How to improve officiating in the Stanley Cup playoffs
Complaining about Stanley Cup playoff officiating is a rite of the season, like watch parties and rally towels.
The coaches complain about officiating. Like Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour admitting that “I’m a little pissed, to be honest with you” when an unpenalized slash from New York Islanders forward Jean-Gabriel Pageau broke the hand of Carolina winger Teuvo Teravainen. Or Toronto Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe accusing Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper of “manipulating the officials” when Steven Stamkos fought Auston Matthews in Game 3.
The players complain about the officiating, none louder than Marcus Foligno of the Minnesota Wild. He was whistled for two specious penalties against the Dallas Stars in the Wild’s Game 4 loss, resulting in two Tyler Seguin power-play goals.
“It’s bulls—,” Foligno said. “This is playoff hockey. You go and hit a guy and it’s not illegal. It’s clean and you’re getting called to the penalty box.”
The fans? They complain the loudest about the officiating. Every online fan base has theories about the referees having it in for their team. Every arena has its own derogatory chant to express discontent with the officiating.
But is there really a problem? And what can be done to fix it?
JOSHUA SMITH RUNS the hockey officiating website Scouting The Refs. He thinks criticism of playoff officiating has been more emphatic this postseason than ever before.
“It’s hard not to notice it,” he said. “Fans say the officiating is horrible. I feel like every year it gets louder and it’s even louder this year.”
When asked by ESPN, the NHL declined to comment on the quality of its officiating in the 2023 playoffs.
For context, the minor penalties per team through 35 postseason games is down significantly from last year. According to ESPN Stats & Information, there have been 300 minors called, including double-minors, for 8.57 penalties per game in the 2023 playoffs. In 2022, there were 349 penalties called, or 9.97 per game. This season’s totals are up over 2021 (8.26) and down from 2020 (8.91), which was the pandemic bubble postseason.
Yet the fans and media are protesting louder than ever about the officiating in the playoffs. Technology has amplified these critiques, from the instantaneous delivery of video highlights to the existence of online echo chambers, where any gripe about referee bias gets high levels of engagement.
“I think we’re in a space where people are looking for arguments or looking to criticize,” Smith said. “So if you want an easy target, it’s finding fault in the officiating on a nightly basis.”
Of course, it doesn’t help that the referees have opened themselves up to so much criticism in the 2023 playoffs thanks to a series of questionable, some downright bizarre, calls.
Those blown penalties on Foligno. A strange embellishment penalty on Mathew Barzal after getting cross-checked in the back by Brent Burns. This Kevin Fiala … whatever it was against the Oilers:
It just wasn’t the Marcus Foligno penalty calls yesterday that were awful, the Kevin Fiala penalty call last night was so bad, I’ve never seen NHL officiating this bad ever in the playoffs pic.twitter.com/DTAo3EjRQy
— Alex Micheletti (@AlexMicheletti) April 24, 2023
Phantom penalties. Missed calls. The usual “game management” in close contests, where suddenly only the most egregious penalties get called after players are nickel-and-dimed during regulation. There’s series management, too. NHL analyst Cam Charron has tracked dwindling power-play opportunities as series have gone on.
Is it just simply harder to officiate in the playoffs than the regular season?
“People have no idea how fast the game is and how hard it is to fight for sight lines out there on the ice,” said Dave Jackson, who was an NHL referee for three decades and is now the rules analyst for ESPN.
“It’s easy to watch a replay and say ‘that shouldn’t be a penalty,’ but in real time, so many things look like penalties or don’t look like penalties, and the referee’s job is to get it right and not guess. So that’s why you end up sometimes seeing calls missed or the wrong call being made.”
Well, sometimes they guess, and that’s OK, because the NHL put in a safety net for them.
STARTING IN 2019, the NHL allowed referees to review their calls on major penalties, match penalties and double-minor penalties for high-sticking, giving them the chance to reduce those calls to minor penalties. This season, the NHL tweaked the rule to allow referees to rescind the major penalty call altogether.
Even the most passionate critics of officiating can admit the refs have used this new tool well in the 2023 playoffs. Only once did it feel like they botched it: Colorado Avalanche star Cale Makar‘s boarding penalty against Jared McCann of the Seattle Kraken, which was reduced from a major to a minor but earned him a one-game suspension.
But we hear a lot more about them getting it wrong than getting it right. And we also hear a lot of theories about why playoff officiating has been allegedly substandard.
Here are several of them:
Theory 1: The refs are too inexperienced
When did we stop knowing the names of all the referees? Over the past 15 years, some memorable ones have retired — Jackson, Bill McCreary, Don Van Massenhoven, Dan O’Halloran. Outside of Wes McCauley’s showmanship and Tim Peel’s infamy, how many referees have we known by name in the past few seasons?
“There’s been a lot of veteran experience that has left the ice,” Smith said, “even though they’re now upstairs in the buildings as supervisors.”
Jackson likens NHL officiating to, of all things, “Saturday Night Live.” Cast members leave, new cast members join the show and everybody complains about how it’s not funny anymore.
