Friday, December 11, 2009

NHL Officiating and Chris Lee

Brace yourselves ladies and gentlemen as I believe this may be a long post. I was fortunate enough to attend last night's game against the Penguins at the Bell Centre in the best seats I've ever had. From right behind the Canadiens' bench I had a perspective I've never had before, unfortunately the game ended with a blown call on the part of Chris Lee and he was showered with the most merciless booing I've ever heard, or taken part in from the 21,273 plus those in luxury boxes who attended. The game ended in such frustrating fashion that I had to sleep on it before I started to right because I felt like this would come off as a whining piece from a poor sport instead of a well-thought-out article from a concerned fan, which is what I intend to present. As frustrating as that game was however, the reaction was so strong that for me at least, I knew it wasn't about just this game, and I believe it was the same feeling for most of the others in attendance, and the million or so Canadiens fans who were swearing at their televisions.

So far this season Montreal is 15-15-2 despite losing its best player before the first game of the season was over, and its second best scorer and winger 13 games ago. We've also had a variety of injuries plaguing the team over the entire 32 game schedule thus far. Having this record despite these obstacles leads me to believe that we have a very good team. 7 of the 15 regulation losses were by one goal, so this seems to support my view as well. Add to this that the Montreal Canadiens also have the fewest powerplay chances per game in the league, and the 4th most penalties called against them per game and you have to wonder how exactly we're getting scoring from this team at all. Every team faces obstacles during the season, but thus far the only team I see as comparable in the injury situation is the Edmonton Oilers, although they have 16 more powerplays than their 108 (7th least in NHL) times short handed. Initial reaction by those outside the Canadiens fan base is likely that the Canadiens are undisciplined while the Oilers are not. So a Pat Quinn team is more disciplined than a Jacques Martin team? Really? I can't fathom how this is possible.

The three teams that are averaging more penalties against per game this season than Montreal's 4.3125 are the Carolina Hurricanes, the Philadelphia Flyers and the Anaheim Ducks. It's interesting to me that these teams have been the worst three worst teams in the NHL over the last 10 games or so (although Florida and Columbus have worse records, Columbus' struggles have been almost entirely due to goaltending and Florida was not predicted to be a contender this season so I don't see their struggles to be as bad as these three teams). The Ducks and Flyers are both known to play a rough style trading off the penalties they get for the intimidation the infractions created. All three were expected to be cup contenders coming into the season, so frustration can also set in leading to bad plays, but what's the excuse for the Canadiens being in this group, and how do they compare? Montreal hasn't played Anaheim yet so that comparison is out, so let's look at the other two.

Against Carolina, in Montreal, we were ahead in chances after two periods after dominating the play in the second period. However despite even play in the third where Montreal tied the game, both calls went against the Canadiens. Then in overtime, a double minor against Spacek to give Carolina a 5-3 advantage in penalties. While from my memory I don't think any of the calls against us could be argued very well, especially Spacek's, I'm sure that under pressure for most of the last 40 minutes of regulation that a struggling and desperate team like Carolina likely got away with a ton of calls, especially as without Pitkanen their defensive corps is very slow and therefore likely to resort to illegal plays.

Against Philadelphia, in Montreal, the game was pretty listless as neither team really showed up. The game was even in penalties and called pretty fairly, both teams were allowed to play the game, letting a lot go. That was however until Montreal had a lead with a couple minutes left, when Josh Gorges was called on a phantom tripping penalty by Mike Leggo to give the Flyers an advantage for the rest of the game. This has been a startlingly frequent trend this season, it blew up on us against Washington the week before in a game we deserved to win that ended up a shootout loss. That game ended with the Flyers having a 4-3 advantage in penalties. Not exactly damning, but still not great. Keep in mind that we played Philadelphia at the height of their crap streak, a game after they had a 9 minute penalty kill that led to a blow out for Washington.

