Hurricanes’ Svechnikov Struggling With NHL Officiating

It hasn’t been a banner year for NHL officiating. Let’s not make any qualms about it. When referees aren’t ratting themselves out for purposefully giving out penalties in a game — and rightfully getting fired for it — making the wrong call and early whistles have been routine fixtures in Carolina Hurricanes hockey games this season.

With officating being a non-perfect science, and therefore subject to human error, I’m usually very lenient with refereeing in general. Sometimes the calls go your way and sometimes they don’t, but it’s usually balanced out over the course of a season. But for budding superstar Andrei Svechnikov, that seemingly hasn’t been the case — like, at all. It’s been so bad that it’s noticeably affecting the player mentally. I don’t know why it’s happening, but it is happening. And it’s time we talk about it.

Frustration Setting In

For anybody that watches Hurricanes hockey regularly, it’s quickly becoming a joke how often the referees seemingly miss what should be a penalty called against Svechnikov. What makes it all the more sickening is that he’s getting penalized for the same things that the opposition is getting away with against him. There’s no consistency to what’s being called, and the tape supports it.

Andrei Svechnikov Carolina Hurricanes
Andrei Svechnikov, Carolina Hurricanes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

First off, let’s get the obvious out of the way: Svechnikov takes a lot of senseless penalties, and that’s a problem that’s plagued him since his arrival into the NHL. He has already racked up an eye-popping 15 minor penalties this season, so I took the liberty of going back and watching some game footage to see how legit all of them were. 

Unfortunately, I can’t link video clips of his penalties (because I had to tediously go through full-game footage), and I didn’t look at all 15 individually, but for the most part, the calls on him are legit. Now, there’s definitely a handful of disputable ones, but there’s questionable penalties called in every hockey game that’s played. So, I think it’s more or less fair to write it off as just bad luck for now, but if the trends continue or referees don’t start giving him the benefit of the doubt at some point, then I think it’d be worth looking into deeper.

Coach Rod Brind’Amour noted this exact issue in a recent Zoom interview, after a Svechnikov penalty cost the Hurricanes the lead against the Dallas Stars last week. Refs had missed called a blatant trip on Svechnikov right beforehand, and, clearly frustrated, he took an ill-advised penalty.

“Generally, bad penalties lead to goals. Just for whatever reason that’s how it works out. [It’s] Frustrating. And [Andrei] was frustrated, too,” Rod said. “He got tripped in the third, behind the net, with the puck and in the o-zone and didn’t get a call. Young kid. It’s just part of it. You don’t always get the calls, but that doesn’t mean that your penalty wasn’t a penalty.”

Andrei Svechnikov, Carolina Hurricanes
Andrei Svechnikov, Carolina Hurricanes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Obviously, Svechnikov’s overall discipline can use a little maturing, as retaliatory penalties have become quite a recurring theme for him. However, you also hope that referees will call things more fairly in his favour, because that just isn’t happening right now, and his game overall is suffering for it. He’s scored just two goals over the Canes’ past 17 games. His teammates have taken notice, and are working to help him out of his slump:

“Obviously, you want to do whatever you can to help your buddy out. Everyone knows how great of a player he is,” Sebastian Aho said. “That’s something that happens. It happens to all of us. I’m not too worried about it, because I know his mentality is working hard. He wants to do it right and stuff like that. He’s still a great player to play with.”

Sebastian Aho on Andrei Svechnikov

Refs Turning a Blind Eye

One thing I noticed while watching the tape of Svechnikov’s penalties this year is that there was usually one of two reasons for it. The first reason being just mental errors, and being a little too jumpy and over-aggressive. You hope that through experience, he’ll clean up that part of his game. He’s passionate and emotional out there, and it’s hard to fault a kid for that. The second reason being visible frustration, which is super easy to understand when you consider why he’s getting frustrated in games.

Plain and simple, refs just seemingly turn a blind eye to the nonsense that Svechnikov deals with out on the ice. The stuff that players get away with against him is incredible. He routinely takes sticks infractions, unnecessary roughness and some downright nasty blindside checks during hockey games and a lot of it goes by unnoticed by the officials. And people are really starting to take notice of it.

Sara Civian, the Hurricanes’ main beat reporter for The Athletic, was absolutely irate at the aforementioned missed call on Svechnikov in Dallas. She unleashed a mini-rant about it on Twitter: 

“Every single game I watch the refs call him on every single little thing, while not calling actual bad penalties against him. This is unacceptable.” she said. Her entire rant can be read in the thread below, and it’s notable that she would go on record like this. Obviously, for very valid reasons.

