What We Learned: How bad is NHL officiating in Stanley Cup Playoffs?

Ryan Lambert

(Hello, this is a feature that will run through the entire season and aims to recap the weekend’s events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it.)

The big complaint about these playoffs is that a lot of penalties are going uncalled, and how much that's affecting play.

Anecdotally, this is happening a lot. Guys get taken out of the play, or even slowed up, by a hook or obstruction in the neutral zone, and what should have been a 3-on-2 that might have resulted in a scoring chance all of a sudden becomes a 2-on-2 that very much doesn't.

Now, what isn't mentioned when people complain about this stuff is that this is part of a larger trend that's been going on for a while now.

In terms of what is and is not being called, it's become pretty obvious over the last few years that refs are putting the whistles away, to an extent never before seen in the league. We don't have data from earlier than 1962-63 on this kind of stuff, but this year's 3.06 power plays drawn per team per game is the lowest in that time — we're talking 52 years — by a pretty wide margin. Only 1977-78, at 3.19 power plays each comes close.

So it's fair to say that refs are letting a lot go to begin with. And as a result, the number of power play goals scored per team per game has slowly slumped as well (the blue line below), while there has been next to no change in teams' ability to score on power plays (the green line is league-wide power play percentage).


So I don't think there's any question here that this is a league-wide problem that's not just a playoff phenomenon, but it sure does seem to stand out more these days. Why is that?

For one thing, I think it relates back to the best players in the league not scoring very much. Not that the top of the playoff points leaderboards doesn't read like an All-Star team — Jonathan Toews, Vladimir Tarasenko, Corey Perry, Duncan Keith, Patrick Kane, etc. — but we have also been talking a lot about “What's wrong with (Star Player X)?” Sidney Crosby was less than a point a game, Evgeni Malkin didn't have any. Steven Stamkos went 0-2-2 in the first five games of his series. Henrik Zetterberg is goalless. Bobby Ryan had two points in the first five games of the series. PK Subban led his team with just three over that same span.

There's no question that playoff games feel as though they're called a little more tightly than those in the regular season. Most people would likely say that, when it comes to what refs do and don't call, there's a lot of similarity between close regular-season games in the third period and what's called in playoff games from start to finish. In the third period of close playoff games, you can basically get away with taping your helmet to your stick and using it as a mace and never get called for it. At least, that's how things appear.

But when you actually look at how it breaks down per team, that's not the reality. (These numbers don't include Sunday's games.)


You'll notice that only five teams out of the 16 who made the playoffs are actually getting fewer power play opportunities per game now than they did in the regular season. One thing we have to keep in mind is that sample sizes are extremely small, and therefore any game where a team drew an extra two power plays for any reason — puck over the glass, goofy high sticks that weren't intentional, etc. — is going to skew the numbers. Further, these are, theoretically, the league's elite teams, and therefore they are probably likely to draw more penalties to begin with.

But let's look at those five teams drawing fewer penalties now than they did in Games 1-82: Minnesota, Nashville, Tampa, Vancouver, and Washington. Would it surprise you to learn their opponents were some of the best at not-taking penalties during the regular season?

Vancouver faced Calgary, which only went shorthanded 186 times in 82 games, leading the league in fewest power plays conceded. Nashville played Chicago, which was third. Washington played fourth-best Long Island.

That explains a lot as far as I'm concerned, and the two remaining — Minnesota and Tampa — are facing teams in the bottom half of the league when it comes to giving up power play chances (17th and 28th, respectively). Again, I'd chalk this up to small samples rather than “The Refs Are Calling It St. Louis and Detroit's Way,” but then I'm not a fan of the Lightning or Wild.

So the fact is, the refs are actually calling about 1.2 extra power plays per game overall, but teams are only scoring one extra power play goal per 25 playoff games, on average. I think that's the real beef people have here, but nine of the top 11 penalty killing teams in the league made the postseason, and the only two teams in the bottom 10 in this regard (the Flames and Islanders) are allowing their opponents to score more power play goals now than they did in the regular season. That, too, explains a lot.

