wonders why we can’t have the same kind of communication from officials in the playoffs.

“Not that you could have them in front of the media, but I wish you could have a Q&A or a discussion. Maybe you get an officiating manager in there to explain the call,” he said.

This is an easy fix: Just make the supervisor of officials for each series available to the media. Have them explain controversial plays. Have them tell us why a referee stood there and watched Suzuki get punched in the face. If the answer is, “Hey, our guy screwed up and that should have been a penalty,” that’s fine! We already all assume that to be the case! But at least we’d understand, instead of being absolutely dumbfounded how someone paid to enforce the rules watched a guy get punched in the face with no reaction.

The Stanley Cup playoffs are awesome. They’re my favorite non-Olympic thing in sports. But failing to apply the same standards of officiating we have in the regular season to the postseason ends up devaluing both. At this point, it’s 82 games of one sport and four rounds of another sport, and that’s not how it should go.

If the standard of officiating in the regular season is good enough to determine who makes the playoffs, it should be good enough to determine who wins them.

The playoffs shouldn’t be defined by officiating that fluctuates between acquiescent and incompetent. That it is defined that way remains an annual embarrassment, and it’s only getting worse.

Jersey Foul of the week

Ask and you shall receive:

Wearing a Tampa Bay Lightning jersey to a Rays baseball game in Seattle is not a Foul for a few reasons. First, it’s a Tampa Bay jersey for a Tampa Bay game. There’s no attention-seeking gambit here. It’s intracity love. Second, it’s “Hockey Infiltration.” Wear your NHL sweater with pride at all times, especially to other sporting events, so they know hockey is cool. Third, we’re in pre-Kraken Seattle. Maybe this could be seen as an antagonistic move, although this person is a little early.

Winners and losers of the week

Winner: Rod Brind’Amour

Not a bad day when you announce a contract extension with the team you hoped to continue coaching, and then win the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year later that evening.

Loser: Taking Barry Trotz for granted

Trotz is considered by many to be the best coach in the NHL, or at the very least the coach who exerts to the most positive influence on his team’s style and success. But in the Jack Adams voting by the Professional Hockey Broadcasters Association, he received one third-place vote, tying Jeremy Colliton of the Chicago Blackhawks for the least amount of support among vote-getters. He finished behind David Quinn of the rival Rangers, who is currently unemployed.

So, in summary, we need to appreciate Barry Trotz more.

Winner: Bubble hockey

I’ve decided that after my 100th viewing, the bubble hockey commercial featuring T.J. Oshie and David Pastrnak is my favorite of the season, perhaps because I played rod hockey growing up and always used to have the puck go in that no man’s land in the corner.

Loser: “I’m Alex Pietrangelo of the NHL”

I’ve decided that after my 100th viewing, the Honda commercial with Alex Pietrangelo is the cringiest of the season. He says, “I’m Alex Pietrangelo of the NHL.” Not of the Vegas Golden Knights, but of the NHL. This lack of brand specificity is how we get those moments on “Jeopardy!” where the contests don’t know the team nicknames.

That said, the NHL has come a long way: At no point do we see him in his jersey, which used to be the automatic signifier in any commercial that “this person is not famous, so we have placed him in this outfit so you know what sport he plays.” Progress!

Winner: Corey Perry

It’s been two postseasons in a row where Perry’s particular brand of whimsy has helped elevate his team. He was a spare part for the Canadiens this season (making league-minimum salary for a veteran), and all he’s done is score three goals and add six assists in their march to one game away from the Stanley Cup Final. Perry has more points (three) against the Golden Knights than Mark Stone and Jonathan Marchessault have combined against the Canadiens (one). Is there a more Corey Perry image than him coming out with his bloody maw to celebrate with his teammates?

Loser: Pete DeBoer

His call in Game 4 to move from Marc-Andre Fleury to Robin Lehner? Chef’s kiss! Brilliant! Flower had played to a sub-replacement level in the previous two games. Then he switched back to Fleury for Game 5, who again played to a sub-replacement level — albeit behind a team that was supremely sloppy with the puck. Why mess with a good thing? Only Pete knows.

Winner: Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum

The old barn has been one of the playoffs’ most unforgettable characters. The volume at Islanders home games has been head-pounding. The chanting heard during the action had some calling the games at Nassau “hockey, but with a soccer crowd.” The creaky, no-frills Coliseum may have seen its last Islanders game on Wednesday night, but what a way to go out with that overtime win. Or perhaps the magic of the Coli extends for one more final round.

Loser: The Aluminum Shower

I didn’t have a problem with Islanders fans showering the ice with $17 cans of beer at the end of Game 6. It was an impromptu salute to the Coliseum, almost like they were pouring one out for the old barn in its final days. What I did have a problem with: That the shower started while the players were still on the ice celebrating. Helmets or no helmets, let’s not throw metal projectiles at the players. If they want to get doused with beer, let it be on their own terms.

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