“I think sometimes Wes McCauley will make a call and the identical call could be made by a rookie,” Jackson said. “And because of the lack of acceptance and familiarity with that [younger] official, it gets more pushback than a veteran official’s does.”
Theory 2: The refs are bad
Is it possible the NHL just herded the wrong zebras?
Here’s how the NHL selects its postseason officials. Stephen Walkom, NHL executive vice president of officiating, and his team start building the playoff roster about a month out. But the evaluation process for referees and linesmen occurs throughout the season.
According to the NHL, around 40% of regular-season games are attended by Walkom or a member of his officiating management team. Just like Hockey Operations and Player Safety, the officiating group monitors and logs every game to ensure it is being officiated by the NHL standards. Feedback comes immediately to on-ice officials in the form of locker room debriefing sessions, as well as video sent back and forth and phone follow-ups.
Midway through the season, Walkom and his cabinet meet to internally rate the league’s officials. They do the same with two weeks before the end of the season, but that midseason score is what really puts officials in line for the postseason. When it comes to selecting postseason officials, the buck stops with Walkom. He makes the call.
There are 35 refs and 35 linesmen in the NHL. Twenty of each work in the first round. By the second round, only one third of the league’s officials are still working, then it drops again as the playoffs continue. Every series has a “series manager” on site, who is either a senior member of the Hockey Ops staff or a former referee.
“You could work the Stanley Cup Final one year and be gone in the first round the next year,” Jackson said. “They talk about a lack of accountability, and there is accountability. You’re starting your summer vacation early if you don’t perform.”
Theory 3: Power plays make bad calls feel worse
Why do bad calls in the 2023 postseason feel so much more consequential than in previous playoffs? Frankly, because they are, thanks to high rate of power-play efficiency.
The NHL saw power plays score goals 21.31% of the time this season, which is the highest rate since 1985-86 (22.10%). When you’re hitting offensive numbers last seen since the 1980s, you know it’s a goal bonanza.
Through 31 games in the 2023 playoffs, we’re down in power-play opportunities (230) compared to last season (259) in that same span. But we’re up five more power-play goals. One goal makes all the difference in a playoff game. These calls, or missed calls, have an even greater impact thanks to these high-octane power plays.
Theory 4: The game is too fast
Jackson remembers his first playoff assignment. It was 1999 between the Boston Bruins and Hurricanes, seven years after he officiated his first NHL game. He figured he was ready, but he wasn’t fully prepared for the “hair on fire” pace of the postseason, where every check is finished and there’s no time or space.
Keeping up with the action is difficult, even for the viewer. The league, as a whole, has never been faster. This was the highest scoring season per team per game since 1993-94. Teams are built for offense. Everyone must skate, and thus so must the officials.
Smith said the league hires new officials based on knowledge of the rules and physical ability, usually having played at a high level in order to keep up with the NHL talent.
Yet even with two referees on the ice, the pace sometimes feels too overwhelming.
Theory 5: The playoffs are just different
“They say that referees change how they referee in the playoffs. I’d say that players change how they play in the playoffs,” Jackson said.
In particular, the number of retaliatory penalties drop dramatically from the regular season to the postseason. Coaches emphasize that players can’t be goaded into calls by the actions of their opponents, to the point of benching repeat offenders. So if there are fewer calls in the playoffs, it might be because there are fewer calls to make.
“The penalties you see occurring are usually accidental penalties, trying too hard and tripping a guy or something, or desperation penalties, to where they’re beat on a play,” he said. “The types of penalties are 180 degrees for the most part than what you find in regular-season games.”
Theory 6: Nothing gets called in overtime
Jackson remembers back in 2005 when Walkom helped establish a new standard for officiating that extended to playoff overtimes, telling the referees that if they see something that crosses the standard for enforcement, blow the whistle. He said Walkom and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman stress that to the officials before every postseason.
But playoff overtimes are called sudden death for a reason: Postseason life can be extinguished with a power-play goal. Jackson said it’s not that the officials are putting their whistles away in extra time, but they’re just really careful about using them.
“Just take that extra second. Don’t guess. Make sure it really is a penalty. And if it is, you need to call it,” he said.
According to Smith, this is where that inexperience might creep in. A younger official might have some hesitancy to make a critical call.
“The players are committing the infraction and you need to have confidence in your call, but human nature is that it’s when everything’s on the line, there’s a lot of pressure on that call,” Smith said. “And certainly as a veteran you can deal with it, but when it’s your first playoff series, it’s probably something you’re not used to.”
When an obvious penalty isn’t called in overtime? Jackson says the referee is just as upset as you are.
“You’re not going to intentionally miss an obvious penalty in overtime. It is so easy to call a penalty that should be called and know you’ll be supported by the league for making the call,” he said. “Those calls are not ignored. They are missed. And no one feels any worse than the referee who misses them.”
SO HOW CAN the NHL make playoff officiating more accurate and efficient?
