Takes and trash talk from both ALL sides of the NHL's most obscure PATHETIC* rivalry

* Thanks, Kevin Lowe!

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Ducks Gameday—The politics of power plays

Anaheim Ducks (38-24-7, 4th in west) at Colorado Avalanche (35-26-6, t-7th in west)

Whenever the Ducks beat an "elite" team these days, it seems the referee critics come out of the woodwork, and I'm not just referring to Bryan Murray. Here's a good example from a Sens blogger, who decided that now that Ottawa was losing games, it was an opportune time to blame referees for destroying hockey, or something to that effect. I'm not going to get too carried away with that piece (I only skimmed it), other than to say this: You cannot gain a sympathetic ear from me by complaining about refereeing after a loss. It's way too common, it's way too kneejerk, and it's way too whiny. Yes, there's blown calls and bad calls and phantom calls and inconsistency, but if you want to take up a fix-hockey cause, timing is critical. Complain after a win. Or better yet, after several wins. Make me believe that you care about the on-ice product and not the game result. If losses are your only impetus, then guess what? You're not improving anything; you're whining.

That's why it was so unexpectedly refreshing to read Dean Brown's blog entry after the Duck-Sen matchup (found via Kukla's). Brown is an Ottawa broadcaster, one whom you might expect the usual boo-hoo story from, but that is not the case. In fact, for most Duck fans, I consider his entry to be a must-read. It describes rather well an aspect I've believed about the Ducks and their penalties but never really voiced: Anaheim is taking advantage of Power Play Politics. PP Politics isn't a new feature of hockey, really, but it has gained more prominence since the lockout and the addition of new penalties.

Let me explain. In hockey, there are several penalties that have to be called. Let's call those the "hard penalties". Pucks over the glass, serious high-sticks or boards, blatant too-many-men, that sort of stuff. Referees need to call hard penalties or else they'd be accused of being blind or bought. Well below that level are softer penalties: sticks in a guy's skate, contact with a goaltender, iffy hits away from the puck, etc. Here's where things are a bit negotiable: penalties could be called in those situations, or they could be overlooked. So long as some of them get called, they remain penalties, but to call them all would be impractical. It would be impossible to play any real hockey, and the game would be reduced to power play parades and blowout scores.

So a referee is given the unenviable task of (a) calling a game by an increasingly rigid penalty book, yet (b) not deciding the game's outcome. This contradiction is the origin of Power Play Politics, how a modern referee can call both hard and soft penalties while remaining outcome-neutral. The bargaining chips for the referee are the soft calls—when and where those infractions get called can help re-establish neutrality.

The rules of PP Politics aren't exact rules, but a set of considerations: A team that is leading should be penalized more often than one that is trailing, especially late in a game. If one team has enjoyed a string of power plays, the next call should likely to go against them. There should be more scrutiny for players on the power play than the ones killing penalties.

When it comes to soft penalties, a political referee will reinforce his neutrality whenever he can. It's human nature, but even more than that, it fulfills a job description.

Dean Brown has caught onto that, and I think on some nights, he's certainly right. The Ducks can get so penalty-heavy that a ref feels obligated to scrutinize the opposition instead, and the Ducks end up with more leeway as a result. However, it's not all roses: with reputation can come a price. There are many games where referees are tough on Anaheim; they don't feel the need to remain penalty-neutral for the notoriously dirty Ducks. Also, it is worth noting that the strategy of playing dirty has a pretty high risk; it only can be successful if the team plays a dominant game on special teams and at even strength. Consider: in a five-game series against the Wild, Minnesota enjoyed 18:10 more power play time than the Ducks did, and in a six-game series against Detroit, the Wings had 19:34 more power play time than Anaheim. As much as we can say that dirty teams get benefit of PP Politics, there's still going to be stretches where games will have to be won despite huge discrepancies in man-advantage time (and I didn't mention 5-on-3s, which were also heavily skewed).

One thing I can say as a Ducks fan, this tendency for Anaheim to be shorthanded more than the opposition does teach a lesson about thick skin on penalty calls: I'm completely used to referee tendencies now. Seldom will you see me complaining about a specific call too much, because after a few years of dirty play, the Ducks have taught me the lesson: it's not good to be dependent on a referee in order to win games. Rather, the emphasis for Anaheim has been to win games regardless of referees. Well-called games or not, the key isn't so much to fixate on what should or shouldn't be a penalty, but rather to kill them off when they arise. And when shorthanded play occurs often enough, it emphasizes the need to produce at even strength.

