Like all coaches, Mike Sullivan recognizes the good intentions behind the coach’s challenge.
“I do understand the attempt, on the league’s part, to try and get the call right,” said the Pittsburgh coach. “From that standpoint, it makes a lot of sense.”
But what happens when the challenge still gets it wrong?
The process, which has been flawed all season, crumbled in the Bruins’ 6-4 loss to Columbus last Monday. In the first period, Loui Eriksson’s right skate made contact with the left pad of Blue Jackets goalie Joonas Korpisalo. The goalie lost his footing and briefly lurched forward. At the same time, Torey Krug’s shot from the point deflected off Eriksson and into the net.
Columbus coach John Tortorella was right to challenge the goal. According to Rule 69.1, by making contact, Eriksson, as an attacking player, had impaired Korpisalo’s ability to move freely within his crease or defend his goal. It was a slam-dunk, black-and-white, zero-doubt call.
But after reviewing the play on their cute little tablet, referees Chris Rooney and Eric Furlatt upheld the original call of a good goal. Tortorella’s timeout was gone. So was his patience.
“Just get rid of the coach’s challenge. Just get rid of it,” Tortorella said. “The whole being of the coach’s challenge is to get it right. If we can’t get it right on that call, then get rid of the coach’s challenge, because all I did was waste a timeout.
“That is a no-brainer call. So if they vote again for it, no coach’s challenge as far as this organization is concerned.”
Later in the game, Bruins coach Claude Julien challenged Brandon Saad’s goal. Boston goalie Jonas Gustavsson argued that it shouldn’t count because Scott Hartnell had accidentally shot Dennis Seidenberg’s stick on net, disrupting the goalie’s rhythm.
Julien’s challenge was in the why-not category. Because the league has not established standards or consistency, Julien figured it was worth losing his timeout for the possibility of the goal being scrubbed. His challenge did not succeed.
While not all coaches want the challenge to go away, they are searching for consistency and perhaps an alternative to the referees overruling their original calls. As Tortorella and Julien have said, the challenge is like a box of chocolates. Because there is no standard for what is goaltender interference and what isn’t, coaches have no idea what they’re going to get when they ask the referees to go to the video.
One referee might interpret a brush of a goalie as interference. Another might require a knockdown play to scrub a goal off the books. Nothing resembling a baseline for the call currently exists. It’s become a coin flip.
That’s a horrible way to operate, especially when a timeout, 2 points, and playoff positions are at stake. A timeout is an important tool for a coach. A breather following an icing in a one-goal situation can be the difference between a win and a loss. A power-play coach loves to have 30 seconds to draw up a six-on-five play during a late-game timeout.
It will become even worse in the playoffs. Coaches will be sure to use their challenges, especially late in games, on any goal that is close to questionable. It would be one thing for a team to lose on a bang-bang play. Hockey is the fastest game going. It’s impossible to call every play correctly.
But it would be a disgrace if the referees get the challenge wrong and a team’s season ends early.
One fix would be to allow the war room in Toronto to take over the review process from the referees. The league officials work in an isolated environment, not a hostile rink full of second-guessers. They have multiple large screens instead of a tablet that requires a magnifying glass to view. They are neutral observers, not referees invested in their original calls.
“If it’s one of those things where we feel it’s inconsistent from referee to referee, then maybe we take it out of their hands and the pressure off them as well,” Julien said. “They’re having to tell everybody, ‘I was wrong,’ or, ‘I missed it.’ For some, it might not be a big deal. For others, it’s a bigger one.”
The problem, among other issues, with the heads-or-tails status quo is the effect on game flow.
In the Bruins’ 7-3 win over Dallas Feb. 20, four goals went to video review. The game took two hours and 58 minutes to complete. Any energy in the rink went goodbye when the referees put on their headsets and huddled over the tablet.
The NHL is in no position to have TV viewers reach for their remotes during reviews that can take three minutes.
And the league can do away with the nonsense offside challenge. The goals that have come back had nothing to do with a player being one-quarter of a stride offside. This ticky-tack challenge goes against the spirit of the rule.
The coach’s challenge is in its first season. To its credit, the league is trying. But it can’t stay this way next year. Improvement is required.
BREAKING AND ENTERING
Power-play tweak benefitted Bruins
On the power play, the delay is one of the Bruins’ go-to maneuvers to gain the offensive zone. Torey Krug carries the puck with speed up the ice, while David Krejci serves as a trailer in the neutral zone. When opponents aren’t ready for the delay, it’s an efficient way to enter the zone and flow into the setup against stalled penalty killers.
