On the NHL's biggest stage, the Stanley Cup final, the game's worst has already been exposed twice: the dreaded offside challenge.
It’s the game’s most exhilarating moment followed by several minutes of debate over whether that excitement was warranted. Players and fans don't really know whether to celebrate, thanks to a few millimetres seen from a grainy camera on an iPad 20 seconds before the goal was even scored. There were 117 of these agonizing moments during the regular season, with 39 goals overturned in the process. That’s one offside challenge to sit through every 10 games or so, which doesn’t seem like much until you actually have to sit through one. The worst part is that it’s taking goals away in a sport that’s starving for them.
Every other major league has made changes or concessions for the sake of offense because that’s what fans pay money for: goals, touchdowns, baskets, home runs – that’s where the excitement is. Not the NHL though, which has grown complacent with scoring totals dropping back to Dead Puck Era levels.
In that vein, I’m actually thankful about the league implementing its worst rule, the offside challenge, because it’s exposed the actual offside rule itself for its crimes against offense. It’s time to take a long, hard look at the rule and whether it’s worth having in today’s game which is suffering from lower and lower scoring. Want more scoring chances, more excitement, more goals? Start with offsides.
Taking out a rule that’s been part of hockey as we know it for nearly 90 years is a controversial take, but the more I think about it the more it makes complete sense as a way to jumpstart offense (goals-per-game did decrease with the introduction of offside once upon a time). It’s something I never once considered until the coach’s challenge put a magnifying glass on the whole ordeal. With every five minutes spent debating a few millimetres I wondered whether we’d be better off without caring at all. Then I saw a piece in 2015 on a Washington Capitals blog wondering those exact same things and realized there were others thinking the same thing.
Offside is a tool to mitigate offense and it’s been exploited in the form of the neutral zone trap for years. On top of defending the net, there’s the war of attrition in the neutral zone where teams are also defending their zone leading to a sludgefest where everyone is congested in the rink’s middle third. The best defense starts far away from the net – keep them out of your zone and you’re set.
There’s just not enough space to maneuver and it makes entering the fun zone trickier than it should be. Everyone loves 3-on-3 because it’s fast paced action back and forth and a lot of that is because there’s much more room for players to make plays with speed. They can actually carry the puck in with control which generally leads to more chances. At 5-on-5 there isn’t enough space, especially when teams like Ottawa can set up a 1-3-1 to suffocate teams into turnovers or throwing the puck away for a dump-and-chase, a puck battle that the defensive team usually wins. It’s not just them though, every team employs some sort of neutral zone forecheck that’s meant to do the same thing and keep teams away from their zone with control of the puck. It’s not the most exciting strategy in hockey, but it gets results and that’s what matters. Force mistakes in the middle of the ice to get the puck and then it’s their turn to start the process all over again the other way until finally someone breaks through and scores.
That could be a lot easier with more space on the ice, but unless the league goes to 4-on-4 full time (big fan, but likely won’t happen because it means fewer jobs) or uses an international-sized rink (hard pass, only adds useless space farther away from the net) that’s hard to do under the current rules.
Offside eliminates the attacking team from accessing an entire third of the ice and makes it harder to gain that zone because modern players are too good at clogging up the space in front of it. Allowing players without the puck into the zone before the puck forces defenses to let up and fall back into man coverage which gives puck carriers more time and space to enter the zone. They can do something with the puck other than throwing it in the corner and praying for a retrieval. And hey, even if dumping it in is still the plan, it’s much closer to a 50/50 battle without offsides now that teammates can enter the zone sooner. The defensive team no longer has a huge advantage there.
No offsides allows for more strategy in entering the zone, forces the defense away from zone coverage and ultimately gives attacking players some much needed breathing room so they can focus on scoring instead of crossing a line painted underneath the ice first. It’s a way for teams to stretch the ice out much more effectively as defenders won’t be able to just play red rover at the bluelines because players would be able to find gaps behind them. Enough speed could lead to a great chance and the pressure alone would allow a puck-carrier to enter the zone much more efficiently, with options. The entire neutral zone dance changes, restoring much-needed balance to the offensive side. For adding offense, and that should be the goal for this league, taking out the one rule that only helps the defense feels like a no-brainer.
