The NHL has a problem with their officiating.
Last season many of us noticed that the penalty calling was becoming less consistent, with questionable calls being both made and missed.
As a result I undertook the task of reviewing a sample of games and essentially auditing the officiating.
This season I have reviewed 9 Oilers’ games as well as 10 other NHL games and 7 Flames’ games as control groups as part of an ongoing project that I hope will cover in excess of 20 games for each by the end of the season.
The goal of this project isn’t to slander or skewer the refs for being incompetent or biased. They have an incredibly difficult job to do and operate under the mandate of the NHL Board of Governors who set officiating standards and policy.
My goal is to begin to demonstrate, statistically, that there is an imbalance within the officiating practices of the NHL that tilts the playing field in a real and persistent fashion.
Let me be absolutely clear here: while the refs are responsible for their calling the game I believe very strongly that they act within a directed mandate given to them by the NHL Board of Governors. If you are angry at the clutching and grabbing, the slashing and interference that goes uncalled, do not complain to the NHL Officiating department or the NHL Officiating Association (their union). Complain to your team management and ownership. Complain to the NHL head office (for all the good that will do). But yelling at the referees and hurling invectives about their dubious ancestry isn’t going to accomplish anything.
Now, back to the officiating review as an empirical exercise.
Here’s What I Do…
I record a random sampling of games and review every played minute, rewinding multiple times as the situation requires, in order to identify infractions, the severity and the two parties involved.
I use the NHL’s own rulebook when assessing whether an infraction has occurred, putting it into one of two categories, Physical or Technical (more on those in a moment), and then assigning a severity ranking as well as the time of the infraction and the jersey number of the player who committed the infraction and against whom it was committed. All infractions are marked as either Called or Missed.
Games are reviewed days afterward to create emotional distance from the outcome and are viewed impartially – I have been writing on the Flamesnation blog for over six years now and am practiced at separating personal opinions from objective observations.
I collect an equal number of Oilers, Flames and control games (control games being those not played by either of the other two teams) and aim to include as many of the 30 NHL teams as possible by season’s end.
This provides a rolling picture of the officiating process that takes place in a game, and gives us an idea specifically of whether one team was penalized more than their opposition, relative to the number of infractions committed.
So, to recap, each infraction gets recorded and coded using the following criteria:
Missed (M) or Called (C), depending on whether the infraction was a called penalty or not.
Physical infractions (P) include elbowing, cross-checking, slashing, high-sticking, boarding, hits to the head, charging, kneeing and such.
Technical infractions (T) include interference, tripping, hooking, holding the stick, delay of game, and so on.
Severity (0, 1, 2, 3) is graded from 0 to 3.
• 0 is a phantom call.
• 1 is a weak call of the sort that I wouldn’t want routinely enforced because it would distract from the physicality and emotion of the game.
• 2 is a fair called, an earned penalty that fits the letter of the law and is apparent enough to warrant being enforced.
• 3 is a blatant or obvious call, an egregious infraction within sight of the officials (presumably, at least) whose not being called is an act in and of itself.
I record the kind of infraction committed; high-sticking, interference, elbowing, cross-checking, slashing, and so on.
I add the time of the event using the game clock and the jersey numbers of the players involved.
So a missed slashing infraction by Corey Perry on Leon Draisaitl might look something like this: M, 2P Sl, 10, 29, 15:54.
Altogether, the percentage of times a penalty is called compared to how often it isn’t I refer to as a Rate of Call (RoC).
I’ll be posting raw game data here on the Rig along with the appropriate charts and explanations to illustrate the findings.
I am acutely aware that the entire basis of this exercise rests on my own subjective perception of the game. All the data points flow from my own observation of events which are, to some extent, open for debate. I am often critical of this method in other areas of game tracking that involve subjective evaluation, so I am being up front about this here and now.
As a way to try and account for this I have adopted two basic approaches. The first being that I will publish each game’s raw data here for easy review. You can simply go to any game listed, forward to the game time marked, and observe the two players listed to compare my findings with your own view of the event.