Against Dallas Feb. 20, the Bruins added a wrinkle to the delay: a second late man.
The play worked against Dallas penalty killers Vernon Fiddler, Colton Sceviour, Jason Demers, and Johnny Oduya. While they might have identified Krejci as one of the trailers, they didn’t play Eriksson correctly.
Before the game, the Bruins adjusted their power play because Ryan Spooner was sick. Matt Beleskey became the net-front presence on the No. 1 unit. As such, Beleskey posted up at the offensive blue line as the Bruins started their breakout. Eriksson, who is usually the net-front man, curled back instead of posting up.
As Beleskey and Patrice Bergeron waited for Krug’s arrival, Krejci and Eriksson hung back. Krug carried the puck through center ice, got past Sceviour, then saw Fiddler closing in. Instead of trying to beat Fiddler, Krug turned and dropped the puck to Krejci.
“Everything has to do with the first guy carrying the puck up the ice, which is Torey,” Krejci said. “It looked like he was going in the zone, but then he dropped it back. All of their four guys kind of stopped on the blue line. When guys kind of stop, it’s easy to get through.
“We try to do that a lot when we do the delay breakout. That’s the key. It worked really well, especially in that game.”
The Stars tried to reset once Krejci received the drop. But they couldn’t adjust when Krejci quickly dished to Eriksson on his left flank. By then, three of Dallas’s killers were trapped on the wrong side of the ice. Demers, the right-side defenseman, had drifted to the middle to seal off Krug’s expected entry. Eriksson had an easy entry because Demers had vacated his position.
“I like to carry it,” Krejci said of the standard entry after the drop. “But if I see guys getting on me, then I know Loui or Spoons are there wide open. Both of them can do some stuff with the puck. They don’t have to dump it in. They can carry it or dish it out to the sides.”
Because of the two-man delay, Eriksson gained the zone easily, which allowed the Bruins to fall into formation. As Krejci and Krug played keepaway at the point, Beleskey went to his net-front spot in front of goalie Kari Lehtonen.
By then, the Stars had regrouped and were in good shape. Fiddler and Sceviour were challenging the points. Demers and Oduya were trying to front any pucks that got through. With Beleskey setting a screen, Krejci snapped a long-distance goal off Oduya’s leg that deflected past the Dallas goalie. For as much good as the delay had done in helping the Bruins gain the zone, it still took a lucky bounce for a clean entry to turn into a goal.
A note of caution in Callahan deal
Ryan Callahan was 29 years old. The former Rangers captain had played in 20 games for the Lightning, his new club, after arriving in a deal for Martin St. Louis in March 2014. During his contract year, Callahan collected 17 goals and 19 assists in 65 games between the two clubs.
Nobody questioned his character, leadership, physicality, or commitment. Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman correctly identified that Callahan was a good short-term fit — the requisite sandpaper on a speedy and skilled team.
But the smart thing for the Lightning would have been to walk away from Callahan. He plays a rough, grinding style. His best season was in 2011-12, when he had 29 goals and 25 assists in 76 games. There was a lot of tread already missing from the right wing’s tires because of his all-out, abrasive approach.
Instead, the Lightning signed Callahan to a six-year, $34.8 million extension. The deal is already hurting Tampa. In just the second season of the contract, Callahan is down to 8 goals and 15 assists through 59 games. His game is not progressing, and the contract will be an anchor in Years 5 and 6, when his heart will not be able to compensate for his legs.
Callahan’s extension is a reminder for GMs who are thinking about signing Loui Eriksson to a long-term deal on July 1. They are different players. Eriksson is better than Callahan at applying his stick and hockey sense to his game. Eriksson’s skating is more fluid and not as labored as Callahan’s. But if a team commits to a similar contract with Eriksson, he will be 36 years old by the end of it.
In this game, no asset can make up for a dropoff in skating. And at that age, most players’ wheels will not be able to sustain previous levels of energy. The contract will then become an impediment to team-building.
Consider what the Lightning could have done had they let Callahan walk. Had they pocketed some of their $5.8 million annual savings, they might have had enough cash to invest in an extension for Steven Stamkos. Or they could have deployed Jonathan Drouin in Callahan’s roster spot.
Instead, the Lightning don’t have enough to sink $10 million or more into Stamkos, not while they have Nikita Kucherov, Alex Killorn, Vladislav Namestnikov, Cedric Paquette, and Nikita Nesterov all restricted after this season. Drouin is in suspension limbo, waiting to be moved to another organization.
Drouin will be gone. By the end of the season, Stamkos is likely to be in that category too.
