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McDavid shouldn’t shut up (or hold his breath) about penalties

McDavid shouldn't shut up (or hold his breath) about penalties

TORONTO, ON - MARCH 27: Connor McDavid #97 of the Edmonton Oilers watches as referee Kevin Pollock #33 allows a goal during action against the Toronto Maple Leafs in an NHL game at Scotiabank Arena on March 27, 2021 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Maple Leafs defeated the Oilers 4-3 in overtime. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

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For some, there was exhaustion as John Tortorella and Connor McDavid sparred about drawing penalties. Personally, that argument instead inspired nostalgia.

Indeed, there’s a “pleasure and sadness” caused by remembering something from the past, although maybe not a yearning to return to that feeling.

This conversation feels familiar because, frankly, many of us watched this movie before. It’s on repeat more than “A Christmas Story” airs during the holidays.

Frame it in three acts:

  1. Superstar cannot be contained -- legally. So teams clutch and grab said superstar, daring officials to call a bunch of penalties.
  2. Officials let most of the penalties go uncalled. Superstar, understandably, complains. Maybe sprinkle in some fans and media criticizing said superstar for a) complaining or b) not winning championships anyway.
  3. Nothing meaningful changes in the NHL. Then we wait for the inevitable sequels and reboots.

Personally, it’s difficult to imagine Connor McDavid’s complaints bringing about major changes. Just consider past experience -- whether it brings about nostalgia or feeling jaded.

Mario Lemieux complained about the NHL protecting “marginal players,” and little changed. Bored hockey fans grimaced through “The Dead Puck Era” with few meaningful changes to clutch-and-grab.

Since at least (if not) before Gary Bettman began his lengthy reign as NHL commish in 1993, these debates crop up. Typically, little happens beyond people settling down before getting mad again.

Should Connor McDavid “shut up” about drawing penalties? No. But McDavid also shouldn’t hold his breath about anything but the most superficial changes.

That said, it would be delightful if the NHL proved us wrong, and actually improved in meaningful ways.

McDavid, Tortorella on drawing penalties

To catch you up, John Tortorella spoke about changes he believes McDavid needs to make. Part of that was about defense, but he also indicated that McDavid shouldn’t complain about not drawing penalties.

In response, Connor McDavid said “guess I just gotta shut up about this.”

There’s a nice, salty exchange there. But it’s important to realize that McDavid has a point about drawing penalties.

Despite being someone who can score goals at will against multiple defenders, McDavid doesn’t draw penalties in parallel to his skills. Most memorably, McDavid didn’t draw a single penalty call as the Jets swept his Oilers. It turns out, McDavid actually didn’t draw a penalty in consecutive playoffs.

This isn’t to say McDavid gets no calls; inevitably, he gets whistles. Just not enough.

Maybe some of it is simply human nature. Yes, hockey fans grumble at the mere mention of Tim Peel. Yet, in a September interview with Daily Faceoff, Peel provided interesting insight into why officials may hesitate to call certain would-be penalties in McDavid’s favor.

Some of the things that make McDavid so hard to defend -- great edgework, being strong on his skates -- may make that small difference in a penalty being called or not. That’s why it might be key to impress a larger directive on officials: call penalties as you see them, don’t avoid making calls just because it’s a close game in the third period.

So it’s not the easiest situation.

The solution probably revolves around a league-wide focus. Emphasize calling penalties in all situations -- close games in the third period, the playoffs. Don’t slip into the bad habits of “game management.”

Ideally, such tweaks would finally allow the NHL to call penalties in fair enough way to allow McDavid and other stars to shine. It would be a welcome, and long-awaited change.

Edmonton Oilers v Anaheim Ducks

ANAHEIM, CA - JANUARY 25: Ryan Getzlaf #15 of the Anaheim Ducks reaches out to slow up Connor McDavid #97 of the Edmonton Oilers during the second period at the Honda Center on January 25, 2017 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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Long lagging behind other sports when it comes to stars and penalties

It’s been mentioned before, and it’s painfully true. While other sports put their stars in better situations to succeed, the NHL mostly just shrugs and moves on.

