Why Bruce Cassidy's Rant Against NHL Officiating in the Playoffs Has Merit

Abbey MastraccoContributor IIJune 9, 2021

Boston Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy stands behind his bench during an NHL hockey game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Pittsburgh, Tuesday, April 27, 2021. The Bruins won 3-1.(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

If it seems like we can't get through an NHL postseason without a coach blasting the officiating, it's because we can't. 

The Stanley Cup Playoffs are one of the most exciting postseason events in sports. The speed, the skill, the big hits, the energy and the intensity make for an absolutely electric atmosphere. Many of the game's best players are on display. 

And they're being overshadowed by the guys in stripes. 

Following a loss to the New York Islanders in Game 5 of their East Division Championship series Monday night, Boston Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy excoriated the officiating. Tuesday afternoon, the NHL fined him $25,000 for his criticism. 

"This is my take on it: We're playing a team that has a very well-respected management and coaching staff. They won a Stanley Cup (with the Washington Capitals). But I think they sell a narrative over there that it's more like the New York Saints, not the New York Islanders," Cassidy said following Boston's 5-4 loss at TD Garden. The Islanders took a 3-2 series lead. "They play hard and they play the right way, but I feel we're the same way. And the exact calls that get called on us do not get called on them, and I don't know why."

Winslow Townson/Associated Press

Cassidy specifically called out some missed high-sticking calls. Chris Wagner was whistled for a high stick, one of four Bruins' penalties. The Islanders took two. But more importantly, they scored on three of four power play opportunities, which was the difference in the game. 

"You've got continuous high sticks every game, the exact same high sticks," Cassidy said. "Maybe we need to sell them more, flop, but that's not us. You just hope they'd see them."

There is a lot to unpack here.

First of all, the "New York Saints" comment was interesting for a few years. Some thought Cassidy inferred that the Islanders were getting a New York City advantage. That notion doesn't really hold up. The Islanders play in Uniondale, on Long Island, with their failed stint in Brooklyn at the Barclay's Center well behind them. Yes, Long Island is in the New York media market, but the fanbase is considerably smaller, so this isn't a team that's getting big-city favoritism. 

Denis P. Gorman @DenisGorman

C’mon Sean! It’s OBVIOUS that the NHL would the big market of Uniondale, Long Island in the Final Four instead of the small backwater that is Boston, Massachusetts. https://t.co/Mcv3RfplhQ

If Cassidy is saying they're being favored for being a disciplined team, then that's another issue, because the Bruins have taken 15 penalties in the series and the Islanders only 11, but this fits the same trend of the regular season. The Islanders wracked up 370 penalty minutes in the regular season, which was the third-least in the league. Boston's 533 regular-season penalty minutes were the fifth-most. Clearly, the Islanders are a disciplined team. 

However, Cassidy isn't wrong to say the officiating was lopsided. 

The calls ranged from ticky-tack to downright unfair. You could make the argument that Sean Kuraly's slash while trying to defend Noah Dobson was a little soft. Matt Grzelcyk shoved Leo Komarov with a somewhat routine stick to the back and sat for a crosscheck. It's the type of thing that happens tons of times each game, but somehow Grzelcyk was penalized for it.

Conor Ryan @ConorRyan_93

Another look at the slashing call against Sean Kuraly: https://t.co/a88Hjlm8VZ

But the officiating has been bad in other games this spring, and it feels like it's the third-straight year we've been talking about how the officiating changed the outcome on the ice. Maybe it's the fourth, or even the fifth. It's tough to keep track right now. 

Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers didn't draw a single penalty in the Edmonton Oilers' four-game series against the Winnipeg Jets. He's the best player in the game, so of course his defenders are going to hacking and whacking at him. He was held to just four points. You don't hold a world-class center like McDavid to only a handful of points without bodying up and taking some defensive liberties. 

Jason Halstead/Getty Images

Rachel Doerrie, a former New Jersey Devils staffer and Ontario Hockey League scout, helped The Athletic track some of the officiating. After rewatching every one of McDavid's shifts she found 30 missed calls. 

Also in the first round, Tampa Bay Lighting coach Jon Cooper was justifiably angry after star winger Nikita Kucherov was the recipient of a dangerous slash to the back of the knee off the puck by Florida Panthers forward Anthony Duclair. It was an egregious non-call, made all the more confusing by the fact that Kucherov himself had received a penalty for being shoved into goalie Sergei Bobrovsky earlier in this series. 

Another first-round comment this year from St. Louis Blues coach Craig Berube: "It's terrible. It's so one-sided, it's not even funny."

Coaches are so fed up they're willing to speak pretty freely about it, and management seems happy to pay the price. Last year, Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind'Amour ripped the refs in the bubble series against the Bruins, calling the league a "joke." He was fined $25,000 and the team Tweeted out an image of the check signed by owner Tom Dundon. 

Carolina Hurricanes @Canes

In Rod We Trust. https://t.co/5qm4NPCEP9

And going back two years ago in 2019, Berube and Cassidy expressed their displeasure of the officiating of the Stanley Cup Final. 

The Final round. The championship round was in danger of being determined not by the play on the ice, but by the referees. Minor changes to officiating and replay review were made after that series, but clearly it wasn't enough because now the issue has hit a fever pitch. 

This problem has been discussed ad nauseam: The game has sped up on the officials, and they quite literally cannot get out of the way and can't see everything. They are doing the best they can, but changes need to be made in order to put them in positions to succeed. 

There is a mandate from the league to manage the game instead of officiating by the book. As a result, it's open season on the stars of the game. No one buys tickets to see Fourth-Line Johnny take out Sidney Crosby with a vicious hit. They go to see Crosby score on the power play. 

It's a stain on the game that the league would rather not have pointed out. It's why coaches have been continually fined for critical comments. It's embarrassing. And the fines seem to have the opposite of the intended effect by drawing more attention to the problem instead of encouraging coaches to shut up. 

Cassidy's rant has merit. So did Cooper's, Berube's and Brind'Amour's last season. Nothing can be fixed until the NHL admits to having a problem, but until they do finally recognize it, the game remains a little less safe and a lot more unfair. 


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