NHL's new rule has turned coach's challenge into blackjack

NHL's new rule has turned coach's challenge into blackjack

VOORHEES, N.J. — The NHL's new challenge rule has now evolved into a play-the-odds gamble of high stakes hockey. 

What was once an effort two years ago by the NHL to maintain some league-wide integrity through the utilization of video replay to correct potentially incorrect calls has now extended well beyond that.

There's no longer just a benefit without the risk option, but rather, a risky proposition with the slight potential of a benefit.

It was only a matter of time before a coach would be burned by an incorrect challenge. Who knew it would be at the expense of the Flyers within the first seven days of their season? 

When asked during the preseason about the NHL's new rule, 78.7(b), where a minor penalty would be assessed for an unsuccessful challenge, Flyers coach Dave Hakstol agreed the league was discouraging coaches from utilizing the challenge option.

"The coach's challenge was really intended to focus on glaring errors," commissioner Gary Bettman said this summer.

So errors that aren't so glaring shouldn't be given the same consideration? A mistake is a mistake whether it's by an inch, a foot or a yard, and as the numbers suggest, they happen with regularity. Of the 117 offsides scoring plays that were challenged a year ago, only 39 were overturned — exactly 33 percent. That's more than enough to question human judgment.  

And that's just the number of offsides plays that were reviewed. Unquestionably, there were some scoring plays where a coach didn't have a challenge left, or the game was so out of reach that the goal in question wasn't worth the review.

When asked about the percentages and probabilities of the outcome, Hakstol said Thursday, "It has to weigh into your decision, especially the probabilities of the calls that are reversed in terms of the offsides challenge, so that has to come into it. That's something I'm very aware of coming into this season."

Armed with that knowledge, the odds were already stacked against Hakstol, who at one point last season lost his first seven challenges, whether it was for an offsides call or a goaltender interference.

The information Hakstol should have been absorbing at that moment of the game is now much more than just the video evidence (or lack thereof) of the questioned offsides play of Scott Hartnell's goal in the Flyers' 6-5 loss Tuesday in Nashville. Let's review:

Win the challenge — Flyers lead 5-4, finish killing off the remaining 36 seconds of a 5-on-3 power play with the ensuing face-off just outside the blueline with Nashville pulling Rinne for a 6-on-3.

Lose the challenge — Game is tied 5-5, kill off 36 seconds of a 5-on-3, and then kill 5-on-4 for the remaining 31 seconds of regulation, and then a 4-on-3 power play for 43 seconds into overtime.

Don't challenge — Game is tied 5-5, forced to kill off remaining 36 seconds of a 5-on-4 power play with the face-off at center ice.

If the coach is 100 percent certain the play would be reversed, the right answer is choice No. 1. Without that certainty, choice No. 3 is the obvious selection. It's a lot to comprehend in a short amount of time when coaches have roughly 30 seconds to make a decision whether or not to call for a review.

And then there are other factors and variables that could also be taken into consideration, such as home/away ice, momentum swing of the game, which players are in the box and whether the team's best penalty killers are available.

If you don't think professional coaches at every level and in every sport experience information overload at moments of split-second decision-making, then why would the NFL's coaching brethren have charts to determine the basic mathematical criteria on whether or not they should attempt a two-point conversion?

How many times did Eagles fans pull their hair out in frustration watching Andy Reid botch a two-minute offense with incoherent time management skills?

Hakstol spent a good 15 minutes following the media scrum in the Flyers' locker room explaining his thought process behind a decision of this magnitude that directly affected the outcome of a game. A decision that seemed obvious to outsiders: Don't challenge the play and bank on making it to overtime, where the Flyers would earn a point and possibly two.

However, rule 78.7(b) goes well beyond that.

Not only did the NHL bring the game of hockey to Vegas this season, it also adopted its blackjack mentality.

Flyers' focus shifts toward another busy NHL draft

USA Today Images

Flyers' focus shifts toward another busy NHL draft

With the Flyers' elimination from the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the team's third-round pick in the 2018 NHL draft was officially transferred over to the Red Wings.

What was originally a fourth-round selection in the acquisition of goaltender Petr Mrazek was upgraded to a third-rounder once Mrazek won five regular-season games and the Flyers qualified for the postseason.

The Flyers could potentially still owe the Red Wings a third-round pick in the 2019 NHL draft if Mrazek is re-signed. However, that seems unlikely with Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth already under contract for next season and Mrazek’s poor play over the final five weeks of the regular season.

