The NHL needs to do more to protect its stars

Earlier this week, Ken Hitchcock went on a bit of a rant about how the refs let other teams get away with hooking and holding Connor McDavid to an absurd extent.

Sounded an awful lot, to me, like a coach trying to protect his best player. Not that you could really blame him, of course, because a coach has to do that sort of thing and the league tends to undercall penalties in the interest of moving the game along, so yeah it stands to reason that McDavid probably doesn’t draw as many penalties as he should.

But then I looked it up, and McDavid draws fewer penalties per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 than guys like Dillon Heatherington, Freddie Gaudreau, Tony DeAngelo and William Carrier. In fact, of all the skaters to play at least 50 minutes at 5-on-5 this season, McDavid is 120th in penalties drawn per 60.

McDavid. The guy who has the puck constantly. Whose speed gets him hooked and held as he flies up the ice every single night. Who’s always around the net. That McDavid. The best player in the world.

I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately because Sasha Barkov is getting a lot of headlines for having drawn 19 penalties this season — the most in the league by 27 percent — without taking a single one. And yet, he’s still somehow just eighth in the NHL in penalties drawn per 60. Eighth.

And the guys above Barkov, boy oh boy. Your current league leader in PenD/60 is…………… Cody McLeod. Who, notably, is very bad. Then it’s Alex Formenton, Garrett Wilson, Sheldon Rempal, and Sonny Milano rounding out the top five. Barkov’s eighth, yeah, but y’know who’s 11th? Zac Rinaldo.

Connor McDavid is the biggest victim of the NHL’s antiquated way of calling a game. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)
Connor McDavid is the biggest victim of the NHL’s antiquated way of calling a game. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

Granted, Barkov and David Pastrnak — who’s the next legit star on the list at 30th — and obviously McDavid eat a lot of minutes, and they’re mostly against highly skilled players who maybe aren’t as likely to take penalties as others. McLeod probably draws a lot of penalties because the guys he plays against are also quite bad and he’s probably getting credit for the majors that come with his four fights (I’m not sure how Corsica counts those things).

But even if we discount the fighting majors, McLeod STILL draws 50 percent more penalties than McDavid per hour of ice time. Which is bananas, right? Like, we can all agree regardless of how we feel about the role of guys like McLeod that he probably shouldn’t be significantly better at drawing penalties than the best player in the world.

Hell, pick any insanely talented guy who can make opponents look silly with their speed and/or skill. Johnny Gaudreau (72nd), Mitch Marner (74th), Nathan MacKinnon (95th), Jack Eichel (183rd). These are all guys who should by any logical examination of the sport be on the higher end of this list, and yet here we are.

Even if you take out the guys who play few minutes and get in more fights, the list of guys who are good at drawing penalties is not even remotely comparable to the list of guys who score a lot. Point production on a per-hour basis is only about 4.7 percent correlated to the ability to draw penalties.

I hate to bang this drum again (no I don’t) but it’s a hockey culture problem. You think this is some sort of new occurrence for McDavid or any of those other guys, getting hacked and restrained by players who couldn’t possibly keep up with him otherwise? It’s happened to them at every level they’ve ever played at, probably to a greater extent than what they encounter now in the NHL.

It’s because refs expect guys to grin and bear it; if you’re scoring you shouldn’t also be complaining that you’re not getting the calls. By a pure count, McDavid is actually tied for 18th in the league in penalties drawn, which starts to make more sense, but he’s tied with Lawson Crouse and Cedric Paquette, despite playing 230 extra minutes, so it’s not as impressive as all that.

McDavid shouldn’t be drawing one penalty every third game, full stop. This is the kind of thing that encourages guys to dive, because if McDavid just stays on his feet while some schmuck goes water skiing behind him, that just hurts his game at the end of the day, and also encourages guys to take extra liberties. “If I can get away with that hook, maybe I can get away with this slash, and if I get away with this slash, maybe I can board him.”

I guess you could make the argument that if you called every penalty stars draw on every shift, the games would be twice as long and filled entirely with power plays. It’s the same reason they don’t call holding on every play in the NFL, right?

But if we’re trying to sell this entertainment product, and that’s what the sport is about from a purely capitalist point of view, the fact that you’re letting lesser talents impact goal totals for elite players is counterproductive. People want to see goals, right? If you send the message via lots of penalties in October or November (a not-uncommon thing already) then in theory those infractions go away as guys “smarten up,” or more likely as refs “swallow their whistles.”

I know plenty of people think enforcers or tough guys or whatever are the best way to protect star players, but that’s some “good guy with a gun” logic. The best way to protect star players is to disincentivize opposing coaches from putting tough guys in the lineup when they play teams with McDavid, MacKinnon, Eichel, Gaudreau, Pastrnak, Marner and the like.

Because if those guys go head-to-head against good players, they literally have to commit penalties to keep up. And if those penalties are actually being called by refs whose job is ostensibly to enforce the rules as written and not by some antiquated code of unwritten rules from 40-plus years ago, they’re going to start costing the team points.

That, then, only increases the importance of having star players on the ice as much as possible. Which you’d have thought would have been the best strategy all along.

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.

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