Smith believes the obvious first improvement comes from the NHL EDGE puck and player tracking technology.
The current technology allows the NHL to track the speed and location of players and the puck, collecting other data along the way. Up next is an optical tracking solution that would add a significant amount of new data about body and stick positioning. That optical tracking system could show up next season, according to Dave Lehanski, NHL executive vice president of business development and innovation.
When that optical component is added, referees could use the real-time data to definitively tell when an opponent or the puck is hit with a high stick. Which would have really come in handy during that Edmonton Oilers vs. Los Angeles Kings overtime situation, when it appeared the Kings’ Gabriel Vilardi hit the puck with a very high stick before the Kings’ game-winning goal:
Let us know what you think…
Was this a high stick? pic.twitter.com/URekeAkNHh
— B/R Open Ice (@BR_OpenIce) April 22, 2023
This quickly became the “is the dress blue and black or gold and white?” hockey debate for the ages. It could have ended, definitively, through the use of tracking tech.
“Was it deflected by a high stick? If so, we should have the coordinates to know exactly the height of the deflection,” Smith said. “So we don’t have to review the high stick, we don’t have to review puck over glass because we’ll know if it hit anything on the way out of the rink and we’ll have an exact moment when the puck crossed the blue line for that offside. I would love to see what we can do with puck tracking before we start putting in additional reviews.”
There have also been calls for additional reviews. Rod Brind’Amour told the “32 Thoughts” podcast that he wants two officials taken off the ice so they can sit in a box and immediately review every penalty through replay.
“The one that’s not a penalty that causes a goal? That’s the one I get frustrated at,” he said. “And all they need to do is get a second look at it.”
Jackson didn’t like that idea.
“OK, so what about if it’s a hook? Is the guy in the box’s opinion any better than the guy on the ice?” he said. “Most penalties are not black and white. They’re not ‘safe’ or ‘out.’ There’s a gray area. There are judgment calls that can’t be fixed by video review.”
“Review everything” is great in theory … but would be horrible in practice.
There are entire generations of viewers with reduced attention spans, whether it’s for movies with elephantine running times and regular-season sporting events that take three hours. Major League Baseball just passed a collection of rules to make its games shorter. Why would hockey, which prides itself on kinetic excitement, ever want to slow its pace down like that?
But there is part of the Stanley Cup playoff game where time has no meaning: overtime.
Every penalty in a game shouldn’t be reviewed. But what if every penalty in playoff overtime was reviewed?
Think of the benefits:
They get the calls as correct as possible, knowing that an overtime power play can be “game over.” Heck, it happened twice on Monday, with the Leafs and Kraken both winning on OT power-play goals.
That hesitancy not to “guess” on critical calls gets alleviated. We’ve seen how the ability to review major penalties has encouraged officials to make the call and then figure out if it’s correct. The same could happen with minor penalties in overtime.
From a TV perspective, potential ad breaks in overtime during reviews!
Playoff overtime is playoff overtime. We’re strapped in for the ride. It doesn’t matter how many turns and drops they want to add to the track. We’re watching until the ride is over.
JACKSON DOESN’T MIND when people who haven’t played the game, or passionately follow hockey, criticize the officiating.
“I don’t need to be a chef to know when food tastes bad,” he said.
What bothers him are the conspiratorial takes. “What I have issue with is people opining on what goes on behind the scenes, saying that the refs are trying to manage the game or trying to affect the outcome of the game, which couldn’t be further from the truth,” he said.
The theories about the league somehow wanting certain teams to succeed doesn’t hold any water, particularly after Edmonton won the Connor McDavid lottery; if the NHL could ever fix the outcome of something, it would have been that.
The media plays a major part in driving this mindset, according to Smith.
“Bashing the officials is your cheap pop in wrestling. It’s a standup comedian saying, ‘Hello, Cleveland!’” Smith said. “Everybody’s on your side. I mean, nobody’s out there going, ‘Yeah, I think the officials did really well’ on a broadcast.”
Jackson believes it’s local media that really indoctrinates fans to criticize referees.
“What happens is any home team’s fan base who watch games on a regular basis takes what’s said by their broadcasters as the gospel. When you hear about conspiracy theories, it’s just patently untrue many times,” he said. “But that’s the narrative they put forward. That whole team’s fan base starts to believe it. And that’s an injustice. It creates a crisis when there really isn’t a crisis.”
But, complaining about Stanley Cup playoff officiating is a rite of the season. A rite is defined as a “social custom or practice,” i.e. something that we create.
The dirty secret about “terrible” playoff officiating is that it’s part of hockey fandom. The boos, the chants, the running to social media to proclaim the puck definitely hit the stick and the NHL is definitely trying to keep certain teams from advancing … it’s all part of the Stanley Cup playoff tradition at this point.
After all, a little human error goes a long way in connecting fans emotionally with the game. It’s the perfect imperfection of professional sports.
“We’re in this weird space,” Smith said. “How much do we need to get the call right and how much can we live with?”