The referees have a difficult job, and they get a lot of stick from fans league-wide. Usually when they do, it's deserved. And maybe because these games matter so much, teams are more conservative in their approach, which means more obstruction in the neutral zone, which means more penalties per game going uncalled. But please also remember how awful the game was to watch in 2005-06, when they were awarding almost 12 power plays per game. If they stick to the letter of the law, we might approach those numbers again.

There has to be a balance between “letting them play” and “letting special teams decide every series,” and maybe you err more toward the latter than the former. That's your preference. But we often criticize refs for being inconsistent from one game to the next, and to have a different standard between the regular season and playoffs would be basically the same problem on a much more visible scale.

I'd wager that no single person alive watched all 82 games from all 16 playoff teams. I'd wager nobody even watched half of all these teams' games. Lots of people are seeing Calgary or St. Louis for, like, maybe the sixth or seventh time at most. So none of us really know what their games look like on any given night. Maybe the refs are being consistent with how Canadiens games have been called all year.

And maybe refs could start awarding penalties at, say, a 2006-07 clip; not too many, but not the record lows we're seeing today, either. But to shift between playoffs and regular season, rather than over the summer when everyone could be debriefed on “the new standard,” would have been baffling to players.

All fans know about what “the standard” is today, really, is that they don't like it.

Unless, of course, it benefits their teams.

What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: The Ducks might end up seeing some more guys come back healthy as a result of all this time off between their first- and second-round games. That means Bruce Boudreau has some roster decisions to make. Said the coach: “If that's your major problem, you're doing OK.”

Arizona Coyotes: Counting on Sam Gagner to get your offense going next season seems like a point of concern, no?

Boston Bruins: The Bruins might get a draft pick as a result of the Oilers hiring Peter Chiarelli. Cam Neely's probably hoping it's a pretty high one. Like, really, really, really high.

Buffalo Sabres: I wonder what Tim Murray's reaction was to Gary Bettman saying no one tanked this season. I bet it had to do with re-upping Anders Lindback so he could, ahem, “rebuild” around Auston Matthews.

Calgary Flames: Couldn't be happier for Matt Stajan that he was the one to score this beauty of a series winner. How he wasn't the team's Masterton nominee is so far beyond me.

Carolina Hurricanes: What the hell is going on with Jeff Skinner going forward? He's still only 22 but his career has been rather strange.

Chicago: Corey Crawford picked up the W in Game 6, but he faced one more shot in about 49 minutes as Scott Darling did in 11:16. Gotta love Chicago's ability to turn on a dime like that.

Colorado Avalanche: What ever happened to “Save by Roy?”

Columbus Blue Jackets: Todd Richards with a weird stat for Columbus: In the last four years, they've been near the bottom of the conference after two months of the regular season. You're not likely to get too many playoff berths with starts like that.

Dallas Stars: Tyler Seguin and Sidney Crosby will be playing for Canada in the World Championships, which doesn't seem like a necessarily fair 1-2 punch.

Detroit Red Wings: Petr Mrazek has stopped 134 of 143 shots in this series against one of the best offensive teams of the last few seasons. And in my opinion? That's good.

Edmonton Oilers: Are........ are the Oilers actually going to be well-run now? Is.... is that possible?

Florida Panthers: The Panthers don't have a lot of personnel decisions to make this summer. The biggest question is what you give RFA-to-be Jonathan Huberdeau, and for how long. (“A lot for a long time” is probably a good answer.)

Los Angeles Kings: Darryl Sutter is the 45th-most powerful person in LA sports, presumably behind five or six Lakers benchwarmers.

Minnesota Wild: Fake tickets are a major problem in Minnesota during these playoffs. In all, 20 people bought the same seat to a game, and it was already owned by a season ticket holder.

Montreal Canadiens: I dunno, guys, do you think he'll win????

