League's Choice: Does the NHL REALLY Play Favorites?

It is a familiar thing to hear a hockey fan blame officials and the National Hockey League itself, of playing favorites, and it is becoming more and more commonplace to hear players, coaches and general managers accusing the NHL and it’s referees of showing preference of one team over another. Just this past week, for example, the NHL heard from irate Buffalo Sabres fans who clearly disagreed with Patrick Kaleta’s five-game suspension for attempting to injure New York Rangers forward Brad Richards.

Additionally, the media received a plethora of sound bites from Boston Bruins head coach Claude Julien, who squawked about fairness after their 4-3 loss to the Montreal Canadiens on March 3.

"The frustrating part,” he told reporters, “is that you end up with 17 minutes in the penalty box when you should have been on the power play. It’s as simple as that. Right now, they’ve (Montreal) got over 100 power plays so far and it’s pretty obvious why.”

On the afternoon of March 4, I was treated to a play-by-play recount of the Canadiens and Bruins matchup from the night before, as my brother-in-law, a passionate, obsessive and overzealous Bruins fanatic, saw it.

Listening to his oratory on PK Subban’s embellishment on a hit by enforcer Shawn Thornton and his unwillingness to fight Brad Marchand (I later found out it was Marchand who backed away from the scrap), as well as the non-call for a cross check against Alexei Emelin, who broke his stick on Tyler Seguin’s back, I began to wonder if NHL statistics would tell a tale of bias for or against certain teams.

DOES THE NHL PLAY FAVORITES?

The short answer to this question, quite simply, is YES… Over the course of the past several days, data was compiled directly from NHL.com on the power play and penalty kill of teams since the 2005 NHL lockout. The Minnesota Wild, for example, registered 236 power plays at home and 217 on the road in 2005, for a total of 453. Likewise, the team was shorthanded 215 times at home and 221 on the road, a total of 436 that same season.  This data was gathered for each season since 2005 and for the remaining 29 teams as well.

In addition, the information rounded up indicated the total number of times a team had been assessed a power play or penalty kill since the 2005 lockout, as well as providing an average for each team. Again using the Wild as an example, we can see that the team had been on the power play 2479 times over the past eight seasons, averaging 159.875 power plays at home, 150 on the road, and averaging 206.583 overall.

Finally, the collected statistics were set up in a plus/minus system much like a player’s personal stats. Each time a team had been on the power play, they were given a plus. Conversely, each time that team was assessed a penalty, they would be given a minus. The Wild, as a matter of point, have totalled +113 in this category since 2005 and have averaged +14.125 each season in terms of their power play / penalty kill differential.

This means the Wild have been assessed 113 more power pays than penalties since the previous NHL lockout. While it is certain many of these penalties are warranted, one must be left to ponder if the NHL shows a conscious, or subconscious, preference for specific teams.

WHO ARE THE FAVORITES?

Every NHL fan has created their own interpretation of which teams are favored by the league and the officials. Boston Bruins fans consistently argue that the Montreal Canadiens are the pride and joy of the NHL, while New York Ranger fans suggest the Pittsburgh Penguins are the chosen favorites. Many fans, however, would be startled to learn which teams seem to be given preferential treatment. Below are the top 3 favorites in terms of power plays, penalties, and differential.

#3 – New Jersey Devils

Over the past eight seasons, the New Jersey Devils have amassed 2280 power play opportunities as compared to 2095 penalty kills opportunities, and have stacked up an impressive +185 power play / penalty kill differential.

What is interesting about the Devils power play advantage is that the squad has not advanced past the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals in this time period, with the exception, of course, of last season’s Stanley Cup Finals appearance against the Los Angeles Kings.  

Last season, however, the Devils were -16 in differential, racking up more penalty kills than power plays and indicating that no matter how much fans believe in the bias of the league or officials, the management, coaches and players  are the ones who determine a team’s on-ice success.

#2 – San Jose Sharks

Since 2005, the San Jose Sharks have collected 2614 power plays, 2254 penalty kills, and a staggering +360 differential. The Sharks average + 45 every season, meaning that the team has an extra attacker 45 more occasions than they do a man down each year.

What’s more, San Jose has only experienced a negative differential once since the lockout, being -18 in 2009/2010, a season in which they had 309 power play opportunities as compared to 327 penalty kills.

#1 – Carolina Hurricanes

By far, the Carolina Hurricanes have emerged as the NHL’s favorite club, with a whopping +404 PP/PK differential. Over the course of the past eight seasons, the Hurricanes have whirled up an amazing number of opportunities to have a man advantage while keeping their occasions on a kill relatively low.

