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Why Toronto’s penalty complaints are legitimate, and symptoms of a league-wide problem

Last week, a Thursday game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Edmonton Oilers re-opened a lot of questions about the state of officiating in the National Hockey League. Oddly enough, it wasn’t a matter of bias that was at play, as both teams and their fanbases were left frustrated. Nor was it a particularly unique circumstance, rather unique in how extreme it was. What we saw instead was a neutral problem, with elements that carry over into almost every NHL game, pushed to it’s extreme limits.

This was a game that featured a combined eleven powerplays between two teams, nearly double the league per-game average, without the big hits, skirmishes, fights, and the like that you’d expect from a game so active. In fact, the vast majority of the penalty calls – from slashes called on light body-contactless stick lifts, to interference called on circumstantial “picks”, felt light compared to the norm, or in the case of an Edmonton “puck-over-glass” delay of game call where the cleared puck landed on the bench, in defiance of the actual rulebook.

What it felt like was “game management”, something that has been all too common in the league over the past few years. A situation where the rulebook is enforced a lot of blind eyes and not a lot of consistency, where the biggest indicators of an infraction tend to be who got the last call, who made the best complaint when the stripes convened, or even as simple as who has had more success on the powerplay on a given night. Penalties felt like “equalizers” or “makeup calls” and dampened the overall experience of the night. In the rematch that followed on Saturday, the opposite happened; very little was called, the teams were able to get away with much more, and everyone was just as unhappy because the lessons learned from two nights prior were literally useless to the next quiz.

The Maple Leafs immediately followed the second Edmonton game up with their first extended stretch of games off, so the smoke has died down a little bit in Toronto. But over the weekend, a powderkeg seemed to burst in the market, and not one that’s come out of nowhere. The blue and white are near the bottom of the league in penalty differential after years of being near the bottom of already the league in penalties drawn, and while that will likely sort itself out, history implies that it will do so in a curious way that we’ll talk about shortly. Not to mention, concerns about calls were already in the news in Toronto after former Leafs assistant GM and current Orr/Wasserman Agent Jeff Jackson (who has ties to O/W clients Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews) made a point about how often top forwards get cross-checked near the net, that was echoed by members of the Leafs in the following days.

In other words, Toronto has penalty fever right now, and the question at the moment is pretty simple – do they have a legitimate argument, or is this just whining from the biggest market?

My feel here is that yes, there is absolutely a legitimate argument to be had here, and it’s not one that just impacts the Maple Leafs.

Symptom, not the Disease

Right off the hop, for those reading as neutrals, or as fans of other teams, what we are about to explore here is not, in any way, a conspiracy aimed against the Toronto Maple Leafs, or any form of anti-Leafs bias. Part of what makes a conversation like this so abrasive is the idea of Goliath whining about being plotted against, and that’s something that I completely understand that. I’m not just saying this to tip-toe either – I legitimately have no reason to conclude that the problem here is that the league is specifically screwing Toronto over because of who they are. The closest thing to an argument that someone could make in that direction is that there may be nerves about making “bad” calls in big-market games, but that’s a presumptuous claim that would still impact more teams than just one.

Instead, what I’d like to talk about here is a problem with how penalties and powerplays in the league are distributed, a pattern that trickles all the way down the sport. Toronto’s spotlight focus here is almost coincidental – the large market increases the odds of it becoming a talking point, but the actual issue of what happens on the ice only draws Toronto in as a matter of circumstance. The Leafs coincidentally check the boxes of a team that would get impacted by this pattern, based on how they presently play.