Just a few games prior to that incident, on March 22, Svechnikov was again victim of a malicious, dangerous cross-check from behind. The puck was nowhere near the incident and neither of the two players were involved in the play at all. It was just a totally reckless and senseless play by the Columbus Blue Jackets player, and it definitely warranted a penalty call (and potentially more) — that never happened. Take a look:

There was also an extremely questionable non-call in their March 9 game against the Nashville Predators. Forward Filip Forsberg caught Svechnikov up high while leading into a hit with his elbow. The hit sent him to the locker room (likely for concussion testing), though nothing resulted from it, and he was ultimately OK. You can watch the video here

There was also the now infamous incident with Zdeno Chara in the NHL playoffs in the Toronto bubble last summer, which divided a ton of the hockey world on the intent. It’s important to note that Svechnikov and Chara had gotten into it during the previous game, which led to a lot of folks in the hockey community claim that the play was a purposeful slew foot. Personally, I thought it was totally accidental from Chara (and I don’t consider him to be a recklessly dirty player like that). But have a look, and you decide:

Ultimately, the play resulted in a high-ankle sprain that sidelined Svechnikov for about two weeks, but the Hurricanes were eliminated from the postseason by the time he recovered. Like I said, I didn’t see malicious intent there, but others did, so I thought it was worth including.

I’ll end the list of evidence here because I could probably write a short-length novel if I were to include all of the missed calls against him. It’s occurring almost by the game at this point, and it’s starting to really influence the overall impact of the player. He’s clearly frustrated and he’s being punished for playing his own style of hockey, which is totally shameful considering his role as a young emerging superstar in the NHL.

So, Why Is This Happening?

Now, we get to the fun part. Speculating. Unfortunately, trying to get to the bottom of the situation or getting any real answers as to why he’s being treated like this is just an impossible task. Officiating, and the league in general, would never admit to an agenda against the player if there was one. So, on the flip side, you’re left to wonder if it’s all just an overreaction from people that have an emotional attachment to Svechnikov and the team, but the tape and the history here clearly dispute that.

So, after dissecting the entire scope of the situation about as well as I can from an outsider’s perspective, I’m left scratching my head and searching for answers that will never be found. So, I decided to ask multiple hockey writers who’ve also watched this situation unfold recently for their own respective thoughts on the whole thing. It mainly all boils down to conspiracy theories (because you’ll never find concrete evidence of collusion against him).

One particular angle of the “why” that I really thought was interesting came from Hurricanes prospects expert and writer Matthew Somma, who alluded to Svechnikov leading a new generation of players:

“It’s easy to think that someone has it out for the Canes, but I don’t think that’s the case. This isn’t happening to anyone else on the Hurricanes,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s the league or the league’s officials that don’t want Svechnikov to succeed, but I have to think that he’s being punished for ‘ruining the game.’ He’s not a conventional star and the lacrosse goal gave him a ton of publicity. This isn’t happening directly as a result of the lacrosse goal, but I do think the more traditional higher ups had an issue with it. And that’s part of the problem. The league is too stuck in its old ways that they can’t see a great thing happening with the Hurricanes. Or they refuse to believe that hockey can succeed here.”

Andrei Svechnikov, Carolina Hurricanes
Andrei Svechnikov, Carolina Hurricanes (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Matt wasn’t done there, though. He then fired off a bunch of different theories, all of which make sense in one way or another.

“Is it the league or is it just the officials? Does someone not want to see another Russian star? Or does someone have it out for the Hurricanes?” he started. “Is it coincidence? Is the league punishing the Hurricanes for having an unconventional owner? Do they feel threatened that hockey is no longer what it once was?”

Matthew Somma, (@CanesProspects)

If there’s any ounce of validity to any of his theories, then it’s an absolute disgrace by the NHL. They’d be sabotaging an upcoming superstar talent who’s doing things that nobody before him in league history has done. It would be such a disservice to the game. But beyond just that, I had a chat with fellow The Hockey Writers contributor Brandon Stanley as well, and he also offered up some of his views.

“Well, unfortunately, I think part of it has to do with the ‘old guard’ way of thinking. It’s a lot like Don Cherry getting cranky about the storm surge. The ‘Canes have this fun, young team and Svech is at the center of that with his lacrosse goals and highlight-reel plays,” he said. “There’s always been some element of ‘he’s not old enough to get that call’ and that’s another part of it. But, I think his confidence is kind of misconstrued as cockiness by some of that ‘old hockey men’ group, and the refs almost make it their job to put him in his place, because he’s flashy, physical, and just a damn good hockey player.”

The Hockey Writers’ @bstanley

I talked to some other writers as well, most of whom are just as stumped as I am. Because let’s make no mistake about it, to accuse the league of collusion again an individual player is a major claim, but with so much evidence pointing toward the possibility of this being real, it leaves me beyond all realms of confusion. Unfortunately, even while the evidence has some real legitimacy to it, a lot of it could be dismissed as coincidence if you’re on the side of defending it.

So, with that, we’re left at a stalemate here. If these events continue, and continue at such an alarmingly high rate of occurrence, it’ll eventually reach a point where it just can’t be disputed. And it’s going to be such a big storyline to follow. Not only is the potential future of the player at stake here, but a portion of the league’s validity is on the line as well. It’s already a bad look in the eye of the regular Hurricanes viewer, and it’s another potential stain on what’s been a dismal year for officiating around the NHL.

In the end, nobody’s perfect. Not the referees, not you, not me, and not Svechnikov. Nobody is expected to be. But as long as things are done fairly — and mostly importantly, done honestly — then there should be nothing more to worry about moving forward. That’s all fans can ask for.