Neutral-Zone Crap: Peel-ing back the curtain on NHL officiating
Former referee Tim Peel has been vocal in his defense of the NHL of late, but his assertion that it's not realistic to call the rulebook all the time needs to be challenged
Despite falling on his sword for the league that employed him last season, Tim Peel has no axe to grind with the NHL. And that’s understandable. When the league announced he would no longer be working games last season after his hot mic incident, Peel was about a month away from retiring anyway and had worked more than 1,300 games. You wouldn’t expect he’d come out swinging against an institution that provided him with 25 years of steady employment.
Peel has taken the high road, saying he used a poor choice of words last March when he said, “It wasn’t much, but I wanted to get a (expletive) penalty against Nashville,” during a game against the Detroit Red Wings last March. Peel has explained several times that he actually thought the call against Viktor Arvidsson, then of the Predators, was a legitimate one, but realized after he had seen the replay that it shouldn’t have been called. That’s when he used the words that sealed his fate.
And by doing so, Peel has tried to close the Pandora’s Box that is the NHL’s approach to officiating. Bad choice of words, nothing more than that. No systemic problems with NHL officials, who are supposedly the best in the world. Speaking on the Real Kyper & Bourne podcast with Nick Kypreos and Justin Bourne earlier this week, Peel claimed that part of an official’s job is to “manage the game” in as much as “we’re out there to keep it fair, we’re out there to keep it safe.”
But in the next breath, Peel dropped a nugget that unfortunately does not come as a surprise to anyone, but that doesn’t make it any less infuriating. “You hear fans go, ‘Well, just call the rulebook,’ ” Peel said. “Well, that’s not realistic. Let’s be honest.”
Neither of the hosts challenged Peel on that assertion, so here goes. Why is it not realistic? When you think about it, the on-ice officials in the NHL literally have one job. And that is to call the rulebook. On one hand, Peel claims NHL officials don’t manage the game from a standpoint of making even-up calls and on the other hand says it’s not realistic to apply the document that governs the game all of the time. It’s not a rule guide or rule suggestion. It’s a rulebook. He also said that if an official has called six penalties against Toronto and none against Detroit, his antennae go up naturally and he says, “I’d better make sure I don’t miss one against Toronto.”
Shouldn’t those antennae be up all the time? Again, referees have one job. And they’re supposed to do it regardless of the time, score or importance of the game. And this is not about missing calls. Every person with any knowledge of the game knows those are going to happen from time to time and it’s something you accept as part of the human element of the game. What drives fans away is the notion that referees pick and choose which offenses to call and which to not. As much as he’s trying to defend the NHL and its approach to governing the game in his retirement, Peel is simply reinforcing what we’ve already known for years.
‘WHO WANTS TO BE KNOWN AS A WHINER?’
Speaking of calling penalties, you may or may not be aware that Connor McDavid has drawn five minor penalties this season, none in his past four games. Fifty-three players have drawn more penalties than McDavid has in 2021-22. In 21 career playoff games, McDavid has drawn a total of six penalties. In two fewer post-season games, Johnny Gaudreau has drawn 13.
All of which prompted ESPN analyst John Tortorella to opine that McDavid is going to have to change his game if he wants to succeed in the playoffs. And the former NHL coach isn’t wrong. He should be and there are a lot of people who wish he were, but he is bang-on in his assessment. He also said McDavid needs to “just shut up. Don’t talk about it.”
Well, a couple of things there. First, McDavid actually has shut up about it. He’s only talked about it when asked, and his responses are usually pretty well-worded. Second, shutting up is the last thing McDavid needs to do. If this game is ever going to change, the biggest stars in it have to scream from the mountaintops about the inequities in it. Mario Lemieux never shut up. He once accused the NHL of being a garage league. (Of course, the NHL has turned a deaf ear to him as an owner, too, when he begs the league to stop allowing its stars to be abused.) Bobby Hull often complained about the way he was being mugged and manhandled by lesser players.