So facing the teams that draw the most penalties in the league, we can't seem to get a break. Are we really that bad? As I previously stated I don't believe this to be true, so what's going on here? Some interesting ideas have been raised, like the lack of a strong and persistent forecheck from the Canadiens means less sustained pressure, and therefore less of a chance to draw penalties. This idea sounds like a good explanation, but I don't like it based on what I've seen personally. We clearly don't have the strongest forechecking in the league, but the line of Pacioretty - Metropolit - Moen especially has demonstrated that they can create sustain pressure on the forecheck and draw defenders into hooking, holding and tripping, it just rarely gets called. Some have said that due to a player like Lapierre being known as an agitator that penalties regularly never get called when someone does something to him, and Plekanec's increasing aggression as well as dirty play at times is having the same affect. This also sounds like a good one, but from what I've seen in my life watching the NHL, it's rarely the guy who makes the first dirty play that gets called, it's always the retaliation, and there's been a lot of uncalled retaliation against both players. Pure lack of discipline can explain why we're getting calls against us more often, but I'm not inclined to believe it, and I'm certainly not inclined to believe that it could account for the disparity of being shorthanded 44 times more than having the advantage.

Of course at this point there's the group of people that come out and say Gary Bettman hates Canadian teams, and none more than the Canadiens and is therefore giving the refs directives to call the games against the Canadiens. This kind of thinking is neither true, nor possible. There is no reason the Bettman or anyone involved to call the game in a way that hurts specifically Montreal. Would I believe that referees are asked to be a bit more lenient to the sunbelt franchises that are struggling to make a profit with losing franchises in terrible economies? Maybe, but again this is bordering on conspiracy theory talk and there's been no tangible, coherent evidence presented that I've seen to make me believe it. It also doesn't hold up to the facts to say that the refs hate the Canadiens. As pointed out by frequently frustrating but intelligent poster Chris, last year we had the 2nd most powerplays in the league, and the year before that we had a positive differential of 32 more powerplays than penalties against over 82 games. This year is clearly an anomaly for us. So if it isn't coming down from above, what's happening.

Referees have a difficult job, especially at the NHL level. The game is fast and no matter what they're hated and harassed. Because it's such a difficult job it makes it a lot easier to compartmentalize certain plays in your head and much like a goalie, react to the familiar, muscle memory if you will. From what I've seen watching hockey my whole life it takes a lot for a small player to draw a penalty. It seems like whenever someone under 6 feet tall is knocked over, it's attributed to the player either being weak or diving. This is especially evident if the player who knocks the smaller guy down is a big player. The is very similar to what some on the internet sarcastically dub "Pronger physics", as to how he's allowed to constantly elbow people in the face viciously, or hit them in the head and rarely if ever get suspended because he's taller than most players. Players like Daniel Briere don't help by being one of the most frequent divers in the NHL. Considering that Montreal is only small among it's top 6 forwards as compared to the rest of the league, and we have some massive bodies on the back end and on the bottom two lines, this shouldn't account entirely for the lack of drawing penalties, but there's more to the story.

Ever since Bob Gainey acquired Scott Gomez, and even more so since Cammalleri and Gionta were signed, the media has been repeating ad nauseam that this team was pint sized and way too small to compete in the NHL. I've heard it mentioned at least once between either OTR or Sportscenter every single week day this year. If you think this kind of repetition has no affect then I invite you to look into how propaganda works in politics from communist Russia to separatist Quebec. This idea of Montreal being a small team, despite the average height and weight of the team being above the NHL average, has gotten into the minds of every ref in the NHL, even the good ones. It's not something that has anything to do with Montreal, and it's not on purpose, but it's really hurting Montreal. It's become so ingrained around the league that we're a small team that even players who aren't small, like the Kostitsyns, Pacioretty and Moen are abused often without getting a call.

This is made even more dire because the opposite is also true about taking penalties. When a small players knocks over a big player, most refs in any hockey league will assume an illegal infraction has taken place. This isn't about favouritism or a conspiracy to destroy the great history of the Montreal Canadiens, it's about a subconscious assumption that all referees share to make their jobs a little more simple, which has ended up hurting the Canadiens big time so far this season. I don't blame the refs for this, but let's be honest here, this is inexcusable. Something has to be done instead of letting something innocent plague the team the rest of the season. Bob Gainey or Jacques Martin need to either say something to the director of officiating, or if that doesn't work, play the mind games like Ken Holland and say something in the media. There will be a fine, no doubt, but it needs to be done. Better yet, new owner Geoff Molson, who has a bit more clout as an owner, can rock the boat by addressing the media if speaking in private to NHL head honcho's doesn't work.