Nashville Predators, America's Favorite Hockey Team: Probably not a good idea to blow a 3-0 first-period lead on the road in an elimination game. Probably bad to do it.

New Jersey Devils: Lou Lamoriello says he probably won't trade the sixth pick in the draft for Phil Kessel. Awwww, but letting the Leafs pick Nos. 4 and 6 would be so funny, Lou!

New York Islanders: If you ask me, Washington should have tried covering, uhh, the entire right side of the ice.

New York Rangers: I want a Rangers/Islanders series more than anything. That would be amazing. It does matter, Larry Brooks!!!!

Ottawa Senators: This is the kind of thing that's really easy to say when a team wins two wins in a row, but can look pretty silly the second they lose. It's really easy to win two hockey games in a row for almost anyone at almost any time. Hell, the Sabres did it four times this season.

Philadelphia Flyers: You always pick the best player available. You always pick the best player available. You always pick the best player available. Never draft for need. Never draft for need. Never draft for need.

Pittsburgh Penguins: How many heads roll after this one? Would it be fair for any to do so? Those are two very tough questions. Trade Malkin.

San Jose Sharks: Randy Carlyle coaching the Sharks? Please please please please please.

St. Louis Blues: Who do you think is gonna ask the puck movement on this power play goal to go to prom? Everyone?

Tampa Bay Lightning: If Tyler Johnson “knows how to win” why isn't he telling his teammates? Bad in the room, I guess.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Leafs fans don't need “a hug” so much as “competent management.” The good news is they're about to get it.

Vancouver Canucks: Three quick stats to explain why the Canucks lost this series? Vancouver's corsi with the Sedins on the ice was about 71 percent. When they were off? Less than 49 percent. And the Canucks shot 5 percent when they were on the ice.

Washington Capitals: The Caps record in Games 7 at home, all-time? Just 2-7. That is, uh, bad.

Winnipeg Jets: Whoa, whoa, whoa. Andrew Ladd is an unrestricted free agent next summer? Good lord, how are we not talking about this more? Losing Ladd would be devastating, and there's bound to be a lot of demand for his services.

Play of the Weekend

Duncan Keith holds the puck for about 7.5 seconds before he unleashes this laser-accurate shot to win the game. Two pump fakes, supreme patience.

Gold Star Award


Calgary Flames' Johnny Gaudreau, center right, celebrates his goal with against the Vancouver Canucks with teammates Sean Monahan, left, Jiri Hudler, center left, from the Czech Republic and Dennis Wideman during the first period of Game 4 of a first-round NHL hockey playoff series, Tuesday, April 21, 2015, in Calgary, Alberta. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press via AP)
Calgary Flames' Johnny Gaudreau, center right, celebrates his goal with against the Vancouver Canucks with teammates Sean Monahan, left, Jiri Hudler, center left, from the Czech Republic and Dennis Wideman during the first period of Game 4 of a first-round NHL hockey playoff series, Tuesday, April 21, 2015, in Calgary, Alberta. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press via AP)

Yo, the Flames' top line combined for seven points in eliminating Vancouver. They had combined for seven the entire previous five games of the series.

Minus of the Weekend

Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning talks to media during the first day of NHL training camp, Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014 in Vancouver, British Columbia. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Ben Nelms)
Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning talks to media during the first day of NHL training camp, Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014 in Vancouver, British Columbia. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Ben Nelms)

Bad news for Jim Benning: Turns out you don't get a mulligan on that three-year Luca Sbisa deal.

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Week

User “MessierII” has a great idea.

To Boston: 2nd round pick (Oilers), 2nd round pick (Habs), Nikita Nikitin (4.5 cap hit UFA next summer)

To Edmonton: Zdeno Chara (6.9 cap hit 2018 UFA)

Heck, now that Chiarelli's there, why not just have them switch rosters altogether?

I am telling you the musical numbers are a mess, my kids are a bunch of amateurs, and the last thing I need today is some diabetic freak prancing around on stage making my life a living hell.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is hereand his Twitter is here