“Connor, every day just plays, and he rarely draws a penalty,” said Edmonton Oilers GM Ken Holland, “and he rarely talks about it. The media starts to complain and ask him. What’s he going to say? ‘Oh no, it’s all good. Everything’s good.’ If you’re asking him, he’s going to tell you what he thinks. At the end of the day, he seems to get fouled and doesn’t draw penalties. But I see a guy who goes out there every day and just seems to push through it. It’s not like he’s out there holding a press conference every night.”
There is no persecution complex, either with the Oilers or McDavid. Because Holland has been around the game long enough to know that what McDavid has to endure cannot be used as a built-in excuse for failure. “I think if you lose your focus as an athlete, or you lose your focus in running the team, and you’re just sitting there and saying, ‘Aw, we’re getting mistreated,’ it’s not going to help you be better,” Holland said. “I see a player who’s pushing hard every day. He gets fouled and he doesn’t draw as many penalties as you think he would, and he keeps pushing. Who wants to be known as a whiner?”
MAKING A CASE FOR KASE
When the season began, I had the Toronto Maple Leafs as a second-tier Stanley Cup contender, at best. At the time, I would have been hard-pressed to even put them in my top 10. But in the first 17 games of the season, and particularly as of late, the Maple Leafs have proved to be a team to be taken seriously. Like, Stanley Cup seriously.
The Leafs are fifth in the league in goals-against per game, their power play is clipping at 25 percent, their star players have taken ownership, they’ve got some great depth on their third line and 11 years after he was drafted, Jack Campbell is proving to be a bona fide No. 1 goalie at the age of 29. He has never played more than 31 games in an NHL season and Tuesday night’s 3-0 shutout over Nashville was just his 100th career game, so we’ll have to see how he handles the workload, but the early signs are encouraging. They’ve also gained a comfort level playing in tight, low-scoring games, much the way the Tampa Bay Lightning did.
With that in mind, the No. 1 need the Leafs have to fill is on the left side of their top line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. Nick Ritchie clearly is not the answer. Neither is Michael Bunting. But if the Leafs are going to be a playoff threat, they need to find a left winger who can mesh with Matthews and Marner and, most importantly, keep them from being shut down in the post-season.
So…what to do? We’ll save you the trouble of looking and tell you that there are no elite left wingers with expiring contracts who can be acquired as rentals at the trade deadline. But there are some really intriguing right wingers. Which leaves a couple of options:
Dustin Brown of the Los Angeles Kings is a right-shot who has played the left side and would be a perfect fit for Matthews and Marner. The only problem is the Kings are overachieving and currently sit in a playoff spot. Unless the season is lost in L.A., Brown isn’t going anywhere. Another really intriguing possibility could be Tomas Hertl, a left-shot center. But the San Jose Sharks are overachieving the same way the Kings are.
The Dallas Stars could be out of it by the deadline and Joe Pavelski will be available. Could he move to the left side to play with Matthews and Marner? If so, it would be a very intriguing possibility. You probably don’t want to mess with moving Marner to the left side to accommodate Pavelski. Pavelski’s contract allows him to submit a three-team list where he would be willing to go and it’s unlikely Toronto is on that list. But he might be able to be convinced.
Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe acknowledged there has been a challenge there, but is sticking with Ritchie at the moment, largely because he has no other options. But how about this? Once Ilya Mikheyev returns from injury, he goes to the third line and Ondrej Kase moves to the left side of the top line. You run the risk of disrupting the chemistry Kase has with David Kampf – as far as scoring goes, Mikhayev is the Kevyn Adams of Jonas Hoglunds — and it would also make Kase play his off-wing. But there is little doubt Kase brings things that Keefe loves. “The common thing that kept coming back was how he works and how he competes,” Keefe said. “He’s scored 20 goals in this league. He can score. He’s got that skill set. He plays hard. He digs in and he’s pushing.”
CONNOR BEDARD HAVING SOME BAD LUCK
The temptation might be to wonder what is going on with Connor Bedard these days. There also might be a temptation to think that the WHL’s first exceptional player and top prospect for the 2023 NHL draft is lagging behind his competition, namely Adam Fantilli and Matvei Michkov.
