In March I took an interest in examining called and uncalled penalties and undertook an exercise to record and examine the relative rates at which a team committed a foul and how often they were penalized.
The primary focus of this project was the Oilers, but I gathered corresponding data on the Flames and a few other teams to use as a sort of control group against which to compare the Oilers’ data.
I realized quickly that the Flames’ data could, in and of itself, provide some intriguing insight into how the officials interact with the Flames.
Before we go any further, some housekeeping items to cover: this sample is too small to extrapolate any strong statistical projections, so instead let’s look at it from a kind of sociological or anthropological perspective. It is a snapshot in time that looks to break down the officiating in Flames’ games and challenge our beliefs in this area.
The way I set about recording the data was by watching every played minute of several games (five Flames games in total) and closely reviewing the play for infractions then marking whether it had been called or missed, the type (physical or technical), severity (0 for fantasy, 1 for marginal or weak, 2 for fair or earned, 3 for obvious or blatant) and the player against whom the infraction was committed. This often meant a 60 minute playing time would extend some 3 or 4 hours to review it entirely.
In addition to this I’d like to direct you to two articles that were brought to my attention when I began working on this project. The first by Noah Davis and Michael Lopez discusses referee bias to try and even out the number of penalties in a game, sometimes in spite of the actions of one team or another. The second by JLikens refers to a referee’s penchant for giving penalties in favour of a team that is trailing in a game. I’d recommend giving them a quick read as some of those concepts will affect how we examine this data.
Below are listed two of the games recorded (not in chronological order) with more to come as we go along. At the bottom of the article I will include the raw data for anyone who is interested to review.
Calgary vs Anaheim
Our first game to review is the March 30 game against the Anaheim Ducks, an 8-3 embarrassment for the Flames. The officials for the evening were Wes McCauley and Brad Watson. The most targeted players for the two teams were Mikael Backlund for the Flames and Nate Thompson of the Ducks.
The first thing you may notice is that the penalties for each team are very close to even (6-5, with an extra penalty against the Flames). Second is that the weight of uncalled infractions is also close, although the Ducks did carry a slight lead here. You’ll recall that earlier I had mentioned the article that looked at a large data set on penalties given relative to the score-state in the game and the conclusions were that teams trailing on the scoreboard received a slight bump in penalties-drawn during that trailing state.
This would not appear to be so for the Flames in this game, however they were also down 3-0 at the end of the first and it could be argued that, based on the scoreboard, they’d essentially dug themselves too deep a hole for the referees to consider providing any kind of sporting advantage, however minimal, in this way. That is just a hypothesis, though, and not one upon which we have enough data to extrapolate.
In the above table you may also notice that the relative rates of physical and technical infractions are fairly even between the two teams. Now, a technical infraction would something like a hold, hook, trip, interference and the like. A physical infraction would be slashing, cross-checking, boarding and so on.
It would appear that the Flames, regardless of score-state (perhaps even in some instances because of it), seemed to match the Ducks by way of style of play. That the penalties were for the most part even at the end of the game suggests that they would not receive any kind of extra punishment for this and therefore that the Ducks do not inherently receive preferential treatment, but rather play a style that conforms to, in the singular instance of this one game at least, the referees’ standards of rule enforcement.
Keep that in mind as we go through this exercise.
Up to this point the data we have looked at has included the weak or marginal infractions, both called and uncalled. In order to try and eliminate opportunities for bias I then reduced the data sets to only the fair and obvious infractions, called and uncalled, and separated them into technical and physical categories entirely. The reason for this is that for the purposes of the exercise I had to essentially take a zero-tolerance approach to rule enforcement, but need to retroactively adjust the data to reflect the realpolitik of the game itself. Nobody wants to watch or play a game where every little tug on a jersey or subtle stick into the hands of a shooter is called.
This is about as even a split as we could ask for. And the rate of call, where both teams were called on approximately 20% of the infractions is probably a reasonable rate to expect in a game.
There were understandably fewer physical fouls committed and again the penalties are nearly even, although the Ducks appear to have gotten away with a few more than the Flames in this regard.
Overall what we see in the first game is a near-even split on penalties called relative to those uncalled. On the surface this game appears to be largely pedestrian from an officiating perspective with the only two caveats being the overall high number of penalties (11) and the presumed influence of game-state having no effect.
Calgary vs Chicago
The next game is the March 26th game against the Chicago Blackhawks (remember the one where Duncan Keith did his best to remove Johnny Gaudreau’s kidneys with some handy stickwork in the defensive zone? Yeah, that game).
The game was a 4-1 win for Chicago at the Saddledome.
The referees for that evening were Marc Joanette and Kevin Pollock. The most targeted players were Johnny Gaudreau for the Flames and Artem Anisimov for the Blackhawks.
We’ll begin again with a general overview of the infractions, missed and called.
Once again we see the penalties are even, with the opposition carrying a slight lead in the area of uncalled infractions. Our alluded-to game-state influence doesn’t appear to be much in play as the majority of the penalties were handed out in the second period when the score state was still tied or within 1.
Let’s remove the level 1 infractions and see what it looks like.
Technical fouls were abundant in this game with little or no repercussions for either team. The Hawks did a phenomenal amount of stickwork in this game, relying on a heavy dose of hooking and interference: fouls typically associated with slower teams trying to counter faster ones. The Hawks can skate with most teams in the NHL, though, so I suspect this is their way of engaging physically to try and intimidate an opponent as opposed to more directly physical methods.
I should note, they also had a plentiful dose of slashing infractions, the vast majority of which went uncalled. But we’ll cover the physical fouls next.
That doesn’t look like a fair shake, to my eye. The Flames were essentially called on every second fair or obvious physical infraction while the Blackhawks were called on just under every third infraction. Consider also that two of the penalties were effectively coincidental minor penalties (slashing at 16:11 of the second period).
On paper it would appear that the Blackhawks received a small margin of leeway from the referees who prioritized maintaining an even balance of penalties on the scoresheet. When Calgary did retaliate most often the officials defaulted to penalizing both teams, however, so I don’t think we can go so far as to say that the Flames were grievously disadvantaged by the officiating in this game.
Between these two games the Flames struggled through minor disadvantages by way of drawing penalties relative to the rate at which infractions were committed.
If you have any questions or comments by all means bring them up in the section below, or you can direct them to me via Twitter (@codexrex).
Thanks for reading! The next three games will be up this time tomorrow.
CGY vs ANA raw data
CGY vs CHI raw data