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Do NHL Referees Hate The Caps?

[Editor's note: This is the first in a series of articles that will focus on officiating in the NHL. Look for subsequent pieces on what, precisely, the ref sucks and whether the ref, in fact, beats his wife.]

It seems a simple enough question: do the refs hate the Caps? There is a mound of evidence that would seem to support an affirmative answer - most recently Wednesday night's Tampa game - and any number of reasons for the supposed bias, from the team's employment of Dale Hunter and Jim Schoenfeld to the its historic lack of prestige to the size of its market. But what about empirical data? What does it tell us?

A glance at this season's disparity between power play opportunities and the number of times shorthanded reveals what we already knew - that the Caps have been shorthanded far more often than they have been on the power play (thanks to OldChelsea for doing the heavy lifting). A league-leading 49 more times, in fact. But, JP, the Caps are not a very skilled team and with blueliners like Ivan Majesky, Nolan Yonkman, et. al., they're bound to take a ton of penalties because they're so often out of position. Further, other than El Ocho, they don't have the kind of forwards that draw a lot of penalties. True. Take a look at the bottom three teams in the League in power-play disparity and that point is borne out- all three have what most would consider below-average bluelines and forwards:

28 Columbus 132 PP/158 TS = -26
29 Chicago 128 PP/172 TS = -44
30 Washington 119 PP/168 TS = -49

Not surprisingly, the teams at the other end of the spectrum have pretty solid defensemen and/or a handful of creative forwards:

1 San Jose 144 PP/104 TS = 40
2 Buffalo 134 PP/105 TS = 29
3 Tampa Bay 146 PP/124 TS = 22

So I'm right. Chalk it up to talent. Not so fast. How do you explain Phoenix having the fourth-best differential? Or New Jersey and St. Louis being in the "plus" column? Or Ottawa and Detroit being in the red? Damn. So it's not that easily explained, is it? No. In fact, this year's officiating has been so inconsistent, I'd throw the numbers out the window. But before we do, let's remember who's at the bottom of that list.

Having disregarded this year's numbers for inconsistency and its relatively small sample size, maybe the past few years can tell us something. In each year since at least 2000-01, the Caps have been in the red on power-play/shorthanded differential (thanks, Sapper):

2003-04: -67 (the Caps were shorthanded the most often in the League)
2002-03: -53
2001-02: -26
2000-01: -38

That covers some good teams (2000-01's 96-point division winner) and some bad ones (2003-04's 59-point Alexander Ovechkin winner), but consistently skilled and with a decent-to-good defense corps up until the latter part of the 2003-04 season. So why does the huge disparity persist? Because there is a League-wide officiating bias against the Caps. Haven't we proven that yet? Not quite.

If there was a systemic referee bias against the Capitals, one would assume that players are more highly penalized when they are Caps than at other times in their careers (the only other explanation for the Caps getting so many fewer power play opportunities than their opponents would be that the team puts out a relatively penalty-prone bunch or unskilled forwards, neither of which, obviously, would be the referees' fault).

So what do the numbers say? Do guys come to Washington and see their PIMs skyrocket? Do guys leave town and suddenly become Lady Byng candidates? A rundown of every player who has played for the Caps since the 1993-94 season and has (or had) played at least 100 games for the Caps and at least 100 NHL games for teams other than the Caps (the 2005-06 season has been excluded, for reasons touched on above) provides an answer to that question.

After more than 25,000 man games and 25,000 PIMs, the result is that the difference between those players' PIMs-per-game (PIM/G) as Caps and as non-Caps was that the players averaged .02091 fewer PIM/G as Caps (see Addendum). To put that in perspective, that's less than one minor penalty over the course of an 80 game season.

These numbers, of course, don't prove a lack of bias. They only tell a part of a portion of the equation - the "why are there so many calls against us?" part. They say nothing about why the Caps get so few opportunities or why the refs/linesmen blow their whistles when they do, wherein the bias (if there is any) may lie. But how does one measure missed calls? Or quick whistles? Or questionable goal/offsides/icing calls?

Now I'm confused. Do the refs hate the Caps or not?

Maybe. Maybe power play disparities are the result of the style of hockey a coach has been playing, team discipline, effort. Maybe it's personnel. Maybe it's personal (see Addendum 2). These numbers would seem to go a long way towards saying that the refs could care less what sweater a guy's wearing - over the long haul it all evens out - but these numbers don't account for missed (or neglected calls), inadvertent (or intentional) whistles at inopportune times, etc.

One thing is certain: individual games are often refereed poorly, frequently in one team's favor. Individual referees may even have it in for a given team. But the only way to conclusively say that "the refs hate the Caps" would be to conduct a study well-beyond the scope of anything we at The Rink are capable of. Perhaps a grant from the Leonsis Fund could get us on our way.

Here are those players, with their individual differentials (positive meaning that the player averaged more PIM/G as a Cap, negative meaning the opposite):
Iafrate, Al (1.144739871)
Hatcher, Kevin (0.625767042)
Jones, Keith (0.416758159)
Sacco, Joe (0.181435278)
Cote, Sylvain (0.159500758)
Zubrus, Dainius (0.10404433)
Bulis, Jan (0.095997389)
Nikolishin, Andrei (0.062948181)
Lang, Robert (0.053882601)
Oates, Adam (0.021370869)
Khristich, Dmitri (-0.000121767)
Juneau, Joe (-0.023106738)
Zednik, Richard (-0.040154485)
Krygier, Todd (-0.046624738)
Miller, Kip (-0.065613496)
Johansson, Calle (-0.099254743)
Berube, Craig (-0.126100765)
Grier, Mike (-0.167784679)
Dahlen, Ulf (-0.176321116)
Black, James (-0.178002332)
Miller, Kelly (-0.185742862)
Ridley, Mike (-0.200729213)
Jagr, Jaromir (-0.231163274)
Housley, Phil (-0.231214054)
Reekie, Joe (-0.312656481)
Anderson, Shawn (-0.327272727)
Mironov, Dmitri (-0.396685705)
Eagles, Mike (-0.455546874)
Hunter, Dale (-0.62260782)
Johnson, Jim (-0.829434561)
Tinordi, Mark (-0.963402825)
Simon, Chris (-1.034261551)

Addendum 2
2005-06 Capitals games refereed by Don Koharski (per OldChelsea):
12th Oct at Carolina - L 2-7, PP 7-6 Carolina
22nd Oct vs Carolina - L 0-4, PP 12-5 Carolina
28th Oct at Tampa Bay - L 2-4, PP 8-5 Tampa
23rd Nov vs Tampa Bay - L 3-4 (SO), PP 7-4 Tampa
CAPS RECORD 0-4, aggregate score 7-19, PP 34-20 favouring opponents

For an in depth look at this season's game, organized by referee, click here.

Note: Special thanks to OldChelsea and Sapper for their statistical and analytical contributions to this post.