Yes, Bedard has only eight goals and 12 points in 16 games for the Regina Pats after scoring 28 points in just 15 games last season and leading Canada to a gold medal at the World Under-18 Championship. And he has yet to score a single goal on the power play. But there are a couple of mitigating circumstances at play. First, Bedard leads the Western Hockey League in shots with 85, which means he’s been the victim of some terribly bad luck. People in analytics tell us all the time that, particularly with elite players who generate a lot of chances, that luck is bound to change and his shooting percentage will get way above 9.4 percent. Last season, it was 17.4 percent.
Fantilli, meanwhile, is one of the top players in the USHL this season. He sits second in scoring with 12 goals and 22 points in 17 games for the Chicago Steel, and after scoring five goals in two games over the weekend he was named the USHL’s forward of the week. While Michkov has two goals in 10 games in the KHL, he played recently for the Russian men’s team at the Karjala Cup and scored a spectacular lacrosse goal that had the hockey world marvelling.
Which brings us to the second mitigating factor. Both Fantilli and Michkov are late-2004 birthdays, which is why they’re eligible for the 2023 draft along with Bedard. Michkov is seven months older than Bedard and Fantilli is nine. That can make a huge difference at that age. Fantilli is playing in a lower league on a powerhouse team that is looking to win back-to-back championships, while Bedard is toiling for a below-average WHL team. (Note: Bedard’s Regina Pats fired coach Dave Struch Thursday morning.)
That’s not to say that neither Fantilli nor Michkov won’t be taken ahead of Bedard in 2023, but it’s something to consider. Connor Bedard has some time to figure this out. He’s going to be just fine. Just wait until he gets with elite players in the World Junior Championship.
SENATORS PROSPECT SANDERSON ROLLING
Speaking of hot scorers, Ottawa Senators prospect Jake Sanderson of the University of North Dakota had himself a weekend. The 19-year-old sophomore defenseman had three goals and six points in a two-game sweep of the University of Miami-Ohio to lead the nationally ranked Fighting Hawks with six goals and 15 points in 11 games.
The son of former NHLer Geoff Sanderson, taken fifth overall by the Senators in 2020, will likely be the captain of the U.S. entry at the World Junior Championship, where the Americans have a good chance of repeating as gold medal champs for the first time in the history of the program. Sanderson, meanwhile, is making an early case to be the frontrunner for the Hobey Baker Award, given to the top player in U.S. college hockey. Like Cale Makar and Quinn Hughes, Sanderson had a chance to turn pro as a 19-year-old and declined. “I’m not focused too much on the future,” Sanderson said. “I’m just looking at the present right now with my buddies at North Dakota, so I’m just trying to enjoy every moment I can have here. It’s a special place, it will be really hard to leave, but when that day comes, I’ll be really excited for the future.”
DRIBS AND DRABS
So the L.A. Kings are going to be playing in the Crypto.com Arena from now on. That’s nice. Don’t get any of it. It’s not quite as bad as Jobing.com Arena, but it’s right there. And if crypto currency is all the rage, why did these guys pay 700 million in dollars for the naming rights?...When the Portland Winter Hawks were celebrating their Memorial Cup victory in 1998, Marian Hossa was being pushed around the ice on a chair because he had blown out his knee earlier in the game. It turned out to be one of the most positive turns of his now Hall of Fame career. “I was thinking, ‘Is my career over? How am I going to be after the surgery?’ ” Hossa said. “But I spent the whole summer in Ottawa and I was a skinny kid. I didn’t go home because I had to rehab after the surgery in Ottawa. And that summer gave me so much. I got bigger, I got stronger, I got way more prepared for the tougher hockey. When I look back, that summer was really great for me because I was way stronger.”…Is anyone else getting nervous about the prospect of the NHL pulling out of the Olympics?...Hey, NHL teams, the next time you’re tempted to trade a young struggling prospect early in his career, take a look at what Troy Terry is doing these days, six years after he was drafted…I’m no investment expert, but I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that buying the Pittsburgh Penguins in the twilight of Sidney Crosby’s and Evgeni Malkin’s careers when the team is on the precipice of a huge reckoning that will see them plummet to the bottom of the league might not be a case of great timing…Can’t wait until March 27 so we can see the next meaningless and ridiculous fight between Patrick Maroon and Zdeno Chara.