Penalty for offside challenges a welcome addition if it curbs lengthy, nonsense reviews

The NHL is set to penalize teams for failed offside challenges, and it will be a welcome addition if it reduces the number of lengthy delays in games this season.

At times last season, offside challenges felt like an epidemic, one that served no purpose other than to sap the life and energy out of a game to determine whether a skater was one hair onside or two hairs early when cutting into the attacking zone. But the NHL is set on curbing the use of offside challenges in those too-close-to-call scenarios in 2017-18 and doing so by doling out some good old-fashioned punishment.

In June, when the NHL and NHLPA Competition Committee met to discuss potential rule changes, one of the tabled ideas was introducing a minor penalty to teams who use and lose an offside challenge. And, according to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, the rule change has been green-lit for use this season. 

It’s absolutely the right move for the league, too.

First, the addition of the new penalty prevents the league from having to alter the offside rule altogether, which is something that was honestly discussed by fans and pundits alike throughout last season. Some suggested allowing players to remain onside so long as their entire body hadn’t crossed the blue line, others posited that the puck simply touching the blueline instead of crossing it entirely could be the answer and there was – and continues to be – a crowd that believes the right thing for the league to do would be the removal of offside entirely, which is a discussion for another day.

But beyond removing the need for any major change to the rulebook, the risk-reward of challenging a close play can act as a deterrent to exactly the type of challenges and lengthy reviews that was the major concern in the first place.

During the 2016-17 season, coaches triggered 131 offside challenges, according to the NHL, an increase of 32 percent over the season prior, when the coach’s challenge was first introduced. And while that would be all well and good had the challenges been used in no-brainer situations, that’s not exactly how the challenge was utilized. 

Instead, on what felt like a near nightly basis, games were bogged down by reviews where the difference between offside and onside was a fraction of a fraction of an inch with referees trying to make their determination by watching the play on a screen not nearly big enough to do so. Worse yet, there were a handful of reviews that creeped beyond the several-minute mark, bringing play to a halt for what felt at times like an eternity, all the while players, coaches, broadcasters and fans grew increasingly exasperated, especially in instances where the most minor offside preceded a goal by enough time that the actual impact of the offside should’ve been negligible. And those reviews – the ones where the offside didn’t make a difference – brought about a whole lot of discussion about the “spirit of the rule.”

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When the offside challenge was introduced, the idea was to curb the instances where a blatant error was made. Linesmen, even the cream of the crop, can make those mistakes and the hope was the ability to challenge those plays would help correct some level of human error. Remember Matt Duchene’s goal against the Nashville Predators? He was upwards of a foot offside before scoring that somewhat infamous goal. It was a blatant offside, in clear violation of the offside rule, and stopping tallies such as Duchene’s from counting was the intention of the challenge. What the league wasn’t trying to do was slow down the game or prevent offense. The addition of the penalty for failed challenges makes that abundantly clear.

In fact, with the addition of the penalty for bad challenges, the league may have actually found a solution that has the potential to create more offense. While it’s likely to be a somewhat uncommon scenario, a team that loses an offside challenge on one of those ticky-tack offsides could then be forced to go down a man immediately thereafter. And a goal immediately followed by a power play can create pretty sudden two-goal swings.

It might even be fair to suggest the league is inviting such a scenario, too, because the addition of the penalty for a failed challenge has come along with the opportunity for coaches to issue more challenges than ever before, if they so choose. Under the rules last season, a coach was required to have his timeout in order to challenge any play, be it an offside or goaltender interference. And while that remains the case for interference-based challenges, coaches will no longer need to have a timeout stashed in order to trigger an offside challenge.

Overall, it’s hard to see how the infraction for bad challenges isn’t a win for the league. For those watching live or at home, it can help put a stop to lengthy lulls in play for a challenge that would be otherwise inconclusive without the use of superhuman vision, while coaches and players get the same break from having to worry about whether an ice shaving could have fit between the toe of their skate and the blue line. And though there are video coaches around the league who now have a lot less margin for error, it’s a good thing if it means we’re not all sitting around debating the “spirit of the rule” again come the midpoint of the coming season.

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