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Photo Credit: NHL.com

The Case For Eliminating The Offside Review

The long-simmering debate over the necessity of the coach’s challenge for offside was ignited once again after May 8’s Game Seven between the San Jose Sharks and Colorado Avalanche—one that the Sharks won, but only after a goal by Gabriel Landeskog was controversially disallowed.

We’re not here to rehash the argument over whether or not Landeskog was truly offside—we’re here to make the case that the review never should have happened, and that the NHL would be better off eliminating the offside portion of the coach’s challenge. The rule has been a part of the league since the start of the 2015/16 season, and four seasons has been more than enough time for it to wear out its welcome. The Landeskog incident is far from the first controversy caused by the coach’s challenge for offside, and it won’t be the last—unless the league makes a change.

In fact, we’re of the opinion that the assertion is so ironclad that it would be an outright shocker if the rule change didn’t occur in the summer of 2019—and a major missed opportunity for the league to improve its product.

The Entertainment Factor

The overall aim of the coach’s challenge is to increase the legitimacy of the league, not its entertainment value—and that’s eminently evidenced by how boring most goal reviews are. Not only do coach’s challenges bring a screeching halt to the momentum of both the game and the crowd, they’re also not all that interesting to watch in most cases.

Coach’s challenges can only be called for goaltender interference and offside. While endless replays of players bumping into goalies can occasionally make for exciting television, it’s rare—but at least we get to watch a goal being scored over and over again. That’s still a fair step better than offside reviews—which consist of multi-angled replays and slow-motion breakdowns of players skating over a big blue line painted on the ice, often long before any actual goal is scored.

By choosing to include the coach’s challenge for offside in their set of rules, the NHL is choosing to frequently hit the brakes on the most exciting sport on earth so that fans can be subjected to a pedantic investigation about a zone entry.

Why Offsides, And Not Other Infractions

It is true that the ability of officials to doublecheck whether or not a player was offside on a play that resulted in a goal does make the league more legitimate—but why stop there? Players are still being thrown out of games for legal checks and blown icing calls have had devastating effects.

If the NHL wants to stop the game so it can doublecheck offsides, why aren’t they also doing the same for penalties and other infractions? It’s arguable that erroneous penalties—and especially major penalties—have more potential to give one team an unfair advantage over another than a player being an inch or two offside. After all, just look at the controversy that marred the San Jose Sharks’ first round victory over the Vegas Golden Knights.

It seems inconceivable that offsides are reviewable and major penalties are not, but that’s the exact arbitrary situation that the NHL has created. The inconsistency robs the league of any legitimacy it gains from having the coach’s challenge for offside in the first place.

Offsides Are Rarely Consequential To Goals

It’s probably fair to just state outright that offside plays are only rarely actually consequential to the scoring of goals. Again, it’s questionable how much of an advantage one actually gets by being barely offside, and we’ve all seen all-too-many coach’s challenges for offsides that occurred dozens of seconds before a goal and had nothing to do with the play that created it.

That feels like it could be an inherently biased false assumption on the part of this author, however, so we decided to check our hypothesis using the actual numbers behind the coach’s challenge.

With the increasing presence of replay technology on NHL benches, the success rate of the coach’s challenge is improving—but it still isn’t much of a testament to its necessity. In 2018/19, league coaches challenged a total of 91 goals for offside violations and 61 of them were overturned—for a success rate of 67%.

Those extra goals would have represented just 0.016% of the total goals scored in 2018/19—which certainly doesn’t seem like a lot. For comparison’s sake, powerplay goals made up 19% of the total goals—but penalties are not reviewable or challengeable.

The Human Error Factor

Human error has always been a vital component of sport—and that’s especially true for hockey, often described as a game of mistakes. Hockey just wouldn’t be as exciting without the individuals involved making miscues—and that’s just as true of a defenseman giving away a puck as it is of an official blowing a call, though fans often find it difficult to see it that way.