Naturally, neither league is perfect. No one wants a hockey league full of James Hardens exploiting every nook and cranny of the rulebook to get cheap penalties. And there are those who complain about the NFL swinging too far in favor of offense.

Big-picture, though? People want to see superstars do super things.

Yet, gesturing at the success of the NFL and NBA hasn’t moved the needle when it comes to NHL officiating. Maybe more existential threats would?

In 32 Thoughts, Elliotte Friedman notes some soft NHL attendance, and wonders if that might be the factor that starts getting more penalty calls for McDavid and other stars.

As far as major officiating pushes go, the most notable surge of the Bettman era came when the NHL was in its most desperate situation. Following the full-season 2004-05 lockout, the sport faced a borderline existential crisis. And the whistles finally came out.

via Hockey Reference:

Average power-play opportunities per game, 2003-04: 4.24
Average power-play opportunities per game, 2005-06: 5.85

As teams adjusted to the changes, things settled down. For this discussion, that’s not the main point. Instead, note that the NHL actually did make genuinely crucial changes with its back against the wall.

If the NHL addresses penalties, some might credit McDavid. I’d guess that the real factor would be if attendance remains a bit soft.

Penalties very slightly up, but they’ve been way down for a while

Let’s zoom out from Connor McDavid penalties, and look league-wide.

Without prior knowledge, you might assume that the modern NHL calls more penalties than the days of the “Dead Puck Era.”

The good news is that, very early in 2021-22, penalty calls are up there for recent years. The bad news is that penalties have been way down for quite some time. Consult this chart of the last couple decades (stats again via Hockey Reference):

Seasonpower-play opportunities
2021-22 3.05
2020-21 2.89
2019-20 2.97

In case you’re wondering, average power-play opportunities only dipped below four per game once from 1981-82 through 2000-01 (3.87 in 1982-83). Beyond that, PPOs ranged fairly wildly, including reaching 5+ on multiple occasions.

For whatever reason, officials really started to put their whistles away from 2009-10 on, and things haven’t changed much since 2014-15.

Maybe people didn’t notice the drop in NHL penalty calls because scoring improved?

  • From 2010-11 through 2016-17, the goal-per-game average ranged from 2.71 to 2.79.
  • An interesting jump took place between 2016-17 (2.77 gpg) to 2017-18 (2.97). Scoring’s been around that low-3 range ever since.

Broadly speaking, it seems like scoring has increased -- subtly -- even as penalty calls dried up.

Perhaps the NHL believes its reached an acceptable balance? Ultimately, that depends. Is the league at its best when teams average about three goals per game?

McDavid might as well keep pushing for penalties -- to a point

Amusingly, McDavid’s Oilers go into Thursday’s games as the only NHL team currently averaging four goals per night. At times, are officials merely being merciful? If McDavid drew more penalties, would the Oilers power play (42.6-percent success rate) challenge competitive balance?

Such questions should embolden McDavid to keep the penalties conversation front-of-mind. As much as people want hockey players to just shut up and play, suffering in silence doesn’t put the other team in the box. It would be gross if McDavid starts falling to the ice like peak penalty-drawing Dustin Brown, but officials are human. If you force the issue, they might need to make the call.

Also, let’s not forget John Tortorella’s own experiences when it comes to complaining about penalties.

Early in his Blue Jackets tenure, Tortorella wasn’t exactly silent about his beliefs that the Penguins got some calls. Do recall that Sidney Crosby was pretty vocal about his feelings, something he later toned down. But, hey, even if Crosby rubbed some the wrong way, he also won a lot.

So, again, maybe it’s about striking the right balance. Considering how slowly the NHL often embraces change, it’s unlikely that McDavid’s penalty talks will push those PPO’s from the 3’s to the 4’s.

But, who knows, maybe those discussions will stick in officials’ minds the next time defenders try “water-skiing” McDavid in a big playoff game?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.