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The NHL’s Officiating Problem

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Everyone knows it at this point.

Detroit Red Wings v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Any fan who pays enough attention to the NHL knows that the league has had a long-standing problem with the way the game is officiated.

Bad calls and consistently getting decisions wrong are not problems unique to the NHL. Each major North American sport has both similar and unique issues to their own league. The NFL has pass interference, MLB has the strike zone and the unique superseding powers umpires are granted, and it can sometimes appear arbitrary what would constitute a technical foul in the NBA. Even here in Europe, VAR has turned the Premier League into a “spot the difference” game with the millimeter offsides decisions tainting the game across the continent.

However, it can be argued that no league gets more choices consistently wrong than the NHL. It’s almost comical at this point how absurd the league makes themselves look when they directly insult player safety on the regular.

Washington Capitals v New York Rangers Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

In the latest bit of New York Rangers drama, Pavel Buchnevich was suspended for the above cross-check on Capitals’ forward Anthony Mantha. The Rangers themselves, for their comments in the aftermath of Tom Wilson’s lack of suspension for punching a prone Buchnevich in the back of the head, were fined near 50x the amount Wilson was fined for his actions against Buchnevich and Artemi Panarin, actions which directly led to an injury to Panarin.

The NHL’s player safety protocols usually take into account if a player was injured when they levy a suspension, so this was shocking to see Wilson go relatively unpunished, especially for what can be considered a worse offence. This isn’t to say that the cross-check to Mantha didn’t warrant a suspension, because it did. However, the NHL clearly showed its inability to take action based on the merit any penalty deserves. It’s almost as if these suspensions and fines are pre-determined.

Buchnevich’s cross-check earns him a suspension, but for the play occurring in the lead photo of this article, Mantha’s 2019 cross-check cheap shot on Claude Giroux when he still played in Detroit, nothing was called.

Warning: this GIF shows the incident and it isn’t pretty.

You then, to compound on all this, have the Shayne Gostisbehere situation.

Many are divided on whether the play constitutes a cheap-shot after the whistle, or an overreaction on the part of Mark Friedman.

This article will decline to comment on that. However, it is undoubtedly clear that this incident does not merit more punishment than Tom Wilson’s buffoonery against the Rangers.

To give NHL referees credit, the game now moves faster than ever, and when you officiate a sport with so much going on at any given time, missed calls are bound to happen. However, in other fast moving sports, at least the justice system can be considered fair and understandable, almost as if it’s judged on a rubric of sorts. This is clearly not the case in the NHL, and this lack of clarity and almost arbitrary nature of how the rules are set out leads to the types of line brawls seen in the game following Tom Wilson’s antics.

Sure, it was always going to be somewhat interesting to see what would occur in the Rangers and Capitals’ next game, but for a league that needs to increase its efforts for player safety (and personally, a fan who wants to see the same happen), that was not a good look.

What can be done to help alleviate the issues that plague officiating is yet to be known. What is known, however, is that some sort of overhaul will be needed. The league can’t continue to fail its product in this manner.