And probably, that's the key. It's not that the Ducks are good because they play dirtier than anyone else. It's more that the Ducks are good in addition to being dirtier than anyone else, or even that they need to be really good in order to offset that feature. And even though I've grown accustomed to it, I wouldn't really complain if the Ducks cleaned up their act; there's been plenty of winning teams that didn't feature their penalty kill so prominently. I've rambled more than enough on this now; what are your thoughts? Is Anaheim strategic in their penalty prone play? Would Duck fans be disappointed if the team played more within the rules? How much of Anaheim's cup run is attributed to their penalty philosophy, or could the Ducks have won it all by playing "clean"? And if the Ducks decided to clean up their act, how long would it take for the reputation to disappear?

It's a challenging question, because most benefits are tough to quantify, whereas the cost of penalties is more evident. Still, your thoughts are welcome in the comments.

Prediction: Ducks 3, Avs 1. Goals by Weight, Pahlsson, and Bertuzzi. I again won't be free to watch this game, so let me know how it goes in the comments.

Go Ducks.


Anonymous said...

17 penalties on the ducks last nite and the ducks stil should have won...there problem is lack of execution on offense...could not for the life of them make a tape to tape pass...miss the net on open oppurtinities....there aim is atrocious...there bathroom floors at there homes must soaked in piss....cuz they cant fuckin aim right....they seem to overcome there aggressivness(2 for 17 on pk is pretty damn good)...but they never can over come themselves when there offense just sux balls...i dont think they should change a thing about there dirty play...they just need to convert some the many chances there getting on the offensive end

Earl Sleek said...

Yeah, I should have pointed out that this piece isn't really a reaction to last night's game, as other than the score, I have a very vague notion of what happened.

I hadn't even read that 2-for-17 stat until just now, so wow.

Anonymous said...

doug weight is not the answer on the 2nd line by the way...id prefer marchant in that role

weight is slow and ineffective seince hes been back

Mike in OC said...

In the past I hated watching us lose the game on a BS call, etc.

During the 2006 playoffs I witnessed what I thought was favoritism to Edmonton during thier run. San Jose getting shafted the most. Things like Icing being called on a very tired Edmonton team, then the Edmonton captian talking to the linesman and he changes his mind and takes the faceoff to center ice. I had not seen that until then, and have not since. But there was a ton of stuff like that in that seris.

I think the Ducks orginization just got tired of being the red-headed step child of the NHL and created a team that can win shorthanded. They are obviously comited to winning and have been for a long time, so it does not surprise me that they built a team like this. We still get questionable calls, but at lease the majority of them I can honestly say we earn. Either way I come away from the game without that bad taste that the game was handed to the other team anymore.

As for the Ottawa stuff, they seem to be very upset that we hit thier D every time we entered thier zone, I thought those hits were clean, in fact the Kuntz cross check is the only thing I thought the ref's really missed that was blatant. I know they could have called Gerber for roughing at least twice and did not, so I just dont get it.

Earl Sleek said...

doug weight is not the answer on the 2nd line by the way...id prefer marchant in that role

Can't say too much on Weight yet; he came back in the game I was at and I didn't get to watch last night. I'd say give him a few games, though--on paper, he's the logical choice, and there's no other line really where I think he fits.

If it turns sour, though, Marchant would work (let Carter run the 4th line), or maybe more time for Ebbett. He seemed to do all right riding Selanne's coattails.

As for the Ottawa stuff, they seem to be very upset that we hit thier D every time we entered thier zone, I thought those hits were clean, in fact the Kuntz cross check is the only thing I thought the ref's really missed that was blatant. I know they could have called Gerber for roughing at least twice and did not, so I just dont get it.

I don't really get it either. By my eyes I didn't see anything too outrageous in that game's officiating, but judging from Sens fans' responses they sounded really outraged. I generally just chalk that stuff up to emotion, which Bryan Murray should probably leave to the fans to exhibit.

Anonymous said...

You know, I think the problem here is that the referees or the NHL or both agree on the principle that the ref shouldn't decide the game. I think that's BS. The ref calling penalties is not the problem. The players doing actions that warrant penalties is the problem. It's a weird idea, that enforcing the rules is somehow unfairly meddling with the game.

