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Penalties Are Way Down In The NHL As Refs Swallow Their Whistles


Whether we like it or not, referees are a huge part of a hockey game. Just like holding in football, they can call a penalty just about any time if they really wanted to. So how do refs decide when to call one?

Some people call hockey games “organized chaos”, meaning that it’s just a bunch of guys fighting over a puck – the refs just make sure they “sort of” play within a set of rules, for the most part.

I used to think that if it was a penalty, you call it. That if the NHL wanted to REALLY get back to the non-obstruction of the post-lockout seasons then call every single instance of hooking, holding, and otherwise obstruction of players.

Some would argue that would slow the game game way too much. The counter argument is that players would adapt, realizing they’re going to get called, and play much cleaner.

I really don’t know any more. They can’t call penalties on everything but they could certainly make it a more wide open game if they cracked down a bit more. 300w" sizes="(max-width: 450px) 100vw, 450px" />

Nah, not a penalty.

In any case, there are some stats that the number of penalties is WAY down this year.

A post over at has some interesting stats about this.:

In the season after the lockout, the number of powerplays skyrocketed to 11.7 powerplay opportunities per game as players adjusted to the new rule. This season, power plays are, as the alarming headline read, at a “three-decade low.

The post also puts together some stat projections for the 2011-2012 season: 300w" sizes="(max-width: 448px) 100vw, 448px" />

A similar post over at the Edmonton Journal rants about the drop in power plays chances. He waded through a bunch of data and found that:

…on both sides of the puck, powerplays both for and against, revealing that total PP’s for both teams had plummeted from 8.0 per game in the first 20% of Oilers games to just 4.7 per game in the most recent 20%.

This is huge and something is rotten in Denmark. Is the league purposely reverting back to the “Dead Puck Era”, going back on what they said they wanted to do after the 2004-2005 lockout season? Or is it simply that the league is lazy and inept and has allowed referees to call whatever they want?

Some have theorized that the obstruction is designed to purposely slow the game down that way the skill players don’t get hurt. But, if the skill players can’t operate freely without being obstructed, what’s the point?

In any case, it seems clear the the NHL in trending towards less penalties and more obstruction. And I don’t like it.

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Makeup Calls In The NHL Are Real! Well, Maybe.

Do you believe in makeup penalties? My woman laughs at me when I yell at the refs that it’s time to even things up and give the Sabres a power play.

But the phenomenon of makeup calls seems to be real to me. If the number of penalties is really lopsided to one team, more often than not the refs will start to even it up, sometimes on calls that appear to be really questionable.

Of course, this is all just conjecture and it might just be in our minds. The only way we can really tell if makeup calls happen is by looking at statistics. Luckily someone has dug into some stats on this and can tell us whether or not it really does go on.

I happened upon a blog called Sabermetric Research – and no they didn’t just spell Sabres wrong. Sabremetrics is apparently, “the specialized analysis of baseball through objective evidence, especially baseball statistics that measure in-game activity”. Oof, what? Couldn’t you just say nerd stats for sports? (Also, this statistic analysis isn’t just for baseball.)

In any case, the blog has a post about referees and makeup penalties.  This guy grabbed some stats from the Hockey Summary Project (a place where you can get tons of raw data from hockey games) and looked at all the penalties called from the 1953-54 to 1984-85 seasons.

He chucked data where both teams got penalties at the same time with the goal of seeing whether the currently penalized team would be more or less likely to get the next penalty.

Amazingly, he found that there was roughly a 60% chance that the other team would get the next penalty.

Is this incontrovertible proof of the makeup call? Well, not necessarily. We don’t know for sure that it was referee bias that led to the “makeup call”. Perhaps it was the penalized team playing it safe, or the team on the power play playing more aggressively even after the power play.

It gets better though. The longer that time has elapsed since the last penalty, the less likely it is that a “makeup call” will happen.

That’s consistent with many theories. The “referees are biased” theory would say that referees “forget” to even things up as the game goes on. The “other team wants revenge and plays aggressively” theory would say that if they don’t get revenge early, they don’t need it as much later. And the “penalized team takes fewer chances” theory would say that as time goes on, the players “forget” that they have to be more careful.

You can wade way deep into more stats and discussion about this if you really want to. There are two followup posts at the Sabremetrics Research blog and tons of comments, but that post itself is enough to make one’s head spin.

So we still don’t know conclusively if makeup calls are referee bias and probably never will. But I’m going with my gut on this one, and like most things, all we need sometimes is a vague stat to backup what we think is already true. 60% chance that the other team gets the next penalty? Damn those refs, they’re biased! Now give us a makeup call!

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