The NHL has long-since abandoned its unofficial slogan of “the fastest game on ice,” but it’s still true that speed is the league’s number one selling point to casual and dedicated fans alike. Things simply happen in the NHL at a much quicker pace than they do in the other major professional sports leagues—or other hockey leagues, for that matter. The natural consequence of that speed is human error, but that doesn’t take away from the excitement of it all—rather, it only injects uncertainty and unpredictability into the mix.

Stopping a game to doublecheck an official’s work only takes away from the speed and momentum of a hockey game. It should be avoided unless absolutely necessary, because the consequences of a bad call don’t outweigh the consequences of interrupting a sport that relies on its constant flow of action to attract viewers. The league already accepts some level of human error in its referees by not reviewing their penalties, so why is an offside any more of an acceptable reason to interrupt the flow.

Getting jilted by the refs isn’t something that ruins the hockey experience, it’s a vital component of it—so much so that fans of every single NHL franchise believe that the officials of the league are conspiring against them.

(Of course, Vancouver fans know that such thinking is ridiculous—how could the league find time to conspire against other teams when they’re so busy finding new ways to screw over the Canucks?)

Much of the excitement and emotion of a hockey game comes from the speed and uncertainty of it—and referee errors are both a consequence of and a contributor to those factors. It is woven within the fabric of the sport.

We can all probably agree that it’s worth reviewing whether or not the puck actually went into the net or not—that’s a pretty fundamental component in legitimate goal-scoring. Reviews—and even coach’s challenges—for goaltender interference probably aren’t going anywhere. There’s also a strong case to be made for at least doublechecking before tossing a player out of a game.

Beyond that, is there really anything wrong with leaving everything else in the human, error-prone hands of NHL officials? Especially the parts of the game that involve the crossing of arbitrary boundaries? Offside just aren’t worth a second look—both in the logistical and the “providing consistent entertainment value in an oversaturated pro sports market” senses. Getting rid of the coach’s challenge for offside is just good business.

  • liqueur des fenetres

    The NHL has a long list of rules that look like they were written by a kindergarten class. The one I am waiting for is allowing a coach’s challenge on missed major penalties just so I can hear the zebras say that the challenge was unsuccessful because it was a missed minor penalty…

  • Goon

    Go one step further: Eliminate offsides entirely. They don’t make the game better, or more fun. They just slow things down. Who cares if a player is cherry-picking? Let him, and if his team gets bitten because he’s all the way at the other end of the rink, then his team gets bitten.

      • Goon

        If you leave a floater out there, you’ve only got four guys back in your zone and the other team’s going to take advantage. The only time teams would be that aggressive is when they’re down with 5 minutes left.

        • tru north

          Hate to disagree but a ‘flexible floater’ strategy would seem quite effective most of the time. Consider that a decent powerplay scores what 25%? … when it has a chance to set up and work the puck around. Compared to a forward one on one with the goalie and no real defensive pressure for up to a couple of seconds! I’d bet on the floater (read ‘goal scorer’) repeatedly.

        • Nuck16

          They should do a POC trial without the blue lines, using non-NHL players, then see how it goes. Might be a good way to spread the players out and open up the ice. No lining up across the blue line.

    • j2daff

      I’ve always wondered if that was a way to go. The game would lose a little structure but would end up faster and probably more exciting. It would likely though add a lot of asterisks in the record books and become a different game.

      Maybe wait till the day fighting is banned and hitting reduced to the point that it barely exists. At that point it might be only thing to save the game.

  • Spiel

    There was an offside goal in 2013 by Matt Duchene that was the main impetus for allowing goals to be reviewed for offside plays. That goal was about 5 feet, not 5 millimeters offside. Plays like that are very rare, and if they do occur, there should be a league initiated review, not the coaches.

    There are other rules that could be easily changed to increase offense.

    1) Stop allowing players to handle the puck in the defensive zone. There are no hand passes allowed in any other zone, why allow it in the defensive zone? It is already a penalty shot to close your hand on the puck in the crease, and a penalty to bat the puck with your hand on a face-off. Why should defensive zone players have the advantage of using their hands to manipulate the puck when it is not allowed in any other parts of the rink.

