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Penalty Shots and the Push-Pull Effect

October 8, 2018, 8:45 AM ET [3 Comments]
Paul Stewart
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It is not uncommon early in the season to see a lot of high-scoring games, both in the NHL and elsewhere. Teams have new players, systems have to be learned or refreshed and teams have to make adjustments. Inevitably, things settles down and goals become harder to come by as the season progresses.

Something similar tends to happen with officiating directives in the NHL. There is a push-pull effect. Remember the enforcement mandates early last season for officials to use the strictest, letter-of-the-law standards to call slashing penalties and faceoff violations? Were you surprised when there was a backlash about too many calls, and the enforcement directive was dialed down several notches? Now there are some who believe it's gone too far the other way.

You shouldn't be surprised. It is has been part of the cyclical nature of the game for decades. Every year, there are new directives, some of which are well-reasoned and tend to go unnoticed and others which failed the test of asking "why shouldn't we implement this?" in addition to looking at the "why should we do it?" side of the coin.

Penalty shot rulings are a good example of the yo-yo effect. Ideally, there should be relatively minor fluctuations in the number that arise each season. However, this is accomplished through education about the criteria and an expectation of making the judgment call accordingly. Working backwards, here's a look at the total number of penalty shots called in the five most recent seasons after the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign.

2017-18: 49
2016-17: 43
2015-16: 55
2014-15: 37
2013-14: 69

To date through the young 2018-19 NHL season, through a total of 31 league games played, there has been one penalty shot awarded (to Toronto's Mitch Marner against Ottawa on Oct. 6 after being slashed on a breakaway). It was the right call on that play. Although I haven't come close to seeing the other 30 games played in the league this past week in their entirety, I have seen enough to have seen about four or five very similar plays to the Marner one where there was no call or a slashing or hooking minor called instead.

Personally, I would like to see the NHL re-emphasize the penalty shot criteria. There is also some feel involved, but the Rule Book is the referee's ally here. When calling a penalty shot, the official should be confident and decisive in making the ruling. It's when the guy is hesitant to call what he sees -- when he's afraid of how the benches or a supervisor will react, and you can virtually see the wheels turning in his head on whether to call a penalty shot -- that he looks bad.

To review, here are five criteria for a penalty shot to be called on a breakaway scenario:

1) The attacking player is fouled from behind.
2) The attacker is past the red line (not the blue line).
3) The attacker has passed everyone on the defending team except the goalie.
4) The attacker has possession and control of the puck at the time he's fouled.
5) The attacker loses a reasonable scoring chance as a result of the foul.

Criteria two and five seem to cause the most trouble, especially the fifth. It is very common to see the fouled player still get a shot away and for no penalty shot to be awarded on the basis that the player "still had a scoring chance" despite the foul.

Well, yeah, maybe a great scoring chance became a much more stoppable one because the attacker no longer had the same amount of speed or puck control he had prior to the foul. Guess what? It's still a penalty shot, because the scoring chance should be re-established.

On the flip side, what if the foul from behind is shrugged off and the attacker goes in full speed ahead to get the same scoring chance he'd have otherwise have? If that's the judgment, then it is a minor penalty rather than a penalty shot.

My rule of thumb -- if a "great" scoring chance becomes an average/so-so one, it's a penalty shot. If great becomes "good", it's probably NOT a penalty shot.

My advise to young officials never varies: If a penalty shot is warranted, calling a minor penalty instead of the proper call is a cop-out. In a supervising capacity, I would not look favorably on it. You are paid to judge, so judge. Be courageous.

During my active officiating career, I was never afraid to call a penalty shot when the criteria dictated it. I called more than any other referee in the NHL over the course of my career. One season, there were 34 total penalty shots called throughout in the League that season. I called 18 of them.


A Class of 2018 inductee to the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, Paul Stewart holds the distinction of being the first U.S.-born citizen to make it to the NHL as both a player and referee. On March 15, 2003, he became the first American-born referee to officiate in 1,000 NHL games. Today, Stewart is the director of hockey officiating for the ECAC. Visit his official website at YaWannaGo.com.
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