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An attempt to quantify the NHL’s officiating problem, if there is one

Ref

Amidst the two-month playoff journey, as team after team (including the Red Wings) was knocked out and millions of fans went from invested to just observers, there were two things that united them: booing Gary Bettman, and taking to Twitter to complain about the officiating. 

This isn’t a new pastime in any sport. When Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt, whatever the forebearers of bloggers were called etched their complaints into stone tablets: these things called whistles would be invented, and when the games grew in magnitude the amount of whistles would fall. It would make for lumpy and inconsistent game play and the blowers of thy whistles, which would be called officials or referees in their new new language, would bring shame upon themselves and their profession.

That’s all true. Google it.

The one thing that changed, though, was the medium. Every bad call led to surge of complaints and mostly terrible jokes, all of which I absorbed one-by-one as I read my Twitter timeline.

I already had a database of regular season penalty statistics at my disposal. It wasn’t hard to extend that into the playoffs to figure out if there was empirical evidence behind the accusations.

One game really screwed everything up. Montreal and Ottawa combined for 236 penalty minutes in a first-round playoff game, over a hundred more than the highest-penalized regular season game. It adjusted the playoff average by almost three minutes. As a compromise I removed every game that had over 100 penalty minutes in it. There was one playoff game and one regular season game that eclipsed the mark: the aforementioned Montreal and Ottawa game, and a game between the Canadiens and Maple Leafs that netted 116 penalty minutes.

With those thrown out, here are the average penalty minutes for all regular season and playoff games.

HOME AWAY TOTAL
REGULAR SEASON 11:37 11:03 22:41
PLAYOFFS 11:03 9:18 20:22
DIFF 0:34 1:45 2:19

The home numbers are negligible, a mere five percent difference. The away number of penalty minutes (a 17.2 percent difference) and the total (a 10.8 percent difference) are worth a discussion, although the total numbers are just on the edge of being significant.

We’re looking at an extra penalty per game that wasn’t being called in these playoffs. Why it’s the away team that takes less penalties in a rowdier environment, where intuition tells you that a revved up crowd may cause referees to call more penalties on the away team,  may have to do with more with the refs.

The perception is that its harder to score goals on in the playoffs. And, the perception is that it’s harder to score on the road, thus it’s especially hard for teams to score on the road in the playoffs. With this in a team’s mind, it knows not giving up goals on the road is at even more of a premium, and it knows a giving up a power play gives the opposing team it’s best chance to score, so they’re more careful in avoiding penalities, more so than the home team.

But if that is the case, or it’s some other variable relating to the teams rather than the referees, each ref’s penalty minutes called per game should go down by the same amount.

In an effort to get something resembling a reasonable sample size, I only looked at the nine referees who officiated 10 or more games during the playoffs. Another function of this is it gives us the best referees according to the NHL. You don’t make it to at least the second round of the playoffs without being considered a top official by NHL standards.

One of those refs, Dan O’Halloran, officiated the Montreal/Ottawa 236 penalty minute game. I removed that game from his evaluation (for the same reason as above) and looked at his other 14 playoff games.

Eight refs qualified. During the regular season, their amounts of penalty minutes called per game ranged from 20.45 to 23.55. A mere three minute difference between best and worst is amazingly consistent over the course of over 700 games. But during the playoffs, amounts ranged from 14.17 to 30.53.

Here is a chart of each ref’s individual difference from the regular season to the playoffs. (Reg AVG = amount of penalty minutes per game during the regular season, POFF AVG amount of penalty minutes per game during the playoffs, % diff = percent difference between regular season average and playoff average.)

Name Reg AVG POFF AVG % diff
Brad Watson 21.53 18.06 17.5
Chris Rooney 22.07 22 0.3
Dan O’Halloran 23.35 30.53 26.7
Dan O’Rourke 23.43 21.83 7.1
Eric Furlatt 22.58 14.17 45.8
Marc  Joanette 23.55 23.09 2
Stephen Walkom 20.5 15.67 26.7
Wes McCauley 20.45 22.67 10.3

There are plenty of confounding variables that could explain the differences in performance. During the playoffs a ref could draw highly penalized teams. Partners are more static during the playoffs. A guy could keep getting paired with another official who calls more or less penalties than is the ref’s custom.

In an effort to keep this under 10,000 words, I won’t try to explore and prove/disprove each of these variables. Knowing those are in play, we can still draw basic conclusions about who handles the playoffs and who doesn’t.

Chris Rooney is the best official we examined, calling basically the same game from the regular season to the playoffs. Marc Joanette, Dan O’Rourke, Wes McCauley and if you were really optimistic even Brad Watson may be the victims of small playoff sample sizes and/or have a negligible difference. But it’s hard to look past a more than 20 percent difference, all the way up to almost 50 percent.

At least some refs, Dan O’Halloran, Stephen Walkom and Eric Furlatt in particular, react differently during the playoffs. But so does just about everybody. And who’s to say which refs are right and which refs are wrong?

Should we expect the exact same numbers from the regular season to the playoffs? It’s pretty obvious the speed and intensity steps up another level. Shouldn’t that lead to more penalties? But there’s less fighting, which takes away the five minute majors, and sometimes game misconducts. Plus, games are usually tighter checking, with less of back-and-forth scoring bonanzas, which means there could be less opportunities for half-hearted hooks and tripping penalties as guys try to get in the play. Should that mean there is less penalties?

That’s something you’ll have to answer.

(Before you pick this apart, I’ll fully admit there are a lot of holes in this study. This isn’t intended as an end all be all for the refs, but more of a discussion starter. This is the one part of the game that hasn’t been studied much.)

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