When this came up over the weekend, Josh and Luke Younggren (best known as the Evolving Wild twins) wrote a Twitter thread about Toronto and their powerplay distribution. Within it, they pointed out that the Maple Leafs have taken the second-fewest minor penalties in the league since the start of the 2017/18 season, while also drawing the second-fewest in that span. (Note: In the days since their thread was posted, Toronto has fallen behind the Blue Jackets and have now drawn the fewest)

Now, when one looks at how the team’s roster construction has evolved since Brendan Shanahan took the helm as Team President in 2014, it makes a lot of sense that this would be a team that doesn’t take many penalties. Some, like the mainstream media in most Canadian markets, would call the Leafs “soft” and “not tough enough”, a tag that’s chased them for years. Others, who like how the team is built, would argue that they’re “disciplined” and above a focus on aggression and retaliation, which mirrors successful team builds like the turn of the century Detroit Red Wings that Shanahan played for, or the early 2010s Chicago Blackhawks.

Whatever you want to call it, don’t throw more hits than they need to. They don’t initiate a lot of conflict, and will often avoid retaliation. They have the puck a lot, be it through their cycle game or their preference for controlled zone transition over a dump-and-chase. They put up consistent high event results from a shot quantity and quality perspective and the eye test shows them to be a fast-skating team (maybe a bit slower this year due to an influx of veterans). Basically, they’re built to stay out of the penalty box.

The oddity comes on the other side. Intuitively speaking, you take penalties when you’re chasing the play; trying to cut off passes, slow down more skilled opponents, trying to get under the skin of a team that’s got control, that sort of thing. This should mean that a team that plays fast, prefers to control transition with carrying and passing over puck clearance, enjoys cycling, and spends a lot of time with possession should draw an above-average amount of penalties. This should be even more evident when you have star talent who are strong on the puck and hard to strip by legal means – again, something Toronto has more than the average team. Yet, in that 2017-2020 window brought up by the Twins, the Leafs have three seasons in the bottom 11 of drawn penalties per hour at 5v5. Include the small sample that we have of this year, and becomes four of the bottom 16.

Ultimately, this leaves the Maple Leafs at a per-hour penalty differential of 0.03, or a surplus powerplay every 30 games, over that three year span. Seems pretty weird, right? As it turns out, it’s a pattern of the league. Take a look at this:

This is every NHL team’s penalty drawn to taken rates plotted out, for every individual season from 2007/08 to 2019/20. As you can see, teams that take a lot more penalties than they draw, or vice versa, don’t really exist. They do to an extent, but nothing that you can actively turn into a strategy by means of differential. Out of this pool of 393 teams seasons, just three of them have a positive or negative differential of more than one penalty per hour played. Just 88 have a positive or negative differential of more than half a penalty per hour played, and nearly two-thirds of the list (210) are within 0.25 penalties per hour, positive or negative. There are actually more teams within 0.1 (99) than there are outside of half.

Over enough time, no matter what your team does, your penalty differential will find its way to zero, no matter how many penalties you take. The look including the just the past three years is a little less suspicious, but only because the sample is still pretty small and because the fact that penalty calls on the whole are down (most likely a byproduct of teams adding more skill on the fringes and dressing fewer enforcers), meaning the percentage shares are slightly more varied – though the raw numbers are, again, too low to create a competitive advantage out of.

Here’s another way of looking at:

In this case, I broke up the teams in the 2007 to 2020 sample based on their rate of taking penalties, to see how disciplined teams fared in a larger sample of penalty differential against undisciplined ones. We have a lot of minutes to work with here – about 1.4 million of them. What we see is that while the tangible benefit is there, it’s only by a percentage point or two, even as rate of penalty taking sharply increases.

Being an average top-half team in discipline only gains you a net penalty every five games over an average bottom-half team, being an average top third team only gains you one every four games, and being in the top 10 percent only gains you a penalty every two games, even has the bottom half team takes twice as many penalties as you. It doesn’t take a numbers guru or a hockey strategy specialist to come to the conclusion that, in a game called by the book, this makes absolutely no sense – a team that takes three extra penalties in an hour shouldn’t be consistently getting two and a half of them back in even-up calls.

The last bit of charting I did here was with the three-year pool of data that the Twins used, just to see what connections there might be with certain on-ice activities. This was just a run through the r-squared function on Excel, so hardly scientific stuff, but I figured it would be interesting nonetheless.