The second approach is in how I review the data. Recall I mentioned that the type 1 infractions are the kind I wouldn’t want called on a regular basis because they are the kind of ticky-tack calls that subtract from the emotion and flow of the game. This also means that those type 1 infractions are more likely to be caught up in an emotional viewing of the game where the observer may pick up every little thing committed against his team.
To try and guard against this I remove the type 1 infractions from my final analysis. I continue to track them and will refer to them on occasion as an aggregate, but in specific games I will not be examining them.
Now that we’ve got out of the way, here’s some of what I’ve observed thus far.
• The Oilers’ opponents included in this segment of the data are the Anaheim Ducks, Arizona Coyotes, Buffalo Sabres, Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars, Philadelphia Flyers, San Jose Sharks, St. Louis Blues, Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs, Vancouver Canucks and Winnipeg Jets.
• The percentage of times that a penalty was called, what I refer to as rate-of-call (RoC) in Oiler games, was 17%.
• On type 1 infractions, the Oilers’ RoC was 10% of those they commit.
• On type 1 infractions, the opposition’s RoC is 2% of those they commit.
• I typically throw the type 1 data out as a means of adjusting for bias, but I will be passing the data along at this stage.
• On type 2 infractions, the Oilers’ RoC is 24%.
• On type 2 infractions, their opposition’s RoC is 6%.
• The type 2 infractions is where we see the largest divergence between the Oilers and their opponents, specifically the type 2, or earned, technical fouls. These are tripping, interference, hooking and so on. The Oilers are called on 34% of the earned technical fouls they commit compared to their opposition being called on only 8% of their earned technical fouls, and keep in mind, the opposition commits more than twice as many of these fouls as the Oilers.
• On type 3 infractions, the Oilers’ RoC is 37%.
• On type 3 infractions, their opposition’s RoC is 39%.
• This is the narrowest margin between the Oilers and their opposition I have uncovered at any point in this exercise.
• The Oilers commit just 30% of the type 3 (obvious or blatant) infractions, though both teams are penalized at an approximately even rate.
• The most “active” Oiler in terms of committing infractions, be they called or uncalled, is Patrick Maroon.
• The most targeted Oiler in terms of being on the receiving end of infractions, be they called or uncalled, is Connor McDavid.
• I have recorded 5 phantom calls in the reviewed Oilers games thus far this season. Of those, 3 went against the Oilers, 2 went against the opposition.
Now, let’s look at the data from the non-Oiler games from across the NHL.
• The teams included in this data set include the Anaheim Ducks, Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Carolina Hurricanes, Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, Montreal Canadiens, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Ottawa Senators, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, St. Louis Blues, Toronto Maple Leafs, Vancouver Canucks and Winnipeg Jets.
• The percentage of times that a penalty was called, what I refer to as rate-of-call (RoC) in non-Oiler games was 18%. In Oiler games, you will recall, the overall RoC was 17%.
• On type 1 infractions the RoC was 2%. 4% on physical infractions and 0% on technical infractions.
• On type 2 infractions the RoC was 12%. 10% on physical infractions and 14% on technical infractions.
• On type 3 infractions the RoC was 38%. 21% on physical infractions and 45% on technical infractions.
And to put things in a more graphic context, here are some visualizations to help illustrate some of these findings (called infractions are all on the left, uncalled infractions on the right)
Type 1 (weak)
Type 2 (earned)
Type 3 (blatant)
So, to sum up, in Oilers games we can expect about one out of every six penalties will be called with the most likely ones being the blatant or obvious calls usually happening a little less than one out of every three times.
The Oilers generally don’t commit as many fouls as the opposition but tend to be penalized at more or less the same rate.
Referees generally prefer to keep the number of penalties in a game at around the same number for each team, meaning that there could be room for (some of) the Oilers to “take liberties” they might otherwise pass over. This does not include Benoit Pouliot. He needs to keep his nose clean regardless of anything else is happening in the game.
The Oilers are penalized at about the same rate on the “fair” calls as they are on the “blatant” ones and their opposition typically has a far wider range before being penalized.
I’ll be following up this article with more specific details on the games observed, both those of the Oilers and non-Oilers, providing raw data and some general observations.
So my evidence seems to support the general fan’s perception that the Oilers are getting screwed at the drive-thru.