Coming out of the most recent lockout, there was a lot of talk that the NHL was going to re-commit to cracking down on obstruction. Last season, referees called drastically fewer hooking and holding penalties, leading to a number of claims in the media that the NHL was on its way back to the Dead Puck Era. While that seemed like an overreaction, the NHL’s Hockey Operations Department did address the issue of interference at their August meetings, leading to speculation that it would be called to a tighter standard.
The general feeling I’ve been getting this season is that this is the case and that referees are calling far more obstruction penalties, particularly interference, but I wanted to see if this was backed up in the numbers. Are penalties back up to where they were after the last lockout, when the crackdown in obstruction led to a more open game and more scoring?
If you look just at penalty minutes, it certainly seems like the NHL is heading back in the right direction. Penalties were way up in the first season after the 2004-05 lockout, but stabilized for a few seasons after that around 34,000 total penalty minutes. After 2008-09, however, penalties began dropping steadily, reaching 27,570 total penalty minutes last season.
Early returns indicate that penalty minutes are approaching the 34,000 mark again. Total penalty minutes in the NHL are on an 82-game pace of 32,916.
Looking just at minor penalties paints a bit of a different picture, however.
Minor penalties are certainly up, but not as significantly as the penalty minutes chart made it seem. It’s also more clear that penalties have actually been steadily declining since the 2004-05 lockout. The three-season stabilization was a bit of an illusion: penalty minutes held steady, but minor penalties continued to decline.
While referees are on pace to call around 1,500 more minor penalties this season, if it were 82 games, that’s still about 900 fewer than in 2008-09.
So referees are calling more minor penalties, but not as many as in the few seasons after the last lockout. What about obstruction penalties specifically?
Unfortunately, I only have the data on individual penalties from 2008-09 onward, which is when ESPN.com began tracking them. They do show some interesting trends.
The biggest increase is in interference penalties, which matches the eye test. In fact, were this an 82-game season, referees would be on pace to call around 670 more interference minors compared to last season. What’s particularly interesting is that they’re on pace to call significantly more than even in 2008-09.
The other significant increase is in holding minors, an area that the NHL insisted was already being called correctly and consistently. Referees are on pace to call a little over 300 more holding minors compared to last season and are close to the number that were called in 2008-09.
The other main obstruction penalty is hooking, but it hasn’t experienced the same increase that holding and interference have this season. In fact, referees are on pace to call fewer hooking minors than last season, though it’s a fairly statistically insignificant amount.
The only other minor penalty to see a significant increase is tripping, which was fairly consistent in the previous four seasons, making the increase stand out. The NHL indicated that they would be taking a closer look at slashing this season as well, but it appears to be on the decline.
It seems, then, that the NHL is cracking down on obstruction, but only certain types. Interference is being called at a much higher rate than at any time in the past five seasons and some players seem to be having a hard time adjusting.
Braydon Coburn leads the NHL in interference minors, with 7. As I pointed out a couple weeks ago, Coburn is costing the Flyers by taking far more penalties than he draws and the bulk of them have been interference penalties. He isn’t the only defenceman struggling to adjust. Niklas Kronwall is second with 5 interference minors. Three other defencemen, Brenden Dillon, Fedor Tyutin, and Jakub Kindl, along with forwards Daniel Cleary and Carl Hagelin, are tied at third with 4.
There are generally far fewer interference penalties than hooking penalties, but this season that has been reversed. It’s likely, however, that it will just take some time for players to adjust to the new standard and we’ll see the number of interference penalties drop again in the near future.