The numbers, when you look at them, are staggering. To this point in his career, Connor McDavid has played 21 playoff games. He has been on the ice for the Edmonton Oilers for a combined 502 minutes and 30 seconds in those games. And in that time, the fastest, most talented and most dynamic player in the world has drawn a total of six minor penalties, zero in the eight games he has played in the past two playoff seasons.
Six penalties. One for every 83 minutes and 45 seconds he has played.
For time immemorial, it has generally been accepted in hockey culture that players who are more offensively gifted than their peers and, thus, have a competitive advantage of them, are expected to put up with more attention from their peers. And sometimes it falls on the wrong side of the rulebook. Bobby Hull complained about it for years. When Peter Stastny first came into the league, there were nights when he would have to drive home from games using only his right hand because his left was black and blue with bruises. (TSN analyst and former NHLer Ray Ferraro told me that when he was on the ice with Stastny, he would simply hold Stastny’s stick for the entire shift until the referee instructed him to let go. He would for a second, then simply grab it again.) Mike Bossy, one of the greatest goalscorers in NHL history, was forced to retire at the age of 30 because of back problems brought on by enduring countless crosschecks.
So this is nothing new. But anyone who watched the Oilers’ first-round series against the Winnipeg Jets and would suggest that not a single infraction was committed against McDavid is either a blindly loyal Jets fan or wasn’t watching very closely.
But we have seen a couple of very interesting goaltender interference calls that have taken goals away, one in the Carolina-Nashville series and another in the Vegas-Minnesota series. In the two pages that cover goaltender interference in the NHL rulebook, it states: “The overriding rationale of this rule is that a goalkeeper should have the ability to move freely within his goal crease without being hindered by the actions of an attacking player. If an attacking player enters the goal crease and, by his actions, impairs the goalkeeper’s ability to defend his goal, and a goal is scored, the goal will be
Fair enough. Nobody would argue that it’s important for goalies to be protected. That’s why they’re not considered “fair game” even when they’re outside their crease. But the question is, why is the same protection not afforded to players such as Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews? Any care to guess which NHL player has drawn the most minor penalties in the NHL since McDavid entered the league in 2015-16? Tom Wilson, that’s who. Second is Nazem Kadri, while McDavid is third. Brad Marchand is fourth and Matthew Tkachuk is fifth.
It’s not as though the rules are not there to protect star players. Like the goalie interference rule, the one governing interference on skaters is every bit as stringent on paper. In fact, the interference rule in the rulebook is preceded by the following statement: “A strict standard on acts of interference must be adhered to in all areas of the rink.”
So it’s a matter of application. And in the case of players such as McDavid, the application is spotty at best. Rachel Doerrie, a former consultant with the New Jersey Devils, who is completing a Masters degree in sports science and analytics at York University and is a senior analyst of data and analytics at BMO, confirmed as much. She watched each of McDavid’s shifts in isolation during the series against the Jets and counted no fewer than 37 –more than nine per game - that could have been called penalties. She did the same thing with each shift McDavid played in the NHL last season and said there were an average of three blatant infractions per game committed against McDavid.
“I asked, ‘How many of these are legitimate infractions, how many of these are egregious infractions and how many of them are ticky-tack?’ ” Doerrie said. “There were three egregious instances of penalties per game. I’m talking, he’s getting tackled, he’s getting the stick slashed out of his hands, he’s getting hooked, getting interfered with. Interference was the biggest one. I counted 2.96, so basically three per game.”
And when Doerrie was working in analytics with the Devils for two years, she had a number of conversations with players about obstruction and targeting star players. And what one NHL defenseman told her has stuck with her since. “He said, ‘Every time I go against a player like that, whether it’s McDavid, (Nathan) MacKinnon, (Sidney) Crosby, I know that even if I commit an infraction, it’s only going to get called 15 to 20 percent of the time,’ ” Doerrie said. “ ‘If you told me I could commit 10 infractions and I’m going to get called once or twice, I’m going to do that every time. The game plan is we commit penalties and hope they only call a couple of them.’ And more often than not, that’s exactly what happens.”
Isn’t it time the NHL treated those who create offense and score goals and put people in the seats are protected as vigorously as those who are paid to stop them?