Fraser: Has the NHL changed the rules on penalty shots?

Kerry Fraser
1/11/2012 6:54:49 PM
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Got a question on rule clarification, comments on rule enforcements or some memorable NHL stories? Kerry Fraser wants to answer your emails at cmonref@tsn.ca!

Hi Kerry,

In the last few days, I've seen three very questionable penalty shots being called by the league and am wondering whether you can explain a little bit into why these are suddenly penalty shots. The first was on Saturday in a game between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs. Phil Kessel was on a breakaway when Ian White put his stick onto the hip of Kessel. He didn't slash him nor did it look like his stick was parallel to the ice. Ian White's stick didn't impede Kessel's ability to take the shot at all, yet there was still a penalty shot called.

The second was one was on Sunday night during a game between the Red Wings and Blackhawks. Tomas Holmstrom jumped over Ty Conklin and appeared to close his hand on the puck, but after a closer look, all he did was swipe the puck with his hand away from the goal line back towards Conklin. Yet, the play was still called a penalty shot. It was my understanding that only closing one's hand on the puck results in the penalty shot, while swiping or batting the puck out with the glove is perfectly legal.

The third one was on Tuesday night between the Rangers and Coyotes. Marian Gaborik was on a breakaway and Adrian Aucoin gave Gaborik a little tap to the mid-section. I didn't see this motion to be in any way a slashing penalty or any penalty for that matter. It looked to be a strong defensive play by Aucoin. Yet, a penalty shot was called. Of course, this shot will be remembered for the save by Mike Smith but all the same, I believe that this shot should never have occurred.

According to rule 24.1, Penalty Shot – A penalty shot is designed to restore a scoring opportunity which was lost as a result of a foul being committed by the offending team, based on the parameters set out in these rules.

Now according to this rule, Kessel wasn't denied a reasonable scoring chance by Ian White and therefore the penalty shot should not have been called. Gaborik was denied a reasonable scoring chance but not because of an infraction so really the penalty shot should not have been called either.

According to the rules for what can cause a penalty shot.

(iv) Falling on the puck in the goal crease

(v) Picking up the puck with the hand in the goal crease

Tomas Holmstrom did neither of these things, so no penalty shot should have been called.

Why are these plays suddenly being called penalty shots when the rules state that they shouldn't have been called? Could you clarify these situations?


Taylor Williams from Ottawa, Ontario



Have they changed the rule for what constitutes a penalty shot? My understanding was that a penalty shot would be rewarded if a scoring oppurtunity was taken away. Seems like a lot of weak calls to me!



Before I deal with the specifics of each penalty shot infraction you listed, I need to address the second question asked as to changes in what constitutes a penalty shot. The general philosophy or purpose of the penalty shot has not changed over the years, which is to "restore a scoring opportunity which was lost as a result of a foul committed by the offending team" under specific situations.

That being said however, in a desire to increase scoring and capitalize on the fan excitement associated with a penalty shot, the NHL relaxed the criteria and conditions in the rules a few years ago under which a penalty shot would be assessed.

In doing so, it became obvious to every referee that the league wanted more penalty shots to be assessed. As a result, it is unfair to fault the referees for assessing what might have previously been deemed weak calls. Let me explain the changes and you will perhaps understand why more penalty shots are being assessed as a result.

When I started in 1973 and for many years afterward, the criteria for assessing a penalty shot for a foul from behind must fall into the following guidelines:

i) The player must be over the centre red line;

ii) The player must have been fouled from behind;

iii) The player must have possession and control of the puck;

iv) The player must have no opponent to pass but the goalkeeper;

v) The player must be denied a reasonable scoring opportunity

I now list the liberal and generous changes that currently apply under Penalty Shot-- rule 24.8

i) The infraction must have taken place in the neutral or attacking zone (i.e. over the puck carriers blue line); [this distance adds 25' to the previous standard]

ii) The infraction must have been committed from behind; [same criteria]

iii) The player in possession and control (*or, in the judgment of the referee, clearly would have obtained possession and control of the puck) must have a reasonable chance to score (the fact that he got a shot off does not automatically eliminate this play from the penalty shot consideration criteria. If the foul was from behind and he was denied a "more" reasonable scoring opportunity due to the foul, then the penalty shot should be warranted); 