In the post-trap NHL, the Ducks have learned that active penalties (high hits, slashing, cross-checking) don't get called as often as passive ones (hooking, holding, tripping). The best part is that Brian Burke used to be the NHL's vice-principal of discipline, right?

Simply put, all this stuff about "nobody knows what a penalty is anymore" is caused by the refs not calling the game consistently, 1st period to overtime, October to May. If they did, the players would adjust their play, and even if you had a few games where it's nothing but power plays for one team, those would fade away as the teams adjust.

By "not wanting to decide the game," the refs ultimately still do, just like back in the clutch 'n grab 90s.

Marie said...

Earl, great post. The Ducks are capable of playing a physical game that costs them to be on the PK a lot because they have the best defense in the league. Unless you're a Ducks fan that doesn't like fighting I don't see why you would want the Ducks to clean up their act.

As for the Colorado game tonight...it would have been Ducks 3, Avs 4, goals by Smyth (x2), Svatos, and Stastny. You can thank the Kings for the win ;)

Earl Sleek said...

Yeah, I'll agree with you in spirit, Ian, but I don't blame the refs or the league. I think both teams come in with expectations about refereeing, and generally the referees end up complying. If the question is "who's to blame for today's refereeing", I don't think you have to look past the expectations of both bench coaches, each trying to get their share of the PP action.

It's easy enough to demand more consistency in the media or whatever, but in reality I don't know if that's what teams want at all. I think they'd rather rely on the notion that both teams would approach the game the same way, and I think on some level everyone wants and expects equivalent power play time for each side.

In the post-trap NHL

This phrase made me laugh. I'm not the best on what technically is the trap and what is not, but I don't think we're in any meaningful post-trap NHL. Sure the mechanics have probably changed to some degree, but the underlying strategy is still the same. In a lot of ways, I think today's NHL is as trapping as ever, partially because the new rules have demanded a higher attention to defensive preparation than ever before.

RudyKelly said...

One interesting thing about the Ducks is that their third line barely takes any penalties at all. Pahlsson and R. Niedermayer don't get a lot of penalties and Moen's penalties tend to be fights. This seems unusual to me, since they're often playing against the most talented liine on the other team. Is this because their hooks go uncalled or because they just don't take penalties? I don't know.

Great post, Earl.

Anonymous said...

there well oiled machines rudy..and know what to do to not take penalties...people like perry getzlaf...hate playing defense as opposed to the 3rd line so they get lazy and hook...

i agree with kms..dont change anything..keep running hte goalie..giving face washes...etc....just fuckin shoot and stop trying to be too fancy with the puck in the offensive zone

Anonymous said...

I think both teams come in with expectations about refereeing, and generally the referees end up complying.

Right. I'm not pinning it only on the refs, because clearly, in hockey, there's a lot of pressure from players, coaches, officials, and fans to just let the boys play, regardless of whether that is actually a good thing.

As for post-trap, maybe I should have used scare quotes around it, but I think that the type of game now played is quite different than the NJ Devils (among many others) circa 1995.

Put another way, would Marc Savard be putting up 90 point seasons in 1995? Closer to home, how about Cammalleri or Selanne's return to form? There's more room for the skilled guys, and there's a place for the smaller skill player now that there wasn't ten years ago. But I also agree that the trap isn't completely dead.

Anonymous said...

I can't imagine it was easier to paint ref stripes on a Hilary/Obama photo than to cut-and-paste their heads onto a photo of two refs...

Itlan said...

the Ducks have taught me [this] lesson: it's not good to be dependent on a referee in order to win games.
WOOT, man... just woot!

Earl Sleek said...

I can't imagine it was easier to paint ref stripes on a Hilary/Obama photo than to cut-and-paste their heads onto a photo of two refs...

You're probably right, but I got home extremely underslept and slightly drunk last night, so I'm pretty happy with the result.

It's not so bad drawing referee uniforms, it turns out.

a) White out their current clothing.
b) Draw some stripe outlines.
c) Color in every other stripe black.
d) Add some orange on the arms.
e) Throw on a NHL logo.

Of course, then I spent quite a while writing this post--turns out I had quite a lot to say, and it was touchy enough that I had to say it right.

Man, I am bushed today.