Today we’ll take all of my accrued Flames data and compare it against the opposition to see how things shake out.
Reminder: I reviewed every played minute of each game in question, broke the data down into called and uncalled infractions, then into physical and technical categories and ranked them on a scale: 0 for fantasy or ghost calls, 1 for weak or marginal, 2 for fair or earned, 3 for blatant or obvious.
I realize that a five game sample is in no way statistically significant, therefore what I’m looking at here is using the data collected to examine things from more of a sociological perspective. In other words, looking at behaviours of the teams and officials, asserting or refuting arguments with regards to referees and how they officiate the game, and so on.
We’ll begin with the accumulation of infractions, called and uncalled, throughout the exercise.
The overall breakdown suggests that the Flames committed slightly fewer infractions than their opponents, but were called slightly more often.
The difference in uncalled infractions is 95/110, which over a five-game sample size would work out to about 19 uncalled infractions committed per game and 1,558 over a whole season for the Flames, assuming this is more or less a standard rate.
The Flames were called on 23 infractions to 18 for the opposition, which works out to around 4.6 penalties taken per game over an 82 game season. According to SportingCharts.com the Flames were the fifth-least penalized team in the NHL last season, facing just 2.84 penalties per game.
So how do we explain this discrepancy between their seasonal average and the average over this five-game snapshot? Simple. It’s a five-game snapshot.
I’m not trying to undermine my own work here, but the fact remains that we cannot draw too many statistical conclusions from so small a sample size.
One thing we can say is that the Flames, during this span of games, played a style that was obviously more likely to result in a penalty.
Now, I’m sure someone is saying right now “yeah, this was after the Wideman thing when the refs had it out for us”.
Fortunately we also have the number of penalties called against Calgary’s opposition during this period, an average of 3.6 per game. And returning to SportingCharts.com, the Flames were amongst the most-oft rewarded teams in terms of powerplay opportunities last season, ranking sixth overall at 3.29 powerplays per game (ahead of the Red Wings, Avalanche, Stars and Penguins, to name a few).
So to be frank, the “refs have it out for us because of Wideman” argument is bull. The Flames’ share of powerplay opportunities actually increased following the Wideman incident and over the time that he was actively in the lineup following his suspension and appeal.
So why were the Flames receiving more penalties on fewer infractions than their opposition?
Let’s break down the calls into technical and physical categories and eliminate the weak or marginal infractions to see if it clears things up at all.
The technical infractions appear to make up about half of the uncalled infraction differential between the Flames and their opposition. These penalties are things like tripping, hooking, holding, interference and the like.
It is in the physical infractions that the Flames were most noticeably more heavily penalized than their opposition, receiving twice as many calls against them.
But let’s look again at those numbers from the very first table, specifically the fair and obvious categories.
The Flames committed 23 fair technical fouls to 34 by their opposition, and the penalties given were 3 and 4, respectively. That translates to a rate of call of about 13% for the Flames to 12% for the opposition, a relatively insignificant difference.
Let’s compare that with the obvious technical fouls where the Flames committed 28 to the opposition’s 24 and the penalties accrued were 8 to 6, respectively. For the Flames that means being penalized on 29% of their obvious technical fouls to 25% for the opposition. This is the largest gap thus far and the fact that it occurs in the “obvious” category suggests that perhaps it is less the result of officiating bias than a lack of subtlety on the part of the Calgary players.
When it comes to the fair physical fouls (remember this is earned infractions, so an action that fits the definition of a penalty but whose being called rests almost entirely on the referees’ prerogative), the Flames committed 11 to the opposition’s 13 and both were penalized only once. That comes out to a difference of 1% point in the rate of being called between the Flames and the opposition – again, a difference that is likely to disappear under a larger sample size.
If we turn to the obvious physical fouls, the Flames committed 23 while the opposition committed only 13, and the Flames were penalized 11 times to the opposition’s 5. That comes out to a 48% rate of call for the Flames on obvious physical infractions and 38% for the opposition.
If one wanted to make a case that the Flames were unfairly targeted by officials, this would be the hill to die on. And let’s remember that obvious physical fouls are slashing, elbowing, cross-checking, boarding, kneeing, high-sticking and so on. Typically these are the types of penalties that referees are under pressure to call aggressively so while the direct percentages show a marked difference, we might also argue that they are called on an escalating scale (in other words, the more you commit, the more frequently you will be penalized).
Again, this is too small a sample size to give us a clear answer either way. But we do have something of a sounding line now against which to test some common storylines that come up with regards to the Flames and the referees.
Finally, I’m going to include some various bits of information that I gathered from the data collected.
- During the games observed, the Flames were most likely to both commit and be the victims of hooking and tripping infractions – perhaps an indication that the league is slipping back to its old dead-puck habits.
- The most frequently targeted Flames players were, in order, Josh Jooris (hooking and interference), Joe Colborne (hooking), Mikael Backlund (hooking), Sam Bennett (tripping), and Matt Stajan (hooking).
From what little data I have gathered in doing this exercise and the one over at Oilers Rig, it would seem that somewhere in the range of about 20% is the league average, again given the small sample size I’m working with here.
If we look a little more closely at the infractions, called and uncalled, by type and severity, what we see is that the Flames were more or less aligned with the NHL average (again within a small sample size), save for the obvious or blatant infractions, either technical or physical.
So after three articles covering fives games and a summary, what is my personal opinion on the referee situation as it relates to the Flames?
I think the officials in the NHL have an incredibly difficult job. I did this exercise with the aid of multiple camera angles and a pause/rewind feature they don’t have. I can also make a call on something and not have someone screaming bloody murder at me and my next of kin for being so thick-headed. Or at least most of the time – we’ll see what you think of me in the comments section below.
Now, all of that aside, I think there is something wrong with the way the rules are being called in the NHL.
Over and over again I have seen how the referees would, for the most part, try to even up the calls for the teams and bring the total number of penalties given to within one of each other.
But everything we know from watching the game says that this is a flawed approach because one team almost always seems to commit more penalties than their opponent, without necessarily facing a corresponding penalty for doing so.
This undermines our very basic sense of the nature of justice and erodes a fan’s confidence in the game itself.
Think of it this way. You and your neighbour are both fined $5,000 for misrepresenting your incomes on your tax returns. Except you were off by $100 and your neighbour was off by $100,000. And he does it every year.
Revenue Canada might say that they are just trying to be fair and make sure that the penalties are evenly portioned and that nobody feels unjustly targeted, yet I don’t think this logic would hold up very well amongst the general public.
So why does it somehow apply to the NHL?
As I see it, a team is left with two options.
The first is to lobby the NHL to call penalties more strictly, adhering to the rules as laid out.
To accomplish this would require a significant majority of the franchises on board, as well as the compliance of the NHL Officials’ Association.
Good luck with that.
The second option is the more distasteful, and perhaps costly, of the two, which is to escalate the level of infractions committed in an effort to intimidate, injure or simply to gain a physical advantage over the opponent under the premise that any penalties handed out by this more aggressive approach will ultimately be reciprocated against the opponent at every opportunity.
The NHL has been down this road before and, in my opinion, have lost their taste for it.
In the end, I don’t believe that the Flames are not facing any kind of serious crisis or challenge to overcome with regards to the officiating in their games. They appear to be engaging in play outside the rules at the same rate and more or less in the same areas as their opponents, and by and large have not suffered egregious disadvantage by way of extra penalties called against them.
I may continue this project into next season with the aim of gathering a larger sample size. If so I will post the results here again.
Thanks again for reading!
Complete raw data:
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