Once again, thanks to the NHL’s inherent conservatism, the hockey world is convulsing over something other than the Stanley Cup games themselves.
For the past three days, instead of having a great game between the San Jose Sharks and the St. Louis Blues be the focal point of the discussion leading up to Game 4 of the Western Conference final on Friday night, everyone was screaming about the NHL’s half-baked video-review system.
It is incredible that a system the league touted as its supreme effort to “get it right” when it was introduced seems to do nothing but create controversies. But it was a system set up to fail because the NHL’s general managers, owners and other overseers had to be dragged into it kicking and screaming, and thus put all kinds of restrictions on it.
Oh, the NHL will tell you all goals are reviewed by its room full of officials in Toronto. The problem is, some plays that lead to goals are deemed reviewable, such as an offside or goaltender interference, and some are not.
Timo Meier of the San Jose Sharks made an obvious hand pass to Gustav Nyquist that set up Erik Karlsson’s winning goal in overtime against the St. Louis Blues on Wednesday night. Almost everyone on the ice save for the four officials saw it. Too bad. Hand passes are not reviewable under the current rules.
So, given the way these things work, the Sharks were handed a win for the second time in these playoffs because of the NHL’s wonky video-review system. Back in the first round, they were put in position to win the deciding game against the Vegas Golden Knights thanks to a bad call on a major penalty. That allowed them to score an improbable four times on the resulting power play and wipe out a big Las Vegas lead in the third period.
If the Sharks make it to the Stanley Cup final and manage to beat the Boston Bruins for their first NHL championship, there will be a certain stigma attached to it in the eyes of many.
The technology for reviewing calls by the officials has never been better. Yet, the NHL could come up only with a system that invites ridicule. We now have the spectacle of interminable reviews to see if a player was offside by a margin that could only be detected by a micrometre. And goalie interference, ye gods, that is a cesspool created by the impossibility of a consensus on what exactly constitutes an infraction. But any of the dozens of other ways to produce a goal cannot get a second or third look.
Oh, and the people this unwieldy system was supposed to protect, the on-ice officials, do not get to use it. Referees Eric Furlatt and Dan O’Halloran, for example, were not allowed to skate over to the penalty box, call for an iPad and have a look to see if they missed the hand pass by Meier. They huddled after the goal with the two linesmen to discuss the play, but thanks to the restrictions on what is reviewable they could not take a look at the replay to be sure.
The original idea behind restricting what can be reviewed was honourable enough. The NHL GMs, and later the owners, did not want games delayed by all kinds of video reviews. But the consequences were not thought through enough and here we are.
There have been calls for simply banishing video review and living with the human factor once again. But the genie is out of the bottle. The NHL simply cannot step back, not with every other major sports league using video review with varying amounts of success.
To me, this complicated problem has a simple solution. Review every goal in the playoffs and in the last five minutes and overtime of the regular season. Make calls on major penalties reviewable, too. Also, give the referees the right to consult the video if they are not sure of a goal for any reason. Finally, maintain the current coach’s challenge at two per game, but allow them for any play the coach chooses. But keep the cost of losing a challenge as a minor penalty against your team to discourage using them in anything but the most extreme cases.
Yes, I can hear you. Games that are already too long will take forever. Not necessarily. Put a strict time limit on the reviews. Somewhere between 45 and 60 seconds should do it. If it takes longer than that to decide, then it is too inconclusive so the original call will stand. Case closed.
Given the outrage over the two Sharks incidents, there is no doubt the NHL/NHL Players’ Association competition committee will discuss changes to the video-review system when it meets next month. The committee is made up of four players, four GMs and one owner. Its recommendations go to both the NHL’s board of governors and the NHLPA for approval.
However, despite the obvious need for a change there is no guarantee anything will happen. Even if the players push hard, GMs and owners are still largely a conservative bunch by nature. Fans can only hope for something better.