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Discussing what the NHL can do about its problem with offsides and video review

The NHL offseason can be a long and uneventful wait for fans, especially after the draft and free agency. That being said, we’re going to take a look at how to bolster more interest in the game with rule changes.

Offsides has a deep and tumultuous history within the game of hockey and has been adapted multiple times. In the modern day NHL it has become a heavily discussed rule which recently became a challengeable play.

We’ll take a look at how the rule has evolved, and how removing the offsides review as well as the rule entirely, would impact the league.

History of offsides in the NHL

In the early years of the league, the offsides rule as we know it today was not quite the same. In the NHL’s inaugural 1917–18 season, players were not allowed to play the puck forward at all, similar to rugby passing rules. Offsides was called if a player passed the puck forwards to a receiving teammate. The play was consequently blown dead and a face off occurred at the point the pass originated from. This face off occurred anywhere within the playing surface.

In 1927–28, forward passing was first allowed in the defensive and neutral zones of the ice. This shook up the league tremendously as you can imagine. Not having to carry the puck forward to exit your own defensive zone changed the pace of the game and resulted in extremely low scoring that season as once teams entered the offensive zone, they again could only pass the puck back towards the neutral zone.

Following that boring, low scoring 1927–28 season, the league axed the rule allowing forward passing in all three zones. But, as anyone who’s played/watched minor hockey knows, the temptation to cherry pick was too real. Teams began placing players almost permanently in the offensive zone, quickly advancing the puck for an immediate solo chance on the goalie. This resulted in almost double the scoring during the 1928–29 season.

The solution increased offence too much and impacted the competition of the game. This led to the implementation of the modern day blue lines and offside rule in 1929–30. The only caveat being, the puck had to be carried over both blue lines, defensive or offensive.

In 1943–44 the red line was established, allowing teams to pass the puck over their own blue line as long as it did not pass the red line, more commonly known as a two-line pass.

This finally gives us modern offsides in the NHL. It remained the same until a review process was established in the late 2010s and then subsequently changed again in 2021. Offside reviews slowed down the game and were extremely controversial. The rule was modified to allow players skates to be deemed onside even if they were not in contact with the ice, and a coach’s challenge was put in place for offsides resulting in goals.

Removing offsides entirely?

With the speed and pace of today’s game, it is interesting to imagine a game without offsides. The puck would move incredibly fast end-to-end. Passing and skating abilities are almost unrecognizable when sized up to that of the 1920s when the rule was established. Due to this factor, the offside rule is needed today more than ever.

The rush is the main offensive attack in the NHL and neutral zone play is crucial to a team’s success, albeit on offence or defence. That being said, although today’s game is played much differently than the game of 1929, I fear the same results would occur as the rule change that took place almost 100 years ago. Removing the offside rule would open up the game too much, leading to blowouts and too much scoring. Like I said before, it’s a cornerstone rule establishing competition in the game.

Removing the coach’s challenge for offsides

The main argument against the offside rule in today’s NHL is its over-analysis. Reviewing plays around the blueline is a timely endeavour and in today’s 10-second attention span society, being quick is key. With some offside reviews spanning five minutes or more, it’s a break in the game that needs to be avoided if possible. It breaks the flow of the game, momentum and interest from fans. Beyond that, it is incredibly frustrating when offsides are reviewed inconsistently.

Aside from the consequences of review on pace of the game, it’s not as accurate as it should be. The point of a video review is to get the call right, and in some scenarios, they flat out don’t. Why? Well, the offside rule has historically been an instinctual call. The play happens incredibly fast and the human eye can only focus on one thing at a time. Obviously, linesman utilize keen peripheral vision. But all in all, it wasn’t written to be a perfect rule. It was written to prevent teams from cherry picking, not to be meticulously analyzed frame-by-frame to determine whether a skate blade is a centimetre ahead of the puck upon entry. Review makes the call something it shouldn’t be. It’s not a black and white rule even though that’s how it’s written.

Compare it to an umpire in baseball calling balls and strikes. It’s a grey area rule determined by human interpretation. Obvious balls are going to be far from the plate, the same way a player two feet into the offensive zone receiving a pass in hockey is an obvious offside. It’s when things get tight that human error arises. Pitchers trying to catch the corner of the zone are tougher call for the umpire. Entry passes landing on the tape almost simultaneously with entering the zone are similarly tougher calls for the linesmen.

The point is, the close ones are meant to be close. Sometimes they don’t go your way, but that’s life. At least it doesn’t halt the game for minutes and pick apart a play frame-by-frame when the spirit of the rule is to promote fair play. If it’s so close we have to head to the command centre in Toronto, just stick with the call on the ice.

Staying onside with the rules

Review has ran its course and if we’ve learned anything from the last 10 years of offsides being picked apart, it’s unnecessary. The league implemented it in efforts to make more missed calls correct, but at this point all it’s done is prove the inconsistency in NHL officiating—and reviewing!

Beyond that, the coach’s challenge has turned into a blind gamble in some scenarios. It’s as though each solution just leads to a bigger problem than we had before. Maybe we should go back to opening up the ice for the sheer purpose of giving people less to complain about?

In all seriousness, I feel that the NHL should remove offside from the coach’s challenge and furthermore, negate video review of the rule altogether. NHL officials are the best of the best and all sports officiating has human error in it. In the grand scheme of things, human error from time to time is worth it to maintain speed of the game, and spirit of what the rule stands for. Offsides should negate cherry picking and be enforced as such. Plain and simple, just as the league intended it to be in 1929.

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