Maple Leafs Play Long Game When Addressing NHL's Officiating Incident

The skill-fueled Toronto Maple Leafs have been on the wrong end of the officiating standard before. Although few teams would benefit more if penalties were called by the book, their restraint helps them now.
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When an incident involving a hot microphone resulted in the swift dismissal of a long-tenured NHL official, the century-long debate of how the league adheres to its rulebook immediately bubbled to the surface.

But the Toronto Maple Leafs steered clear of jumping into the argument and mostly came to the defense of the zebras.

"I guess the way I feel about it is keeping the standard as consistent as possible," Maple Leafs captain John Tavares said. "I don't think anyone wants to see important games (and) important points be decided by a faceoff violation in the last two minutes of a great hockey game that's got a lot on the line, or even a playoff game."

To recap, the NHL announced on Wednesday that referee Tim Peel would no longer be officiating games after a television broadcast between the Detroit Red Wings and Nashville Predators caught Peel's open microphone, strongly suggesting he was looking to assess a makeup penalty to the Predators.

The incident wasn't particularly shocking as anyone who has paid attention to the game will tell you that what Peel said is what all officials have been thinking. The error was he got caught saying the quiet part loud and the league felt compelled to act.

Tavares' comments do little to satiate a large section of fans, predominately younger, who lean toward letting skill rule the game and prefer having the rulebook enforced to the letter. The score, time left or situation, is of no consequence.

The Leafs have had no shortage of puzzling calls against them this season. Two weeks ago, the team trailed the Winnipeg Jets 4-2 when Zach Hyman took an interference penalty on a play that didn't appear to fit the game's standard. With tensions boiling over late in the third period and the infraction happening in Winnipeg's zone, Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe gave the officials an earful. He received a bench minor that put his team down two men.

"I think the refs are doing the best they can," Hyman said on Wednesday. "The NHL sets the standards and you just try to make the calls based on that standard."

There are too many instances where officials' mistakes occur that listing all of them isn't productive. The mistakes can lead to serious errors in judgment.

Sharp-minded Leafs fans quickly pointed to an incident in Game 2 of the team's first-round playoff series against the Boston Bruins in 2019.

Toward the end of the second period, Kadri was on the receiving end of a vicious knee clip from Jake DeBrusk of the Bruins.

In the third period, Kadri crosschecks DeBrusk in the face. Kadri, suspended during the playoffs the previous year, is ejected and banned for the remainder of the series.

This is where relying on game management is severely flawed. But players don't appear to be too keen on having it any other way.

"I think that it is unrealistic and we just have to accept it," Leafs defenseman Justin Holl said. "I think the refs are doing the best they can and I'm just trying to let them do their job."

The NHL has gone down the road of calling penalties by the book.

When the league emerged from a season-long lockout in 2005, they made several rule changes to game, aimed at increasing offense and letting skill rise to the top.

Among the changes was a "zero tolerance on interference, hooking and holding/obstruction.

Initially, it seemed to work as penalties skyrocketed in the early months. On Mar. 14, 2006, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was in Calgary at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon. He spoke with hockey reporter Eric Duhatschek and others and proudly spoke of the change.

"The feedback has been, if we're going to keep hooking, holding and interference out of the game, you've got to call it. And all that's happening is, the officials are calling what they're seeing, whatever time of game it is - first period, third period, last two minutes of the game, overtime, they're making the calls," Bettman said. "And if they stop making the calls, the standard will slide. They don't have a quota. They're not being encouraged to call more or less."

Bu the following season, the whistles appeared to be firmly back in the referees' pockets. During 2007 Stanley Cup Final, Anaheim Ducks defenseman Chris Pronger was given a one-game suspension for his elbow to the head of Ottawa Senators forward Dean McAmmond in Game 3.  

There was no penalty on the play, despite one of the referees staring right at the play in question.

Back to the Leafs.

As illustrated, they've been on the wrong end of this before. Kadri's hit on DeBrusk was his last shift as a Maple Leaf. They traded him on July 1, 2019 for defenseman Tyson Barrie and forward Alex Kerfoot. The team made it clear that they were going all-in on skill and the approach came to a head when Toronto was eliminated by the Columbus Blue Jackets in their best-of-five qualifying-round series back in August.

Toronto's emphasis shifted to shoring up elements of their game aimed at priming them for a deeper run in the playoffs. They signed veteran forwards Joe Thornton and Wayne Simmonds and added defensemen TJ Brodie and Zach Bogosian. The additions helped shore up the team's leadership and maybe more importantly, help decode the gamesmanship behind the current officiating puzzle.

I long felt before this season that the Leafs were built for where the game is going but not where the game is currently. The pieces added to the team in October helped remedy those flaws.

The standard of officiating has always been subjective. After all, the NHL is a private league where they can make up their own rules. Fans play an important role in voicing their opinion. While it may not change now, it could down the road.

So even though calling every penalty by the book benefits the skill-fueled Leafs, it's not the fight they want to pick right now. Those changes go beyond this season.

Toronto's success is aided by how they navigate the current rules. And in the land of subjectivity, that means doing the right thing politically and not crapping on the officiating.

"I've been around the game long enough that you know each game is different," Keefe said. "Officiating is an extremely difficult job to manage with such a fast sport."

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