To illustrate how important this could be, with our current powerplay efficiency we would add 8 or 9 goals if we had drawn as many powerplays as penalties. With this team being involved in 9 one goal losses included our shootout losses, imagine how 9 extra goals could change the standings. Even if only 4 (half) of those ended up in a game where we lost by one in regulation, 4 more points this year would put us one point behind Boston for 5th in the Eastern conference. It would also make the Canadiens an even team in goals for and goals against with 91 each way. That's a big difference, especially in how the Canadiens are viewed around the league, one that needs to be recognized by Canadiens management, and we need to start playing the game off the ice as well as people like Ken Holland do.


Now that my rational argument is done, it's time for me to say what I've wanted to say all day. Chris Lee needs to be fired by the NHL, or demoted to the AHL where he can't ruin games that matter. You can tell the NHL doesn't consider him to be a good ref due to the lack of playoff games he's refereed in his career, which is a whopping 4 since 1999. Was last night the worst game I've ever seen officiated? No. It probably isn't even the worst game I've seen Chris Lee officiate, but it's going to be remembered for a long time because the one really bad blown call happened at the worst possible time. Chris Lee will say he lost sight of the puck, even though the puck was out of site on many goalmouth scrambles around Carey Price all night and he refused to blow the whistle, and he was clearly out of position so it would make more sense to wait until he was IN position to make the call. Unfortunately the NHL has made it against league rules to speak negatively of the officials, the response being at least a $10,000 fine for coaches. I believe this rule has given an ego of being untouchable to many referees in the game today.

But this isn't why Lee should be fired, the bottom line is that he's an awful official. It was clear all game that he's more concerned about controlling the game than he is about paying attention. After Plekanec got in Malkin's face last night and they took coincidental minors, Matt Cooke started harassing Plekanec after every whistle. The most glaring of which was a blatant spear in the face with the butt of his stick which likely wasn't shown on television as it was right as the game was going to commercial break. The spear was right in front of Chris Lee, who was directing traffic instead of paying attention to his surroundings. It's true that whenever he referees a game with Montreal there seems to be a controversy, but whether he hates the Canadiens or not is irrelevant, he plays his favourites in every game and he's terrible. Every hockey fan that I know that keeps track of refs thinks Chris Lee hates their team. That's a big sign that he blows calls way too often. It's time to let Mr. Lee officiate at a level where he can keep up with the play, maybe Atom A?


The NHL needs to wake up and explain why the ref saying that he was meaning to blow the whistle is somehow enough of an excuse to disallow a goal that resulted from the puck being loose. It happens all the time, and one of the responses that I hear from referee apologists is that refs are human and humans make errors. Let them make errors, but on this kind of play there should be video review. We use it on every other kind questionable goal, but for some reason the NHL in its usual draconian fashion refuses to take a little bit of power away from the referees. Well if they're human and make mistakes, why don't we have checks and balances to make sure the right call is made? It's a simple review, much simpler than any others. If the goalie covers the puck at all, then it's no goal. If the whistle blew before the puck goes in the net, no goal. Last night Fleury made no attempt to cover the puck, which he admitted in a post-game interview, because he didn't know where it was. The puck slid between his blocker/stick along his right pad and out to Scott Gomez in front of the net before he knocked it in the net. The puck hit the mesh, and halfway back out of the net you hear the whistle go. If this play could be reviewed that would have been a goal without any doubt. Whether Chris Lee lost sight of the puck while he was out of position, not doing his job properly would be irrelevant, and the right call would have been made. It's so simple, but it won't be done because the NHL refuses to be proactive. What if this had been in the 7th game of a playoff series? Granted because it's the playoffs Chris Lee wouldn't be officiating, but many refs blow these kinds of calls. It's time to start making the correct call instead of the human call.

Second image courtesy of Gazette