Another penalty? Why NHL officials have been whistle-happy during the postseason


Like other players in the NHL’s “bubble,” Ryan Hartman of the Minnesota Wild watched a lot of postseason hockey during the first few days of the restarted 2019-20 season. He couldn’t help but notice an obvious trend during his viewing binge.

“A lot — a lot — of penalties were being called,” he said. “There wasn’t much getting by.”

That wasn’t just perception. Through the first two days of the Stanley Cup postseason, featuring both round-robin and qualification-round games, teams averaged 13:00 penalty minutes. That’s higher than the average for the first round of the playoffs in 2019 (10:05), 2018 (11:18) and 2017 (8:28). Through Monday’s games, that average dropped to 12:26 per team. But that was still a higher average than the NHL had seen in the first two games in each of the past three opening rounds.

Tune in to some of these games, and there’s a good chance you would have been watching someone with the man advantage. The Carolina Hurricanes‘ first game against the New York Rangers had 14 power plays. The Winnipeg Jets and Calgary Flames, as well as the Nashville Predators and the Arizona Coyotes, had a total of 11 power plays in Game 1.

Players and coaches admitted that the trend was on their minds before their postseason games in the hub cities of Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta. “We had the opportunity to see some of the games go through, and what really jumped out to everybody were the amount of penalties that were taken and called. Coming into the game, we were certainly aware of it,” Predators coach John Hynes said.

What led to this early parade to the penalty boxes? There were three prevailing theories.

The Reset Button Theory

Arizona forward Michael Grabner noticed the uptick in penalties, both in his games and in others. It didn’t remind him of postseason play.

“It seems like kinda early in the season, right?” he said. “They’re calling some more hooking and all of these things. We’ve just gotta be smart about it.”

There’s a long-standing tradition in the NHL that the exhibition season and the opening weeks of the season are characterized by slew of penalty calls. Last week, training camps ended for NHL teams in the restart. Then came an exhibition game in the hub cities. Now the postseason is underway. The officials making all of these calls is just a natural part of that cycle.

“Every year in training camp, they just try to establish the rules again. The way they’re going to call it. This is no different,” said Brad Marchand of the Boston Bruins. “We’ve been off as long as any offseason or longer, and they’re just reestablishing their game. They have to get used to the speed again, just as we do. So that’s part of it.”

Colorado Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said there’s something to the idea that the officials are trying to lay down the law early in the tournament.

“The refs are calling a certain standard, and the players aren’t used to that standard. It hasn’t been the standard in the scrimmages. It hasn’t been the standard for the exhibition,” he said. “But what happens is that they’re going to figure it out real quick. They have to.”

The Layoff Theory

“I knew there were going to be some power plays. I didn’t know to this volume,” Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet said.

He buys into the Reset Button Theory but believes it’s more about where the players are physically than the referees trying to reestablish standards of officiating.

“You know what it is? You watch those games after training camps — the first exhibition games and the first regular-season games — and there are a lot of power plays. A little bit of rust there. Guys aren’t moving their feet. Guys are hooking and holding a little too much because their legs aren’t catching up to speed with their brain,” he said. “It’s hard. Players have been off for four months. To me, it’s about short shifts. It’s hard to get into game shape right off the bat. So then you’re tired, and you make mistakes.”

Tocchet said, from what he’s seen, it’s mostly stick fouls that are getting whistled. Take that penalty-laden game between the Rangers and the Hurricanes: Of the 16 minor penalties called, 11 involved an illegal use of the stick.

“They’ll let the man-on-man stuff go if you’ve got body position. ‘Hey, use your strength. The refs will let that go,'” Tocchet said. “It’s the stuff with the stick [that gets called]. And it’s because of the long layoff.”

Bednar agreed: “Sometimes guys make plays. You get caught on the wrong side. You have to take a penalty to save a scoring chance. Sometimes you play physical, and you get a penalty for that. But there’s been too many stick penalties. Too many penalties with guys just reaching in. Poor habits with their sticks. And they’re getting called for it.”

The Too Happy To Be Back Theory

Marchand was 11th in the NHL this season with 82 penalty minutes in 70 games, so he speaks from experience when he says that sometimes players get so hyped up about playing that it can lead to taking penalties.

Like, for example, having not played in a game since early March.

“I think that guys are excited to get back on the ice and they’re running around, and guys aren’t in the same control of their sticks and their bodies that maybe they are a month out from now,” he said. “So, we’re all a little sloppy, and more penalties come from that.”

Whatever the theory, both players and coaches expect that the slew of penalties in the NHL’s return to play will be temporary.

“As this thing moves along, I think you’re going to see the players real quickly make adjustments so they’re not hurting their teams,” Bednar said.

The Jets’ Blake Wheeler said the key right now is listening to the officials and understanding the restrictions.

“I don’t know if it’ll continue necessarily. I think you have to give the refs credit. They’re give us pretty defined parameters in what they’re looking for in calls,” he said. “We need to be cognizant that there’s a little bit of sensitivity in the calls that they’re making. So just keep your stick to yourself and get on the body. It’s on us not to put yourself in that situation.”

But Wild coach Dean Evason was more to the point: “I don’t know what the standards have been for other games. All we tell our group is to stay off the referees. That’s it.”

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