It’s safe to say the NHL Coach’s Challenge has been a very positive development for the league this season.
In most instances it has worked exactly the way the hockey architects intended when introducing the new replay wrinkle prior to this season. Scoring plays involving potential offside or goalie interference plays are being called correctly in many cases, and have undoubtedly removed many of the shades of gray from what’s never been a foolproof scenario.
A TSN poll of 27 of the 30 NHL coaches found 21 bench bosses still in favor of the coach’s challenge, but there are still some kinks to be ironed out. The goals, both good and disallowed, involving goalie interference have been a polarizing and frustrating issue, in particular.
There’s a reason the 30 NHL coaches were shown examples of goalie interference at last summer’s NHL Draft in Fort Lauderdale, and couldn’t come to any common ground on what should, or shouldn’t, count as good goals. So it was expected headed into this season that the interpretation for goalie interference was still going to leave a healthy level of discontent among the coaches, players, GMs, referees and everybody else involved.
Claude Julien is still chafing even now about a play ruled “no goal” in the second game of the season against the Montreal Canadiens where Patrice Bergeron was found to have interfered with Carey Price even though he A) was pushed into the goaltender and B) made every effort to – and largely did – avoid contact with the Montreal goalie that would have negatively impacted his ability to make the save. That early season instance served as a harbinger of just how murky the decision-making on goalie interference calls can be, and that was an issue fully expected by the NHL when they agreed to adopt the coach’s challenge.
What the NHL couldn’t have expected were the issues with the challenges on offside plays, and the frequency which they are happening on a nightly basis. There have been close to 60 challenges on whether a goal-scoring play was offside through the first four months of the season, and roughly 40 percent of them have been overturned.
The league’s legislators also didn’t anticipate some of the long in-game delays as referees view instant replay after instant replay on dinky little 8-inch computer tablets handed to them at the scorer’s table between the penalty boxes.
The Bruins had issues with each of those things in the last few weeks leading up to the NHL All-Star break. The Bruins defeated the Leafs by a 3-2 score on Jan. 16, but had a Brad Marchand goal nullified in the third period by a coach’s challenge when the goal-scorer was found to be offside. Marchand came back to score a last minute goal to win that game, but the lengthy delay as referees reviewed the video on those tiny tablet computers was something to overcome in and of itself.
“It’s a little bit like a timeout, and it’s the same thing for both sides. I mean it is. I know there’s some talk about that, and that it’s delaying the game quite a bit. But I think you have to balance the fact that, do we do that and get it right, or do we worry about the flow of the game, and get it wrong?” said Claude Julien. “The goal is to get it right, and maybe as we move along here…this is the first year, we may have better cameras, or situated better places that are going to make those decisions made a little quicker. Who knows? But there’s definitely some room to grow there. At the same time, I support the fact that you want to get it right. Even if our goal was called back, it was the right call.”
Some of the Bruins players were a little even-handed when it came to their opinions about the delay in that postgame dressing room.
“Yeah, I mean it’s definitely a long [delay]. At the same time, you want to make the right call. They’re looking at an iPad, so they kind of have to I guess look at a few angles,” said Patrice Bergeron. “It’s great when it goes your way and it’s not so much when they take it back. They’re trying to make the right call, and I guess you have to respect that.”
Just nine days later the Bruins were again on the short end of the stick with the coach’s challenge. This time Julien and the Bruins coaching staff were the ones challenging a late third period Flyers goal from Wayne Simmonds that tied the game. Replays showed that Michael Del Zotto was offside with his back skate raised and off the blue line before the puck crossed it into the offensive zone, and well before Simmonds banged a rebound goal for a game-tying score.
The Flyers won that game, but it certainly appeared that the on-ice officials didn’t get a good, comprehensive look on the tiny screens that perhaps didn’t pick up on the defenseman’s feet lifting off the blue line. Julien was hot on the bench after his challenge wasn’t supported by the officials, and it really opened the door for the Bruins coach to question some of the process.
