NHL Coach’s Challenge: A Necessary Evil


Through the first quarter of the season, the Buffalo Sabres have been part of five coach’s challenges. The new league-wide rule, just implemented this season, has already been initiated some 51 times, with multiple calls being overturned thanks to second reviews of goaltender interference or offsides.

When it was first introduced, there was a lot of uncertainty surrounding the coach’s challenge. Even now, some 20-odd games into the season, there’s still a lot of uncertainty and controversy surrounding it. Here’s how I feel, summed up in a nutshell: sometimes it’s great (though not really for the Sabres yet this season); sometimes, it absolutely stinks, and sometimes, it’s a necessary evil.

The Sabres have had three goals overturned this season because of coach’s challenges — all due to offsides calls. That, to me, is a problem – not for the team necessarily, though they should obviously be taking more precaution to guarantee that they aren’t offsides – but for the league as a whole.

The most basic job of a linesman is to stay at the blue line and determine whether or not a play if offsides. If a Buffalo Sabres player (just using the team for example here) enters the offensize zone before the puck, it’s the linesman’s job to instantaneously recognize that and blow the play dead. That’s it, play’s dead, we’re done – no more questions asked.

With the coach’s challenge, we’re now seeing several examples where, essentially, the linesman did not do his job. Take those three Sabres goals called back; if the linesman had called the play offsides immediately, that would’ve been it. Instead, play was allowed to continue, a goal was scored, and then the entire process had to be seen through in order to review it and eventually call it back. The Sabres are by no means the only team affected by this aspect of the coach’s challenge – see the call between the Capitals and the Flyers, or the Situation Room-initiated review under a coach’s challenge between Vancouver and Toronto.

My point here is: the coach’s challenge shouldn’t even be necessary in this instance, because the linesman should’ve blown the play dead as soon as it went offsides – not 10 seconds, 30 seconds, or even two minutes later after a goal’s been scored and they realize “Oh… maybe I should’ve called that offsides back there.”

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The goaltender interference portion of the coach’s challenge is a little more understandable. Teams want to be absolutely certain that their netminder wasn’t interfered with, and while it seems like most of the time this season, the team initiating a coach’s challenge for this reasoning hasn’t won, it’s a much quicker moment than the offsides. Goaltender interference can occur mere seconds, fractions of seconds, before the puck goes into the net, and it’s slightly more understandable why a whistle wouldn’t be blown in that snap of a finger.

Either way, linesmen and referees are only human, and everybody makes mistakes. So in that respect, the coach’s challenge keeps the game on a fair level and in a sense, allows for a “checks and balances” system between coaches and the referees/linesmen. It allows the refs/linesmen to get another look at the play, including at multiple angles, to determine if the call (or non-call) was valid. It’s a second chance.

If a play really was offsides, even if the linesman didn’t, for some reason or another, call it right away, then technically, it really shouldn’t be a goal, and the challenge helps to ensure that. So while there’s that sense of “Well, if the linesman had called it right away, Evander Kane wouldn’t have even had the CHANCE to score there, but he didn’t call it, so…,” there’s also that other side of me that says “Okay, okay. He didn’t call it, but he should have, so technically it really shouldn’t count, even if that stinks.”

One part of the coach’s challenge that really affects the fans – other than the result on the ice, of course – is the sheer amount of time it can take to investigate and review the incident. There’s no time limit in place for the NHL’s coach’s challenge, and if it takes too long, that can really affect the momentum of a game, not to mention test the patience of fans.

About a week ago, on my birthday, I was able to attend the Sabres vs. Stars game (11/17). With about six minutes left in the third period, the Sabres were down 3-1 – but wait, what’s this? A goal? …. *insert Jeopardy theme music here* ….. nope, nevermind. The Stars called the coach’s challenge to determine if the play was offsides before the goal; it was, and the goal was called back.

Oh – did I mention the Sabres had just scored less than a minute earlier? The momentum was all theirs, the energy in First Niagara Center was palpable, and this was a huge turning point in the game.

But then there’s that coach’s challenge, gently patting everyone’s head and pushing them back into their seats. It’s almost as if the universe was saying “Well now, let’s not get too excited, guys. Calm down.” It took a few minutes, and the goal was overturned (rightfully so). The energy just wasn’t the same after that. The momentum was still there for the Sabres, but those minutes of waiting, waiting, waiting, can sap a lot of energy out of people – especially if it lasts longer than maybe one or two minutes.

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So maybe the coach’s challenge isn’t such a great things for the speed and momentum that the NHL brings to its games, and maybe it stinks when you think your team has scored, only to have it called back after a minutes-long review. But maybe on the other side of things, it’s a necessary way of placing a “checks and balances” structural system in the league to ensure that linesmen are calling offsides when they should be, or that players aren’t interfering with goaltenders when they shouldn’t be.

What do you guys think of the NHL coach’s challenge so far, now that we’ve seen it in action multiple times, both with the Buffalo Sabres and with the league as a whole?