When George Parros took the helm of the Department of Player Safety, his first order of business was a crackdown on slashing to the hands. And coming off of a season in which slashes of that ilk saw Johnny Gaudreau’s finger fractured and Marc Methot’s nearly lopped off, Parros’ anti-slashing edict barely raised any eyebrows.
At least until the pre-season began.
When the NHL’s exhibition slate opened up, it became clear the league wasn’t messing around. Referees were quick to whistle any whacks that appeared even close to the hands, leading to a pre-season parade to the penalty box the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the lockout. Almost every contest featured a few slashing calls, most of the chop-to-the-hands variety. On one night, for example, there were 49 slashing penalties in the eight games that took place, and the uptick in stick-on-glove infractions led some to call for the referees to revert the old slashing standards because even the slightest tap was being penalized.
It wasn’t just the slashing calls that drew the ire of players, coaches and fans, however, as the league’s new face-off mandate drew anything but rave reviews. The minor penalties for face-off violations weren’t as frequent, but the new rules caught a few players off guard while seemingly everyone not wearing stripes struggled to wrap their heads around what exactly constituted a violation.
As it is with every campaign, though, the prevailing belief was that once games started to matter, and once the players and referees settled in, the calls would start to soften in much the same way they do in the transition from the regular season to the playoffs. Additionally, the thought was players would catch on to what they can get away with, reducing the number of infractions per game and allowing the game get back to its old ways. But has that actually been the case one week into the regular season?
First, let’s look at the pre-season totals. While the data is incomplete due to more than a dozen games without official box scores, the 90-plus games that do have information available more than paint the picture.
On a per game average, the pre-season saw nearly 9.5 penalties per game and, as one would expect, slashing was far and away the most-whistled infraction. There were nearly 300 slashing calls — more than three per game — during the pre-season. The next most common infractions were hooking, tripping and holding, roughly one per game, followed closely by roughing and high-sticking. As for the face-off violations, they weren’t nearly as common and were significantly toned down in the back half of the pre-season, but there was about one in every three games during the exhibition schedule.
Already, though, we’re starting to see the penalties per game come down. Through 50 regular season games, there has been an average of 8.76 penalties per game with a decrease in calls for almost every infraction. Based on the box scores available from the pre-season, penalties for hooking and high-sticking have decreased slightly, while those for tripping, interference, holding the stick and goaltender interference have remained almost the exact same. One infraction, cross-checking, has actually seen an increase of about one call in every four games. But there are a few penalties that have been called less frequently: roughing, holding and, you guessed it, slashing.
For roughing and holding, the decrease has been nearly one call in every four games, roughly .25 per outing. When it comes to slashing, though, there has been a league-wide decrease of slightly more than half a call per game. So, while slashing was whistled more than three times per game in the pre-season, it has only been called 2.62 times per game since the regular season opened up. That’s a healthy decline and a sign that players are already getting wise to what will and won’t fly. Those infractions for jumping the gun on face-offs have fallen almost entirely by the wayside, too. In the 50 games that have been played this season, only three face-off violations have been called.
How do these numbers compare year over year? Well, the current average of power play opportunities per game is 4.26 and, were it to remain that high for the duration of the campaign, it would be the highest rate since 2007-08’s 4.28 rate. And though we’ve played far from a full season, the early returns are somewhat promising. That includes the league’s current 3.15 goals per game average, which is surely bolstered by the fact teams are currently scoring .74 power play goals per outing. Last season that was a .57 rate, and the average has been .61 or lower in each of the past six campaigns.
Yes, it’s early in the season and the penalty parameters could still shift, but if the first week of the campaign is at all telling, referees appear prepared to call the game tighter than they have since those early post-lockout years. And that's not a bad thing.
(Note: Pre-season data based on games with official box scores.)