Friday, May 28, 2021

Mailbag: Is the refereeing getting worse? Plus fixing the Oilers, undoing the cap era’s greatest mistakes and more

Oiler fans are sad, everyone’s mad at the referees, Nazem Kadri is suspended and we’re all pretending we don’t understand goaltender interference. It must be the first round of the playoffs. Let’s head to the mailbag.

The inconsistency of the calls in the playoffs so far has been infuriating at times. Do you think that the root of this problem is simply the concept of “game management?” – Kevin J.

Hoo boy. Playoff refereeing, am I right?

It’s an annual tradition at this point, but the NHL is hearing it from fans and media about how the games are officiated. If you haven’t yet, be sure to read Dom’s epic rip job. For the record, I agree with most of it.

That said, I believe four things are true about NHL officiating, none of which are in conflict.

1. All the standard complaints are generally accurate. They let too much stuff go, it’s too inconsistent, there’s too big a change between what’s a penalty in the first and what’s called in the third. (Forget about overtime.) Stars take way too much abuse. Putting the whistle away because you don’t want to decide a game will often decide the game. All true.

2. I don’t think any of these problems actually get significantly worse during the playoffs. Rather, we pay way more attention during the playoffs, so all the stuff we can generally shrug off in January because who even cares now seem like huge issues. The games do get more physical, and the stars do get targeted more, but in general this is the same officiating we get during the season. (Penalty calls even tend to go up a bit during the playoffs.) The difference is that you’re watching every second of it, and one iffy call can change a season.

3. If they actually did what some of you seem to want and called the rulebook exactly as written, including late in close games, you would hate it. Too much game management is bad, I agree. But a little bit? Yes, I would like the referee to be a human being out there.

4. Most importantly: I don’t blame the referees for any of this, because they’re just calling the games the way the league wants.

We keep framing this as an officiating problem. It’s not. It’s a league problem. It’s a leadership problem. It’s a vision problem. We make it sound like the league wrote a rulebook that it wants followed, and the dumb/incompetent/evil referees refuse to call it. That’s not what’s happening. They’re doing exactly the job the league and its teams want them to do. To the extent that all of this is a problem, it’s a much bigger one that any of us want to admit.

Can we fix any of it? Yes, although not now. But we’ve seen this league try to course-correct on officiating in the past, with big changes (the 2005 shift on obstruction) and small (the more recent slashing crackdown). Those work. At first there’s too many powerplays and we all complain, but eventually the players adjust. Take a look at any NHL action from about 1996 through 2004. The hooking and holding makes it almost unrecognizable compared to today. The league made that happen. They can do it again, if they want to. Which means they probably won’t.

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