The NHL’s statistics on things like giveaways, takeaways, hits and the like are pretty spotty and inconsistent, but they at least give us some form of proxy for puck activity until player tracking data comes into play. So I looked at those, combined Giveaways and Takeaways into Transfers, Hits for and against into “Hittiness”, and tried mixing all sorts of combinations of all of those items, just to see if the intuitive theory of “players with the puck draw penalties, players without it take penalties” showed up in the data.

The answer: Not really. The strongest connections were how penalties interacted with each other. Majors more or less overlapped with majors (which makes sense, since most majors are for fighting), majors taken overlapped a fair bit with minors taken (which still makes sense, since a team that fights a lot is probably gritty away from the fisticuffs), and overall, taking penalties overlapped with drawing penalties. Again, none of this is overly surprising.

What’s The Cure?

So where we’re at here is this: The Leafs, Toronto Media, their fans, they’re correct about the penalty thing. You can hate the team and the coverage surrounding them all you want, and they probably deserve it in a lot of ways, but there is a definite trend in the National Hockey League where all penalty differentials head towards zero, and no matter how clean of a game you play, it’ll just lead to opponents having more wiggle room to tug and hack at you, because the league doesn’t want to look like they’re giving one team too many breaks. They want to “let the boys play”, and “not decide the game”, as you’ve probably heard a billion times.

Obviously, that’s a bad excuse. When “letting them play” means “don’t call penalties”, you’re fundamentally changing the rules of the game that is being played, on a case by case basis, meaning that what is and isn’t a hold, a slash, interference, etc might not be the same in the next game, the next period, or even the next shift. It punishes teams who are playing the game properly, and who have control of the puck, allowing chasers to cheat their way back into games as long as the penalty differential or powerplay goal differential doesn’t get too far in their favour. This gets significantly worse during the playoffs, where the underdogs are essentially given get out of jail free cards to do whatever they want to their opponents to keep any series within reach.

When a sport is as low scoring as hockey, being subjective about the rules in this way can create a massive impact on the game. The Younggren’s thread came to a conclusion that Toronto aren’t being hurt too much from a raw standings point perspective by this pattern, but goal opportunities matter, momentum matters, and knowing for certain what you can and can’t do and can and can’t have done to you does change the way you play. One can look to the play-in series, where interference and holding were basically made legal – something Columbus took full advantage of – to see where the ice can get tilted by a need for forced parity and balance.

More importantly, I just want to see a consistent environment, and preferably one that is in line with how the game is outlined to be played. Truth be told, I really don’t care if calling all the rules until the players followed them made the Leafs better or worse, and the proposition that the statistical impact of a better differential might be meaningless to them doesn’t matter to me at all. Because it’s not about them, but the game itself.

Hockey is more skilled than it’s ever been. More talent is needed than ever to play at literally any level; the NHL, in Europe, in the minors, in Major Junior, even in organized youth hockey. We have the potential to open up this game in ways we’ve never seen before, and a lot of it can come from truly “letting the players play”. Not letting them get away with anything, but having a consistent enforced rulebook that forces them to stick to using their talents to help their team, that makes taking a penalty a calculated risk or an emotional mistake rather than a dice-roll where you have to feel out how comfortable an official might be with making a decision.

This isn’t about one team needing a way to get an advantage – I’ve written in the past about how the best thing for a top-team to do is get good at total special teams, then start taking a lot of penalties to tilt the ice. In the short term, Toronto is best off learning how to be more like a Tampa Bay or Boston. Maybe they need to get Pierre Engvall to punch goalies in the face. Maybe Auston Matthews needs to start diving. I don’t know the direct solution there, but I’m also not seeking it with this piece.

Ultimately I, like many others just want to see games called by the book, and played the way they’re meant to be played. It just so happens that, yes, the most obnoxious market you know has a real, honest point about this not being a one-way street, but a systemic issue within the game, and frankly, the sport.

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