Blackhawks have all the moves
The draft once served the Blackhawks well in building their core. Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Brent Seabrook were can’t-miss first-round picks. The Blackhawks drafted Duncan Keith and Corey Crawford in the second round. They nailed lower picks such as Niklas Hjalmarsson (fourth), Andrew Shaw (fifth), and Marcus Kruger (fifth). Since then, GM Stan Bowman and his colleagues have mastered the practice of using the draft to acquire complementary pieces. The Blackhawks did not hesitate to send Winnipeg a 2016 first-rounder, which has a good chance of being the 30th overall pick, as part of a package to land Andrew Ladd. The two-time Blackhawk is the perfect fit to replace Brandon Saad as Toews’s left wing. Opponents will have matchup migraines trying to figure out how to deploy their best defensive players against Ladd, Toews, and Marian Hossa or the dynamic threesome of Kane, Artemi Panarin, and Artem Anisimov. Shaw will drop down to his most effective spot on the third line. Bowman has identified Chicago’s window as now, and will figure out the long-term roster refresh when he gets there. One reason Chicago won the bidding for Panarin, formerly a free agent out of the KHL, was the opportunity to win. Another Cup won’t hurt Chicago’s chances of attracting even more talent.
Washington will like Like
The Capitals made a terrific transaction by acquiring hard-nosed defenseman Mike Weber from Buffalo for a 2017 third-round pick. The Sabres also retained half of Weber’s $1,666,666 annual salary. Weber, who will be unrestricted on July 1, is a perfect fit for Washington’s smothering defensive style, which relies on physicality and positioning. In 35 games prior to the trade, he had one goal and four assists while averaging 15:54 of ice time. But the left-shot defenseman’s game isn’t about offense. Weber was a positive possession player in Buffalo, and should be even more so in Washington.
Flames may be hot on Reimer’s trail
If James Reimer hits unrestricted free agency July 1, the Flames will be one of the clubs to consider him as their No. 1 goalie. Calgary president Brian Burke had Reimer when he was GM in Toronto. Reimer, who was traded Saturday from Toronto to San Jose, has improved since Burke’s time with the Leafs. The Flames survived so-so goaltending last year when they made the playoffs with Jonas Hiller, Karri Ramo, and Joni Ortio sharing the net. Not so this season. Hiller and Ramo will be unrestricted, while Ortio will become a restricted free agent. The Flames are still high on former Providence College puckstopper Jon Gillies, but the former third-round pick had his first pro season cut short because of hip surgery. Gillies won’t be ready for NHL action for at least one more year.
Not wild about Oates
In a post-sacking interview, former Wild coach Mike Yeo made it clear he didn’t care for former Capitals coach Adam Oates attending one of his team’s morning skates on Jan. 12. Oates, who has been a skills consultant for Zach Parise, among other players, had worked with the alternate captain in training camp. “I would say that I would not do the same thing,” Yeo told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. GM Chuck Fletcher has been supportive of Parise and his teammates hiring skills coaches. Traditionally, that’s been considered a summer thing. In-season visits are not common. In retrospect, Fletcher should have made his team off-limits to consultants such as Oates during the season.
Two Western teams that could be in the Loui Eriksson running this summer: Vancouver and Arizona. Canucks GM Jim Benning was still in Boston when the Bruins acquired Eriksson from Dallas. Eriksson would be a good right-side fit for Daniel and Henrik Sedin on an all-Swede first line. The Coyotes have to budget for future raises for Anthony Duclair and Max Domi. But they’d have enough space to sign Eriksson, who would be reunited with former coach Dave Tippett. If this is Shane Doan’s last season, Arizona would be in the market for a No. 1 right wing . . . The NHL was right to issue and uphold Dennis Wideman’s 20-game suspension for belting linesman Don Henderson. But the league failed on Wideman’s right to appeal both to commissioner Gary Bettman and a neutral arbitrator. By the time Wideman’s second appeal concluded Friday, he had missed 12 games. He deserved a far swifter response . . . If the Wild miss the playoffs by a point, they will have Michal Neuvirth to blame. The Philadelphia goalie’s game-saving stop on Charlie Coyle was such a heist that the puck should have exploded and covered him in dye.
The Bruins are in position to finish with their best road record since the NHL expanded from a 48-game season more than 70 years ago. The franchise has won at least two-thirds of its road games in a season only five previous times, and in four of them the Bruins reached the Stanley Cup Final. Claude Julien was at the helm of five of the Bruins’ top 15 road campaigns entering this season.