Flames head coach Darryl Sutter, asked after the game about the penalty troubles his team faced in their 5-4 overtime loss to the Maple Leafs on Saturday night, implied that there is a long tradition of the Maple Leafs receiving favourable officiating in their own barn.
“That’s one thing I learned a long time ago — when you’re in Chicago all those years and you come into Toronto, you know what goes on. I won’t say nothing more.” -Darryl Sutter #Flames fans… after taking 7 penalties against the Leafs, do you agree with the coach? 🤔 pic.twitter.com/EFWr007HVK
— Tim and Friends (@timandfriends) December 11, 2022
It goes without saying that there isn’t a fan base (or coach, probably) in the world who would say they feel the treatment of their team by the officials is fair and just. But if the objective part of your brain is telling you, “The idea of the Leafs often getting calls to go their way runs contrary to the numbers,” you’d be completely right.
However inaccurate or accurate Sutter’s impression of the officiating bias in Toronto from back in his playing days in the 1980s or his early coaching career with the Blackhawks in the ‘90s, the suggestion certainly doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny in today’s game.
We’ll start here: The Leafs’ 832 penalties drawn on home ice since the start of the Auston Matthews era are the fourth-fewest of any team in the league on a per-60 basis.
In terms of power-play time per home game, the Leafs are 31st of 32 since 2016-17 at 4:38 per night. A small part of that is due to a consistently strong power play (i.e. it pretty often scores before the two minutes are up), but in terms of power-play opportunities at home, they rank 26th per home game since 2016-17.
This comes despite the Leafs consistently ranking as a top-10 possession team over those seasons.
In fact, over the last three years, the Leafs are the sixth-best team in the NHL by shot attempt percentage on home ice. The five teams above them in shot-attempt percentage at home since 2020-21: Carolina, Calgary, Colorado, Florida, and Boston. All five are inside the top 11 in the league in power-play opportunities per game on home ice, while the Leafs are down at 21st over this period (and 30th in the NHL in penalties drawn per 60).
The other half of the story is that the Leafs don’t take very many penalties, either. We could dive into a discussion about the possible connections to their style of play — which is generally higher skill and less rough-and-tumble, if we judged it by something as simple as possession numbers and total hits. But the reality is that their net penalties are bang-on the league median at +65 on home ice (16th in the NHL) over the past three seasons, one better than Calgary’s +64 on home ice.
If we isolate Sutter’s visits to Toronto since he re-entered the league as coach of Los Angeles in 2011-12, Sutter’s Kings teams received 14 power plays to the Leafs’ 12 over their meetings between the years 2011 and 2017.
Since Sutter took over the Flames bench, tonight’s game (six power plays for the Leafs, two for Calgary) tilts the tally to 18-12 in favour of Toronto, but let’s look at Saturday’s game. Three of the six Leaf power plays came from automatic calls on high-sticking penalties. When a stick makes contact with an opponent’s face in any circumstance except for a follow-through from a shot, it is about as black-and-white of a call as there is in the league. Another was a blatant trip, and one was a clear hold impeding a breakaway opportunity. The cross-check call on Mikael Backlund could be debated, definitely, but so could Mark Giordano’s hook or the Michael Bunting roughing call that half-negated the four-minute double minor for one of the Calgary high sticks.
Of course, Darryl Sutter doesn’t know these numbers nor does he care to know them. For any Leafs fan that heard his post-game complaint on Saturday, though, the reaction would almost certainly sound something like, “If only that were true!”