    2) Enforce icing when teams are shorthanded. More powerplay and probably more shorthanded goals will be scored. This is already done in USA hockey at youth levels. A rule change like this would have resistance from hockey purists, but I think it would be for the good of the game.

    • TD

      I’d like to see them bring back the 4 on 4 and 3 on 3 for coincidental minors like they had in the 80’s. Since the league and fans want scoring and removing players from the ice helps that, I can’t see why that wouldn’t be attractive. The OT’s are sure fun now, think of more opportunities for Pettersson, Boeser and Hughes to play 3 on 3.

  • Rodeobill

    I think one should consider the spirit of the game. The offside rule should stay, but if the linesman calls it onside, then so be it. Sometimes bigger mistakes will happen (although probably not for a while now they have had to be extra sensitive with offsides due to reviews and have become more careful about it). I think the refs are (ideally) a neutral part of the environment. We all yell at the tv for the ref getting in the way of a clearing attempt or whatever, but ultimately they are just like a stanchion, a part of the environment, and the players have to see it that way. For the good of the game, you need to have faith that the people doing their job with take pride in doing it as unbias and correctly as possible. If they don’t they lose their job. You also have to have faith and accept the human err part will be as little as they can manage, and should be evenly possible to affect either team. It’s a tough and thankless job, not to mention dangerous, and if it becomes obvious that they can not preform well and unbias, then have faith that the league will replace them.

  • Ragnarok Ouroboros

    The league states that they want to ensure the right calls are made, with respect to off-sides and goalie interference, but that causes an imbalance in the game since they don’t ensure all other ref decisions in the game are correct. There are too many other calls that the ref gets wrong.

    The most glaring example is the 5 minute major penalty. In the San Jose series the sharks benefited from an undeserved 5 minute major and it won them the series. In the Bruins series, McAvoy only got 2 minutes when he should have gotten a 5 minute major. If the league wants to get a call right, then it should focus on 5 minute majors. Refs should be able to review an incident where a player is injured and determine if a 5 minute major is warranted or not. There should be no guess work involved in handing out or not handing out major penalties.

    Diving is another area I would like them to get right. If a player embellishes a play, they should be called for diving. Instead what usually happens is one team will be called for a penalty like tripping, and the other team will be called for diving and the penalties cancel out. If a player dives, they make the game look like soccer and it should be the league priority to eliminate that from the game and ensure the embellishing player hurts their team with a penalty.

    The offside review should go, since they only review plays where a player is offside but the offside is missed by the ref, and not the situation where a player is on side, but the ref calls the play offside thus negating a chance. Additionally, there are too many off-sides called where we are talking an inch, or a skate in the air and it negates a goal that is completely unaffected by such an event. Common sense should prevail

    • liqueur des fenetres

      Yes! I want to see penalties to all those guys that clutch their faces when the opponent’s stick was literally inches away! Embellishers are ruining the game!

  • Kanuckhotep

    The NHL simply reflects real life. Zebras are just on ice bureaucrats innudating the process with a plethora of rules which seems to be more about them than the players. Are more rules more rights? The reviews have gotten out of hand and now we have four of these cretins on the ice who can’t get it right.

  • Rebuilds30

    Its really funny how Bettmans NHL has put in one new rule after another, then they find out we need to revise it. Just like the regular season has shootouts but the playoffs dont..I am still trying to figure out what was wrong with the tie. Liqueur des fenetres and I are hockey lovers.

  • j2daff

    there is also a fact that is not being realized. If the NHL can put a chip in a puck that tells you how fast it goes as well that track skating speed they could just as easily automate offside calls through technology in a way that in reality would not ever get it wrong. Whether it takes chips on skates and in pucks or video tracking tech and doesn’t really matter as long as the result is foolproof and everyone understands how the tech makes the call.

  • Nuck16

    It’s funny that the decided to review offsides because of one bad offside 6-ish years ago, that lead to a breakaway goal…and yet every game the refs blow 2 or 3 calls per game on a good night…some of which lead to directly or indirectly to goals.

    • Nuck16

      They could add a wrinkle to the rule and say it’s only reviewable if it’s clearly offside, like by at least a foot, and that the offside gave an obvious advantage.