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Consistency in NHL Officiating is Still a Problem

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The NHL started this season off trying to address a number of penalty issues and calling them more consistently to aid player safety. After starting the preseason off strongly, the league has seemingly fallen back to its old ways.

NHL: Tampa Bay Lightning at New Jersey Devils
Not the hit, but the player of discussion below.
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

I have to be honest when I start this article in saying that I’m a fan of some of the rule changes that the NHL has attempted to consistently enforce this season. It’s nice to know that the NHL is trying to eliminate hand injuries by cutting down on slashing; I’m also a fan of no longer allowing players to cheat on face-offs, though I feel the emphasis on that has gone down since the preseason. What I am not a fan of is the fact that the NHL still has an issue with being consistent with anything, both old rules and new. I’ve written about it seemingly time and time and time again. Don’t believe me that the league is still as inconsistent as ever? Let’s take a look at Tuesday’s New Jersey Devils/Tampa Bay Lightning game for some more evidence.

Tuesday’s Big Incident

Late in what was a very close game that the Devils had pressed hard to get tied, Pavel Zacha would rip a shot on net that would be saved by Peter Budaj. Brian Gibbons would rush towards the front of the net, but would be met by Jake Dotchin. Dotchin delivers what in the very least would have been a crosscheck to Gibbons, but with the way Gibbons turned, his left hand connects with Gibbons’ face. Okay, missed call by the refs, right? Watch the clip below, and follow the official’s line of sight:

Now, let me get this straight; in a league where we are allegedly concerned for player safety, and are trying to cut down on any malicious injuries, we are going to penalize slashes to an opposing player’s stick (and I only mean calls where the hands are not touched; I’ve already seen a couple this year) but not a shot to a player’s head? If you watch the clip in slow-motion, you can see that Dotchin becomes aware of where Gibbons is and follows through anyway. How is this in the very least, as I already stated, not a crosschecking minor? The worst part is that the referee is watching the action unfold in front of him and he does nothing. Zacha jumps in and somehow magically now the ref is focused and calls an instigator penalty that the officials classed as a roughing minor.

What would the result have been if Tampa had won the game in regulation because of this botched call? They’d have an extra point in the standings and New Jersey would have two less. Maybe two points winds up being the difference between the postseason and going home in early April this year. Maybe if the penalty had been called correctly, the Devils would have won in regulation; what if Tampa sneaks into the playoffs by one point this year? There’s a lot that can happen in a game and the standings when a major call is blown, but what’s way, way, way more concerning is what could happen to the health of other players when these calls go missed.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: there will always be some degree of human error in the game, such as possibly missing a hold due to it being out of a ref’s line of sight, or not seeing a player’s skate over the line with the new faceoff rules. For egregious penalties such as Dotchin’s (a player who has a checkered history already), however, how can there be any leeway? How can a call not be made by anybody on the ice? I understand that linesmen can only call certain penalties, but should exceptions not be made for hits like this that could lead to injury? Thankfully, Gibbons was fine here, but the next player Dotchin punches might wind up hitting his head on the ice. I love hockey because it is a fast game, and I understand with that speed, players will make mistakes at times; even if this was a mistake by Dotchin (and again, history indicates it isn’t) the rules still need to be followed. Plain and simple this was a head shot, something the league is trying to eliminate, and once again the refs blew the call.

Lesser Incidents

While I’m venting/ranting/writing about inconsistencies plaguing the league, I have to say that I’ve already noticed a number of missed faceoff violations; while I do agree those who will say that the preseason had too many, why have any rule if you’re not going to enforce it? Another blown call against Tampa saw the Devils on the power play and one of their centers was tossed, and Ondrej Palat came in for the draw. Palat clearly skates over the marked lines, which should have resulted in a second violation, and a Devils 5 on 3. Instead, Palat won the draw, and the Lightning cleared the zone. Again, it’s a minor complaint, but if you’re not going to consistently enforce the rule, there’s no reason to have it.

I’m sure these types of plays happen every night to every team, not just ours. Again, human error and line of sight can affect certain calls, but would it be so hard to have all of the officials in the league come together and discuss better ways to be on the same page? Why does the league not step in and provide supplemental discipline in a case like Dotchin’s? I don’t expect much for the lesser incidents, but again just find a way to get everyone on the same page and make these calls more consistently and effectively. If players see that even occasionally they can get away with these types of plays, then they won’t ever truly be gone from the game.

Final Thoughts...For Now

Maybe I’m making too big of a deal out of these lesser incidents, but I firmly believe they are harder to forgive when larger issues are going unpunished as well. The league has said nothing of Dotchin’s hit, but in last season’s playoffs (a time where usually more is allowed to slide) Matt Niskanen got five and the game for hitting Sidney Crosby in the face while Crosby was falling.

Dotchin’s had more intent than Niskanen’s (I personally think Niskanen intended to hit Crosby, but not in the head, as he was prepared to deliver the check before Crosby fell) and yet one is worth a major and a game misconduct while the other is worth nothing apparently. Inconsistencies like this set a dangerous precedent, and it keeps players and fans confused as to what is legal, what isn’t and whether or not the front offices actually care about the players as long as they are making money off of them.

I’d like to hear your thoughts on the NHL’s officiating consistency; do you think they’re doing a good job overall? Do you think there’s a lot of room to improve? Should the NHL do a better job of training its officials to recognize certain penalties? Should linesmen be allowed to call a larger variety of penalties? Leave any and all comments below and thanks as always for reading!