In all likelihood, the Flyers will have the 19th overall pick in the June draft, which is scheduled for June 22-23 at American Airlines Center in Dallas. If the Blue Jackets are eliminated before the Eastern Conference Finals, then they will select 18th with the Flyers slotted in at the 19th selection.

Once again, Flyers general manager Ron Hextall will be watching intently during Saturday’s NHL draft lottery, where the Flyers could also acquire the St. Louis Blues' first-round selection.

The Flyers have a 95 percent chance of obtaining the Blues' first pick as compensation in the Brayden Schenn trade that was completed at last year’s draft in Chicago. 

The Blues' pick is top-10 protected, but they have only a five percent chance of moving into the top three — 1.5 percent for No. 1 overall, 1.7 for No. 2, 1.8 for No. 3, 91.8 for No. 14 and 3.2 for No. 15. So, either the Blues draft in the top three, they remain at 14 or fall back to 15.

However, as Hextall discovered just a year ago, anything is possible.

Last year, the Flyers made the monumental leap from the 13th-worst record in the league to obtaining the second overall pick — a lottery move that had just a 2.4 percent chance of falling in their favor. With that selection, the Flyers chose Nolan Patrick.

Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin is the consensus No. 1 pick in this year’s draft and a future cornerstone blueliner. 

The NHL draft lottery is held in Toronto.

Now the pressure really picks up for Dave Hakstol, Flyers

Now the pressure really picks up for Dave Hakstol, Flyers

Dave Hakstol lifted his arm effortlessly with his hand steadily inclining toward the ceiling, almost portraying the takeoff of an airplane.

He was discussing the timeline for young hockey players, which his Flyers have a lot of and will gain only more as the blocks are stacked one by one.

And as the head coach digested a topsy-turvy, season-ending loss, his demonstration depicted what he knew wasn't the case.

"You always want development to be this smooth path and this smooth climb; it doesn't work that way," Hakstol said. "It's kind of a jagged climb, and as long as you're seeing a steady push to improve, then you stick with it and keep pushing in that direction."

The Flyers have been allowed to hit those jagged edges on their climb, like Sunday's 8-5 Game 6 defeat to the Penguins (see story). It was the final swing (and miss) in a best-of-seven first-round playoff matchup with the two-time defending champs, another cut along the grand hike for the Flyers.

But with it came a signal.

This is no longer the bottom of the mountain. The trek has been underway for three seasons and the long view should, expectedly, be coming into focus. In 2018-19, Hakstol will enter the fourth year of a five-year contract, according to The Flyers' core, looking at its peak, will be a year older, as will the foundation pieces, already here and being counted on to drive things forward. 

The Flyers played four rookies in the playoffs, while five of their top eight regular-season goal scorers were 25 years old or younger. 

"For the most part, I liked the growth of our young guys," Hakstol said. "I think they had an opportunity to really see some tough points during the year and figure out how to be a part of battling out of them. They had the opportunity to play through and be part of a playoff push that other teams weren't going away, and we knew that with eight to 10 games to go, we knew that we would have to win our way in. So they had the opportunity to be a part of that and gain that experience of understanding and knowing how hard that is. And they were successful in that."

It resulted in 42 wins and 98 points during the regular season, both highs under Hakstol, surpassing the 41 and 96 set in Year 1. It also led to another first-round exit, the second under Hakstol against a topflight opponent. In those series, the Flyers went 1-5 at home, where they were outscored 26-9.

Harsh yet clear reminders the Flyers aren't where they want to be.

The Penguins, no duh, are. 

"We're working to build toward something like that," Wayne Simmonds said. "I thought we took a step in the right direction this year."

Claude Giroux, the 102-point, 30-year-old captain, sees it, too.

"I know for a fact that we got better as the season went on," Giroux said. "Look at our team last year and look at our team this year. We improved a lot."

While patience is always of the essence with general manager Ron Hextall, Year 4 will demand much more, unlike seasons past. This is Hakstol's team — the blocks are in place, both old and now not so new.

"There's going to be a lot of good and a lot of things that we'll say, 'Hey, these are good steps for our team,'" Hakstol said of this season. "End of the day, we didn't come into this playoff series to make steps, though."

That undoubtedly won't be the objective in 2018-19. It can't be, and the Flyers should know it.