“I felt the foot was up in the air, and on the bigger screen, it looks that way. I don’t know what they look at, that little iPad… that’s probably a lot harder to see than it is for us,” said Julien to reporters in Philly during his postgame comments. “Hopefully we can rectify those kinds of things because you want to have the right call and I’m not sure it was. I think from a bigger screen, it looked a little bit more obvious.”
The NHL has heard some of these complaints, and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman alluded to potential tweaks to the current coach’s challenge system in place during his State of the NHL address with the media during All-Star weekend in Nashville. Those are believed to be the addition of overhead cameras at each blue line that will definitively determine whether a player is offside or not on goal-scoring plays.
“I’ve heard some people say, ‘Well, if you’re only offside by a couple of inches.’ Well, that’s what the rule says. That’s more black and white,” said Gary Bettman, when asked about the coach’s challenge on offside plays during All-Star weekend. “How we deal with that is something we’ll continue to look at.”
One other change that many around the league would like to see: a move to empower NHL hockey ops in the Situation Room in Toronto in the coach’s challenge process. Rather than relying on a couple of referees studying small-ish iPads in a noisy, adrenaline-filled atmosphere, it would make sense to involve hockey ops in Toronto with their situation room equipment designed for reviewing these kinds of plays.
Many around the NHL would like to see hockey ops in Toronto make the final call on the coach’s challenge, but it would be helpful simply involving them to intervene on obvious plays like the offside leading to an important, potentially game-changing Simmonds goal in Philly. It’s unclear whether that’s the direction the NHL is leaning toward when it comes to the coach’s challenge, or even if changes will be coming down at all.
But if changes, like new cameras and giving NHL hockey ops final say, will help the league get the calls right then they should be adopted as soon as possible.
* The NHL has a tough decision on its hands with Dennis Wideman, and that cross check from behind on linesman Don Henderson that sent him to the hospital later that evening. Colin Campbell will be in charge of the decision, and is walking a tightrope. If the NHL comes in with a suspension of less than 10 games the feeling here is that many NHL referees will be upset that the league didn’t do enough to protect them. But there’s also the other side where Wideman has never acted out like this in his lengthy NHL career, appeared to take a shot to the head on a hit just before the incident and said he was simply trying to get off the ice.
For all those reasons, a lengthy suspension of 20 games all the way up to the rest of this season would seem a bit too hefty for a first time offender like Wideman. The bottom line: it’s hard to believe Wideman was simply “trying to get out of the way” when he didn’t immediately reach for Henderson after extending his arms for the dangerous cross-check. Instead he went to the bench and looked agitated after getting clocked in the corner without any kind of penalty call, and it certainly looked like there was some anger while finishing off the cross-check on Henderson.
Wideman might have thought Henderson was a Predators opponent rather than a linesman, but the onus is on him to make certain before he lowers the boom from behind on a completely vulnerable on-ice official.
Anything less than a 10-game suspension for Wideman would be a joke, and even worse a statement by the NHL that they don’t have the collective backs of their referees.
* Frank Vatrano has been back in the AHL for four games, and has posted six goals and 10 points in those four games for the Providence Bruins. Vatrano skated with Seth Griffith and David Pastrnak in Friday night’s blowout win over the Springfield Falcons, and finished with three goals and five points in another dominant AHL performance this season. Between stints in the NHL in Boston, Vatrano has 16 goals and 22 points in 14 games for Providence and is showing exactly why the Bruins can afford to deal away at least one winger prior to the trade deadline. He should be learning on the job and scoring goals as a top-6 left wing for the Boston Bruins, and not being wasted in a third line role with an offensively challenged center like Joonas Kemppainen, or getting stuck at an AHL level that clearly isn’t providing much of a challenge for the 21-year-old.
* Good for John Scott getting his moment with his daughters and pregnant wife, and the NHL All-Stars showed a lot of typically good hockey player qualities in rallying around the AHL enforcer/NHL All-Star game captain. The NHL botched the entire situation badly, and needs to tighten up the All-Star selection process to make certain that nothing like this happens again after watching the John Scott Fan Club, and the nation of Latvia, completely take over the online All-Star voting in the last two seasons.
Remember, keep shooting the puck at the net and good things are bound to happen.