[This was a major change in philosophy of possession and control of the puck for us referees. What the league was telling us is that a "loose puck" that resulted in a potential foot race with the goalkeeper was really deemed to be in the possession of the attacking player and the standard they wanted applied to increase penalty shots. At this point, we all knew not to get too caught up in the verbiage, "clearly would have obtained possession and control of the puck." Historically there was reluctance by referees to call a penalty shot and when necessary a minor penalty was assessed. In 198,2 I was the first referee in history to call two penalty shots in the same game against the same team (called against home team-Detroit vs Vancouver). Up to that point the only other referee to call two penalty shots in one game (one to each team) was former NHL referee and league president, Clarence Campbell.]

iv) The player in possession and control (or, in the judgment of the referee, clearly would have obtained possession and control of the puck) must have had no opposing player between himself and the goalkeeper.
If the referees are expected to apply this liberal possession and control standard when an attacking player doesn't have the puck, in addition to the fact that a player getting a shot off does not necessarily negate the expectation that a penalty shot will be called, you might understand why a seemingly softer standard on fouls from behind might be implemented.

Let's get away from the expectation and philosophy that more (not less) penalty shots are to be called and deal with the specific calls that you questioned, Taylor.

1) On the Phil Kessel breakaway, Ian White reached from a deficient position well behind Kessel and used his stick in a fork-hook attempt to spring the puck off the attacker's stick. In doing so, the bottom hand of Kessel was contacted and altered his final move just prior to the shot. Phil Kessel was denied a more reasonable scoring opportunity due to the contact/foul by Ian White.

2) Tomas Holmstrom is allowed to "sweep" the puck within the goal crease, so long as he uses an open palm in a "hand pass" motion (picture turning your hand on its side with baby finger to wrist contacting the ice and sweep without turning your hand down and over the puck.) At the instant the puck is covered with the hand or body within the goal crease, a penalty shot must be assessed.

As Holmstrom dove over Conklin, his first order of business was to prevent the puck travelling with forward motion from sliding over the goal line. In order to do this, he exposed the back of his hand to the referee and covered the puck in the process, which gave the appearance of a cover and drag motion even in the replay. This action constitutes a penalty shot.

3) As Marian Gaborik drove to the net in overtime, all elements of the penalty shot rule were set in place, save for the final "foul from behind" criteria to be fulfilled. The referee was on the opposite side to where Aucoin struck Gaborik. Even the replay did not have an angle open to exactly where contact was made.

Even in the absence of this clear evidence, the fact is that Aucoin made a short, hard slash in desperation and with his stick in a parallel position to the waist/midsection of Gaborik, which caused the NY Ranger player to lose possession of the puck. Since Gaborik was in the act of shooting, all other penalty shot criteria was fulfilled. There isn't a referee in the NHL (present company included) that would not award a penalty shot in this situation.

The only way that Adrian Aucoin's stick action would have been deemed a legal stick check is if he had checked in a downward fashion and contacted Gaborik's stick below his bottom hand on the shaft or blade.

When a stick check is attempted and contact is made either between the hands or on the hands of an opponent, a penalty will result. (This supports the "stick parallel to the ice philosophy you often hear about.) No differently in this case, the proximity of contact that Aucoin administered in the hand area forced loss of puck possession and a scoring opportunity was restored with a penalty shot.

I deem it not only to be the correct call but a courageous call in overtime.

If there is a lesson to Taylor's question it is that the expectation and emphasis should be that penalty shots will be assessed with much more frequency than ever before. The standard has clearly changed.

Join in the excitement these calls bring to the game and the courage with which the referees make them.      

Phil Kessel (Photo: Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)


(Photo: Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)
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