Dave Sandford, Getty Images

A few weeks ago, concerns were raised across the NHL that the league was on its way back to the Dead Puck Era. Scoring is down across the league yet again this season, despite the Winnipeg Jets’ best efforts to skew the numbers. One of the culprits according to some has been the resurrection of the type of tight defensive systems that typified that era. Ken Hitchcock in St. Louis and Dave Tippett in Phoenix have been accused of dragging hockey back to that style, while Guy Boucher was vilified earlier in the season for employing what some saw as simply a variation of the trap.

But the Dead Puck Era wasn’t just known for its tight defensive systems. One of the biggest contributors to the lack of scoring was the acceptance of obstruction by referees. Big, slow defencemen made their living on clutching, grabbing, and hooking, leaving very little room on the ice for creative offensive plays. One of the biggest changes during the lockout was the institution of “Zero tolerance on Interference, Hooking and Holding/Obstruction” in order to give skilled players more room to create scoring chances.

In the season after the lockout, the number of powerplays skyrocketed to 11.7 powerplay opportunities per game as players adjusted to the new rule. This season, power plays are, as the alarming NHL.com headline read, at a “three-decade low.”

Ed Willes of the Vancouver Province suggested that this was simply because players have adjusted to the new rules, but a number of people had a more radical theory. Josh Yohe from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review wrote an article indicating that several Penguins players felt that more obstruction was being allowed because of the increase in concussions.

“After the (2004-05) lockout, if a guy chipped a puck by you, you couldn’t touch him,” [Orpik] said. “If you did, it was a penalty every single time. You just had to turn and go get it.”

Not anymore.

Instead of skating toward the puck when it is chipped in deep, defensemen have been subtly rubbing forwards into the glass and seemingly almost always getting away with it. This infuriated fans and star players for years before the NHL cracked down after the work stoppage.

“(The NHL) didn’t tell us they were going to go easy on us (defensemen),” Orpik said. “But it’s pretty obvious that it has changed.”

Many Penguins, including Orpik, said they believe the concussion epidemic might be altering how games are refereed.

Jaromir Jagr has noticed the difference, saying “There [are] a lot more hooks. I feel it myself; I’m losing the puck, I got hooked. Maybe the first five games, 10 games they would go [to the penalty box], but not anymore. It happens to both teams. They let it go.”

Greg Wyshynski at Puck Daddy tied obstruction to the argument for re-instituting the red line to help cut down on concussions, concluding, “The ‘red line’ debate is inseparable from the obstruction debate, and both are inseparable from the basic question facing the NHL: How much entertainment value are you willing to sacrifice from what’s considered the best hockey the League’s seen in decades for the sake of player safety?”

Bruce Bennett, Getty Images

All of these articles have a lot of anecdotal evidence for the increase in obstruction and decline in obstruction penalties, but no hard numbers, which is a problem as the NHL denies that officials have changed their refereeing style at all. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly has stated, “Officials have not been instructed to loosen or change the standard on obstruction fouls and we don’t believe they have.”

The question is, are there simply fewer penalties being called in general or are the obstruction penalties – hooking and holding – specifically being called less often. The fact that there are fewer penalties and powerplays being called overall does not mean that obstruction is on its way back into the game. If the decline in hooking penalties is equivalent to the decline in slashing or tripping penalties, then the argument that referees are calling fewer obstruction penalties to help slow the game down and reduce concussions is dead in the water.

With the help of ESPN.com’s comprehensive statistics on penalties, I put together some projections for this season and compared the numbers to last season. Sure enough, there is a bigger decline in hooking and holding penalties than any other type of minor penalty.

Season 2010-11 2011-12 (season pace) Difference Percentage
Hooking 1594 1382 -212 -13.30%
Holding 867 758 -109 -12.60%
Cross-checking 487 428 -59 -12.17%
Holding the Stick 141 127 -14 -9.70%
Slashing 754 695 -59 -7.86%
Interference 985 936 -49 -5.00%
Roughing 1240 1216 -24 -1.90%
High Stick 763 763 0 -0.04%
Tripping 1319 1376 57 4.31%
Goalie Interference 247 283 36 14.61%

As you can see, we’re on pace for 212 fewer hooking penalties than last season and 109 fewer holding penalties. That’s a 13.3% and 12.6% decrease in those penalties compared to last season. Cross-checking comes closest in terms of percentage as there are fewer cross-checking calls overall. Meanwhile, tripping and goalie interference calls have actually increased.

That is a big drop in obstruction calls, but these statistics should give pause: interference penalties have decreased by just 5%, 6th on the list behind holding the stick and slashing penalties. A directive from the NHL to allow more obstruction would presumably mean that the interference calls would be dropping at a similar rate to hooking and holding penalties.

Still, with NHL officials on pace to call over 200 fewer hooking penalties, that’s a heck of a thing to simply explain away. When matched with the anecdotal evidence from around the league, it’s worth asking the question: are hooking and holding back in play? Is the NHL heading towards the pre-lockout days of the Dead Puck Era? If so, is the concussion epidemic the cause?