As a frequent distributor of crushing hits, Blackhawks defenseman Nikita Zadorov is no stranger to interacting with NHL referees.
And while Zadorov realizes he inevitably does “sometimes…cross the line” and deserve some of the penalties he receives, there are plenty of other occasions where he disagrees with those all-too-familiar refs’ decisions.
“I can say a lot [about NHL officiating], but I don’t want to get fined,” he said Wednesday. “It’s been ups and downs this year. Some games it was good, some games it was bad. It depends what referees you get.”
As of a few hours before, one referee — Tim Peel — was no longer on that list.
The NHL fired Peel after he was caught on a hot mic while officiating Tuesday’s Predators-Red Wings game. Minutes after calling a phantom tripping penalty on Preds forward Victor Arvidsson early in the second period, Peel was heard saying, “It wasn’t much, but I wanted to get a (expletive) penalty against Nashville early in the…” before the mic cut out.
“There is no justification for his comments, no matter the context or his intention,” NHL vice president of hockey operations Colin Campbell said in a statement.
Peel has long held a reputation as one of the league’s worst referees, so much so that Yahoo Sports ran a regular column in 2013 and 2014 listing his routine gaffes. His admission of premeditated officiating Tuesday was simply the final straw for his career.
Nonetheless, Peel is just one of 43 referees the NHL has used this year. The Hawks, for example, had only encountered him twice (Feb. 2 and 4 against the Hurricanes) in their 33 games. So his removal from the circuit is unlikely to significantly change officiating league-wide.
It would take a far more comprehensive effort by the league to change how the other 42 referees conduct their business. But that would first require acknowledgement that certain Peel-like biases exist within the other 42.
Data indicates they do. NHL referees generally balance, whether consciously or subconsciously, the number of penalties they call on both teams in a game, regardless of those teams’ behaviors.
Over the past three seasons, the correlation between each team’s penalties taken and penalties drawn each year is a staggering 0.67. This season, it’s 0.66. That means undisciplined teams — or at least teams frequently called for penalties — also get a lot of penalties called on their opponents, and vice versa.
Put another way, the 10 most disciplined teams in the league this year — which includes the Hawks — have taken 3.01 penalties per game, but referees have called only 3.24 penalties on their opponents. The 10 least disciplined teams have averaged 3.95 penalties per game, but referees have called 3.75 on their opponents.
“You’ve got to call the game,” Preds forward Matt Duchene said on a Nashville radio show Wednesday. “I’ve always been frustrated when I see even-up calls or stuff like that. If one team is earning power plays, you can’t punish them because the other team is not.
“I hope that’s not something that goes on with more officials [than Peel], but there’s definitely nights when you’re skeptical of it.”
Hawks coach Jeremy Colliton declined to comment Wednesday on the Peel controversy. But just three weeks ago, Colliton offhandedly pointed out another frequent bias in officiating — favoring veterans over rookies — after a Brandon Hagel hooking infraction jumpstarted the Lightning’s comeback over the Hawks on March 7.
“We’d love to not take a penalty there,” Colliton said then. “Someone else probably doesn’t get called on that one. These young guys don’t typically get the benefit of the doubt in those situations.”
Similar discussions about artificially balanced penalty totals, player-over-player preferences and other referee biases occurred all around the hockey world Wednesday.
Whether or not those discussions ultimately lead to changes, Peel’s shock-factor comment stirred a pot that clearly needed stirring.