What part of the season really sees referees 'put their whistles away?'

Ah, the midseason lull. It’s a dreary Tuesday in Columbus in late January. You’ve been playing games for months and there’s still months to go. Injuries have you lining up beside an AHL call-up and a fourth liner. While it won’t be a conscious decision to “not try hard,” it’s unlikely you feel as inspired to drop on a shot from the point when you can just try to stay in a guy’s shooting lane and hope the puck hits your shinpads. Maybe you’ll get a breakaway! Scoring goals is always fun.

See, it’s not really “being lazy” during the midseason lull, it’s just laying off the nitrous a bit. It happens to everyone at times … including, apparently, referees.

This week a writer for Japers’ Rink, Muneeb Alam, shared a couple graphs that I thought were interesting. They highlighted how, like players, refs seem to be working their hardest early in the season, and as the “importance” of games picks up, so too does the frequency of penalties called. (Games are all worth the same, of course, but teams get more desprate as the races become better defined.)

To me, that seems like it can be attributed to the same thing as players’ midseason drag - effort. In that same scenario (Randomtown, USA; January, etc.), it would be understandable if refs didn’t want to bicker with players and didn’t want to stop the clock. Let’s just keep this game moving along and let the players sort it out.

Here’s the data:

Also interesting: Penalties are being called considerably less often as we distance ourselves from the league’s effort to kill obstruction following the 2004-05 lockout.

As goals continue to decline since that missed season, Muneeb’s quick-fix suggestion would likely help: the NHL Officials Association could simply stay on their guys to provide consistency throughout the season.

While calling more penalties midseason would undoubtedly lead to a NHL-satisfying higher goals total, refs staying steady from start to finish could also help avoid the frustration with non-calls in the middle of the year, and the anger that comes with late-season calls after becoming accustomed to getting away with more.

It is possible that the lull in mid-season play is partially responsible for the dip in penalties - less desperation begets less effort, which means less penalties. But that drop off seems too significant to solely chalk up to the style of game being played. I'm willing to bet it's a combination of that, and referees feeling just as players do at times - a little bit "blah."

It’s something to keep an eye on this year as we head into the depths of the season. Is it the refs, or the players shaping the trend?

What part of the season really sees referees 'put their whistles away?'
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