Toronto Maple Leafs: The Auston Matthews Penalty Anomaly Explained

Auston Matthews #34 of the Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Auston Matthews #34 of the Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /

Auston Matthews, the Toronto Maple Leafs leading scorer, somehow doesn’t draw penalties. Finally, this anomaly is explained.

Toronto Maple Leafs fans can’t always agree on things. It’s almost impossible to find something they all want in unison other than winning the Stanley Cup. For the first time, there is a cause that has Leafs nation united; Auston Matthews deserves to draw more penalties.

It may shock those who don’t pay close attention to an individual statistic like who is drawing penalties, but Matthews gets very few calls. On-ice officials do not give the center the respect he deserves. The reasons are clear.

According to Natural Stat Trick, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Conor Garland, and Joel Eriksson Ek lead the league in penalties drawn with 21 this season. Superstar Connor McDavid and Maple Leafs forward, Michael Bunting, follow with 20. What place is Matthews in the league? Based on his skill set, the significant time he spends with the puck on his stick, and how dangerous he is to opponents on the score sheet, one may suppose that Matthews isn’t far behind McDavid and his left-winger.

They would be wrong.

There are 441 skaters in the NHL who have drawn more penalties than Matthews. Referees have only given him the benefit of a call three times all season. If that still hasn’t resonated, consider that there are also three goaltenders with more drawn penalties, including Tristan Jarry who has double Matthews’ total.

Some Toronto Maple Leafs fans believe that NHL referees hate the Buds. The truth is, members of every franchise’s fanbase has shared this sentiment. The league does not have ill will against Toronto or any club that outwardly influences the way they call a game. Each NHL contest is closely scrutinized by officiating supervisors. If there was a continued trend of missed calls against only the Toronto Maple Leafs, it would be addressed by the league. That does not mean that referees enforce all the rules or that they don’t make mistakes. NHL officials are far from perfect but they do their best to manage each game fairly. They are not purposefully choosing to allow Matthews to be accosted.

The Lack of Calls: Explained

Matthews is clearly held and hooked to slow him down with some regularity. There is a reason he doesn’t get the same calls as others in the league.

Hockey Canada trains their officials in development to look at the location of the sticks whenever they touch an opponent. If the stick is placed parallel to the ice and remains on the body, Hockey Canada considers it to be in the “danger zone”.  The danger zone doesn’t mean a penalty should be assessed, only that the referee should be in a heightened state in preparation to call one. Should the stick impede the progress of the player, it then constitutes blowing down the play to penalize the act.

The issue here is that due to Matthews’ strength, he often plays through being hooked without the appearance of his pace slowing. With officials trying to manage the game, they may be less inclined to assess a minor penalty when there was little impact to the play. There’s no doubt that referees see Matthews being hooked and held but they are likely waiting for more egregious acts to blow their whistles. Like it or not, if every possible penalty was assessed, games would be far longer with more stoppages and less flow. Many would be unwatchable.

The same situation exists in Washington with Alexander Ovechkin. This year, he has only drawn four penalties. However, considering how strong he is with the puck, along with the explained referee mentality, it makes sense that he too isn’t getting the desired whistles.

“Dirty Players” Receiving Favorable Calls: Explained

It is a misnomer to suggest that the dirtier players in NHL get more favorable calls. That is true even if they are drawing more penalties. This is because these skaters are also often aggregators. They will do things to get under their opponents skin.

Let’s take Dubois as an example. He has been penalized 19 times this season (all minor penalties) in contrast to his 21 drawn penalties.  Since he plays on the edge of what is and isn’t allowed within the rules, it will also force his opponents to adjust their own style of play. Players will act out of character around someone like Dubois.

Additionally, these dirty players will also draw retaliatory penalties. Coaches hate this because it’s a selfish act but players can’t always control their emotions. Instead of making a hockey play, an angry player may take liberties in trying to punish the person who angered them. The dirty players do this intentionally so that they draw penalties. It is not the style Matthews brings to the rink but it is the kind that Jacob Trouba or Brady Tkachuk do, and it works for them.

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It may be frustrating to watch Matthews play with opponents hanging off him but at least now it’s clear why the referees are letting it happen.  That doesn’t make it right, but that’s how it is.