Referees review a play.Image by: Getty Images
There are issues though. Many detractors will say it’s a necessary evil that prevents cherry-pickers and cheap goals. Fair, but I don’t see any players currently waiting around the blue-line because it would leave his team in a penalty-killing situation. Maybe there’s more incentive without a blueline as there’s no fear of going offside, but I doubt it’s a regular occurrence. If it is, there’s no way he goes unchecked either and a defender would leak back which in turn creates more space in the offensive zone as it would briefly become a 4-on-4 situation. Either way, it’s not something you see much of in basketball and they’d have a free shot, hockey players would still have a goalie to deal with.
The other big issue is much more legitimate and it has to do with leading teams. If a player can hang around in the other team’s zone without punishment, a team with a lead can effectively kill the clock with some elaborate passing now that there’s much more space for them to move the puck around. As boring as watching a 1-3-1 in action, seeing a team play keep away with the four corners to protect a lead might be worse.
There’s a way around that and it comes down to modifying offside rather than eliminating it completely. When people see a hashtag on Twitter like #EndOffsides2017 (this is the official hashtag, we meet on Wednesdays, there are cookies) the assumption is get rid of the bluelines entirely, but there are legitimate problems with a move that drastic as outlined above. Changing offside in some form, while still keeping parts of the rule could help stimulate the goal economy while not fundamentally changing the game to the point where it’s unrecognizable.
Creating more relevant space on the ice is arguably one of the better ways to solve the league’s offensive woes which is why I’ve only mentioned the current difficulty of zone entries. There should be more time spent in the actual offensive zones trying to score rather than the middle of the ice, and gaining entry shouldn’t be as difficult as it is.
Once the zone is gained, maintaining it for the sake of offense is a very important part of the game that shouldn’t be messed with. It allows the defense an outlet to escape pressure (and make line changes) and forces the offense to work the puck around in a space that’s relevant to scoring. Seeing a team constantly regroup with possession because there was no blueline to maintain wouldn’t help much as one of hockey’s best assets is the constant changes in possession. It also could just as easily turn into an offensive zone trap with cycling and we’re back to square one.
With that being said, eliminating offsides on entries feels like the best bet. Enter when you please, but once the puck is in the zone it has to stay there. If it comes out, it’s the same situation as it is now: everyone has to clear the zone before anyone else can enter. Sort of like the over-and-back rule in basketball.
Eliminating offsides on entries should be a big enough change to make things easier for the offense, but not so big that the game fundamentally changes outside of recognition. With fewer offsides, the game should flow much better, too.
That still may be too drastic for some (especially those who are adamant about potential cherry-pickers) and so I propose an alternate change that’s even less drastic, but still helps the offense enter the zone easier: a three second violation on offsides. The idea comes from Ryan Hobart of The Leafs Nation and it’s a great alternative for no offsides on entries.
Basically, teams can enter the zone a few seconds before the puck does, but if the time is up (referee’s discretion, and please, for the love of God, no challenges on this) before that then it’s offside. The idea is taken from basketball’s three seconds in the paint violation and it’s a happy medium between “who cares about being a little offside” and “whoa now, that doesn’t mean you can drink a cold one with the goalie while we play defense.”
All of that sounds nice in theory and it should lead to more offense, but the reality is no one knows what hockey would look like with a modified offside rule. Not the people advocating for it nor the people denying it. Without seeing it in action, it’s just a utopian pipe dream in my head of players making beautiful plays without the constraints of an arbitrary line or a dystopian nightmare in a detractor’s head about all the cheap goals scored from cherry-pickers.
That’s why the NHL doesn’t need to change offsides. What it needs is a place where they can test what that change would look like and make sure it works as intended. Over five years ago the NHL had just the thing with its annual summer research and development camp to test new things and for whatever reason they stopped. Maybe they thought the game was perfect the way it was.
The game is fine, great even, but it’s not at its best and the league needs to be progressive in finding solutions, specifically for its biggest problem: the current offense drought. Changing the rules at the bluelines should help, but there may be unforeseen consequences to such a change which is why seeing it in action first is important. While they’re at it they can look at permanent 4-on-4 or bigger nets or whatever other wacky thing they can come up with. Just do something, because it’s only going to get worse.
The NHL isn't going to get better by maintaining the status quo. Other league’s are doing what they can to create more offense while the NHL is happy with small inconsequential changes to faceoff rules or goalie pants. Neither are enough.
Little changes aren’t going to bring scoring back to healthy levels. Big problems need big changes, it needs something bold and out there. Changing the offside rule might sound like too much, but it’s so crazy it just might work. There’s some precedent for it too with the removal of the red-line back in 2005. Maybe it won’t work as well as I think it could, but at the very least it’s something worth trying.
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