Analyzing penalty rates in the NHL and the impact of new enforcement on cross-checking

Every few years, the NHL addresses specific areas of the rulebook that they want to enforce more strictly. Most recently it was a crackdown on slashing penalties, where any slashes to the hands of an opponent would result in a call. Before that it was obstruction penalties, diving and embellishment penalties, and so on and so forth.

These changes in officiating usher in new styles of play in the NHL, and are generally implemented to promote more offensive creativity and prevent defenders from playing puck carriers too hard. This season, officials are cracking down on cross-checking minors. These calls have been much more prevalent than in years past, and some of the penalties called definitely would have been let go last season.

To better understand the impact of this new crackdown on cross-checking, I looked into penalty rates from last season and compared them to the current preseason so far. All data is courtesy of IcyData.

Penalties called in the 2020–21 season

It wasn’t until compiling this data that I realized how many different types of penalties get called in a given season. Here is a summary of penalties in the NHL, at least from last season. Some of the fun and more unique calls are bolded for easy reference.

  • There were 58 different types of penalties called last season in the NHL.
  • Of all the penalties called, they split into five different groups: misconducts, majors, double minors, minors, and penalty shots.
  • Misconducts are registered as 10 minute penalties and included the following: Abuse of officials, Aggressor, Game Misconduct, Instigator – Misconduct, Match penalty, Misconduct (10 min).
  • Majors are registered as 5 minute penalties and included the following: Boarding (maj), Charging (maj), Cross-checking (maj), Elbowing (maj), Fighting (maj), Interference (maj), Kneeing (maj).
  • Double minors are registered as 4 minute penalties and included the following: Cross-check – double minor, Hi stick – double minor.
  • Minors are registered as 2 minute penalties and included the following: Abuse of officials, Bench, Boarding, Broken stick, Charging, Clipping, Closing hand on puck, Cross-checking, Delay Game, Delay Game – Bench, Delay Game – Bench – FO viol, Delay Game – FO Viol – hand, Delay Game – Goalie – restrict, Delay Game – Puck over glass, Delay Game – Smothering puck, Delay Game – Unsuccessful coach’s challenge, Elbowing, Embellishment, High-sticking, Holding, Holding the stick, Hooking, Illegal check to head, Illegal equipment, Instigator, Interference, Interference – Bench, Interference on goalkeeper, Kneeing, Minor, Playing without a helmet, Roughing, Slashing, Throwing stick, Too many men/ice – bench, Tripping, Unsportsmanlike conduct.
  • Calls that result in penalty shots are registered as 0 minute penalties and included the following: PS-Covering puck in crease, PS-Holding on breakaway, PS-Hooking on breakaway, PS-Slash on breakaway, PS-Throw object at puck, PS-Tripping on breakaway.

Eight different types of delay of game penalties were called last season, and that’s not even the wildest part of the penalties overall. Some calls like a bench minor for interference, a minor for throwing the stick, and a penalty shot called because an object was thrown at the puck are just a few of the more unique calls that happened. There were also 38 instance of a minor penalty being called and the descriptor was simply “minor”. This is what the official boxscores also say, so it’s possible the penalty wasn’t recorded properly by stat trackers in the arena.

Looking solely at minor penalties, since that’s the subset that is most relevant to the new crackdown on cross-checking, this is how the frequency broke down last season.

The most frequent penalty called by far was tripping at 19% of the total calls. Hooking, slashing, holding, interference, roughing, and high-sticking were next, all before cross-checking that finished as the eighth most frequently called penalty. Just under 5% of the total minor penalties called last season were for cross-checking.

There is a long list of penalties that were called just a few times, registering as 0.1% or lower. These include some unique calls like clipping, illegal equipment, and throwing the stick.

Penalties called in the 2021–22 preseason so far

When looking at the rate of penalties called in the preseason so far, we see a very different distribution of calls.

So far, 24 different types of minor penalties have been called in the preseason, with 468 minor penalties in total. The four most frequently called penalties account for 55% of the total minor penalties called.

It’s clear that the NHL is making a point to crack down on cross-checking. Last season, cross-checking minors were the eighth most frequently called penalty, and so far through the preseason it has jumped all the way to a commanding first place. At 15% of the total minors called so far, this represents an increase of almost 300% compared to last season when looking at relative frequency. One cross-checking major penalty was also called this preseason to Ottawa Senators’ forward Ridly Greig.

Defensemen will have to be much more careful around the crease and along the boards this season. They won’t be able to get away with cross-checks like they have in the past, and this preseason is proof that the officials are not hesitating to lay down the law.

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