Not surprisingly, the Hurricanes best season in terms of their differential was in 2005/2006, when the squad won the Stanley Cup. During the regular season, the team had 86 more chances on the power play than they had in the sin bin, and this remains their best number since their victory.

Coupling this with the fact that the Tampa Bay Lightning took home Lord Stanley’s Mug in 2004, and the Anaheim Ducks claimed the prize in 2007, the argument could be made that the NHL’s unwavering attempt to popularize the game in the southern United States had led to a degree of favoritism on the ice. There is, after all, no better way to bring in fans than having a local sports champion in town!

WHO DOES THE LEAGUE HATE?

Just as the collected data can be an indicator of who are the chosen few in the NHL, it can also suggest who is in the league’s black books. Fans would immediately point to the teams that have not had a great deal of success in recent years, such as the Columbus Blue Jackets, or teams that have been known to be aggressive or belligerent in their regard for peers, such as the Boston Bruins or Philadelphia Flyers, but again the results may be shocking.

#3 – Philadelphia Flyers

Since becoming part of the NHL in 1967, the Philadelphia Flyers have been known as one of the most quarrelsome, fearsome and hated teams on ice. The Flyers have built a reputation and hockey culture on being insolent and bullish, which made their fans love them and opposing teams loathe them.

Unfortunately for the Flyers, their reputation now precedes them, which may account for the lack of significant success since their back to back Stanley Cups in 1974 and 1975. The Broad Street Bullies, since 2005, are -165 in PP/PK differential and average close to 21 more infractions against them than for them yearly. Officials know that when the Flyers take the ice, fans will experience an old-school, raucous style of play, and they men in stripes try to curb the dirty work if at all possible.

#2 – Florida Panthers

The Florida Panthers, aside from their unexpected Stanley Cup run under Doug MacLean in 1996, have had barely a sniff of success over their twenty years in the NHL, perhaps because they simply spend too much time in the penalty box. The club has collected 2514 infractions in eight seasons, and average 209.5 penalties every season. Their differential is a dismal – 196 as the team has not had enough significant contributors and are consistently playing catch up.

These numbers, however, may be slightly misleading. The Panthers have strengthened their game and have remained on the positive side of the power play / penalty kill variance since 2008/2009. The Cats experienced their greatest difficulty in the early days post lockout in 2005 and 2006, as they were a collective -209 over those two seasons alone.

#1 – Anaheim Ducks

The Anaheim Ducks have been among the most penalized teams in the NHL over the past decade. The Southern Californian troop has consistently stockpiled more penalty minutes than power play minutes, in fact, not having a single season with more time with a player advantage than in the penalty box.

The Ducks currently have a PP/PK differential of -233 over the course of eight seasons and average 29 more occasions in the penalty box than on the power play every year. While the Hurricanes may have had some help to capture the NHL’s top prize, the Ducks defied the odds, as they were shorthanded 12 more times than they had an advantage in 2006/2007, the year they won the Cup.

This experiment was not to definitively show that the NHL and the Officials play favorites, but rather, to prove that the teams that always get the blame for being Commissioner Bettman’s pets or Referee brown- nosers are not actually the ones that seem to get this preferential treatment. It is astounding that while the Boston Bruins, Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Toronto Maple Leafs, Vancouver Canucks, and Phoenix Coyotes are continuously chastised for playing by a different set of rules, the statistics show otherwise.

Of course there are many other factors in play when trying to determine if there is ever preferential treatment in the game of hockey. Some teams simply take more penalties than others; some team are rougher while others have a knack to embellish an infraction.

Officials would not be human if they did not have some sort of preferential treatment at times. A player who is respectful and plays the game with integrity will be given a longer leash than one who is a perpetual nuisance. A coach who remains calm, cool and collected may have more leeway than one who throws a tantrum at each call.

The human factor, while often creating controversy, is what makes ice hockey the greatest game on Earth. Imagine what a boring game we would have if every call, decision, or outcome was cut and dried. Arenas would be quiet, fans would have nothing to argue over, and the passion for the game would be gone. So, the next time you want to scream out that the league or officials love the Canadiens, the Rangers or the Penguins, check out the stats and take a second thought.

If you want a look at all the stats and the PP/PK +/-, give me a shout!

 

Questions, comments or just want to talk hockey? Give me follow @missionaborted on twitter.