Vancouver Canucks: Offside Challenge Has Got To Go

Oct 17, 2016; Winnipeg, Manitoba, CAN; Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara (33) speaks with referee Brad Watson (23) during the second period after his goal was called off due to an offside at MTS Centre. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 17, 2016; Winnipeg, Manitoba, CAN; Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara (33) speaks with referee Brad Watson (23) during the second period after his goal was called off due to an offside at MTS Centre. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports /

The Vancouver Canucks missed the playoffs again this year, and while there are few bright sides to that fact, one might be that Canucks fans avoided the torment of dealing with the offside challenge.

Changing the rules in professional sports can be a dicey proposition. Sometimes they address legitimate problems. The coach’s challenge for goaltender interference, for example, is a step towards fixing an issue that arguably cost the Vancouver Canucks the Stanley Cup in 2011. But there is always a risk that new rules might backfire, and the other new coach’s challenge on offside calls carried just such a risk.

Backfired it has.

Prior to the start of this year’s Stanley Cup Final, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was asked about the challenge and said it was working “exactly as intended,” indicating no intention to change it. As has so often been the case, it appears the commissioner is out of touch with what many people around the game are thinking.

And sure enough, the very first goal in the Stanley Cup Final, scored by one of the most prominent personalities in the game (Nashville defender PK Subban), was called back on an offside challenge. It dramatically changed the momentum of the game, and ultimately made a huge difference in a game that was 4-3 for Pittsburgh going into the final minutes. How different it might have been if it were 4-4.

The Offside Challenge

Since the start of the 2015-16 season, coaches have had the option of challenging a goal on the premise that it was scored on a play that should have been blown dead for being offside. If the challenge fails, they lose their timeout. If it succeeds, the goal is called back, and the clocks are set back to when the offside should have been called. It’s as if the ensuing play never happened.

But it did happen. We all saw it happen! Players logged time on the ice, they made passes, took shots, blocked shots, made saves, and ultimately someone scored a goal. After a successful offside challenge, we are expected to treat it as though those things never happened.

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This is the fundamental flaw in the challenge.

There is no similar rule in any professional sport that I am aware of. While most sports involve some mechanisms for coaches to challenge close plays, none of them involve a significant retroactive application of that challenge. If an MLB manager, for instance, challenges a close play at second base, the challenge happens immediately after the play, not several pitches later.

Getting It Right

I don’t have any problem with the desire to get offside calls right. Offside calls can be exceptionally close, and at real time they can be very difficult to catch. Officials do make mistakes, and there is no question that we should all want to minimize those mistakes. If the NHL were to roll out a technology that placed sensors inside pucks and skates, with lasers along the bluelines, so that offsides could be called automatically without the chance of human error, I would fully support it.

But the present model doesn’t make sense. It punishes the team that managed to score a goal — no easy task — for a mistake made by an official. It gives the team which gave up a goal a decidedly unearned gift.

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Moreover, it fundamentally misses the spirit of the offside rule and re-shapes the outcomes of games in ways that do not reflect what much of the hockey world values.

Consider: the offside rule is designed to prevent what we sometimes call “cherry picking.” The offensive team isn’t allowed to let a player just float around in the offensive zone behind the D, waiting for a long-distance breakaway pass. Offside rules prevent that, and thus keep the game fluid, forcing teams to collectively move the puck into the offensive zone.

None of the offside challenges since 2015 have saved us from an egregious act of cherry picking. They have all been on razor-thin close calls at the blue line. And while I prefer that we get those calls right, the occasional missed offside (on a very close play) gives either team a fundamental advantage.

This is different from, say, the goaltender interference challenge, which I support. (Although I would like to see it applied more consistently, but that’s another blog.) Goaltender interference has a direct influence on whether a team scores or not. Allowing such interference gives a major advantage to a team that does it, so it is important that coaches have a chance to call a goal back if such interference takes place.


But a missed offside call? Let’s be honest, it’s a technicality. The missed calls here are always the ones that are very close, so we can’t claim that the defensive team is seriously disadvantaged when such a call is missed.

For every goal that is scored on a missed offside, it is a fundamental fact that the goal was not scored because of the offside play. The goal was scored because of a great shot, a perfect pass, a defensive breakdown, a goaltenders weakness, sustained pressure, or some combination of these kinds of factors.

The offside was incidental.

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In fact, PK Subban’s disallowed goal on Monday night was scored 14 seconds after the alleged offside violation. The setup for the goal was not the offside play at all but, rather, a Ron Hainsey giveaway several seconds later. The missed offside call did not lead in any direct way to the goal being scored.

Again, I would still prefer we get these calls right. But when they are missed and play continues, play continues. Things happen, and those things should not be nullified on account of the missed offside.

Until we have a means to automatically and correctly call every offside as it happens, we have to eliminate the coaches’ ability to retroactively cancel goals on account of missed offsides.

What’s The Point?

As with any rule change, we have to ask what it hopes to achieve and whether it makes the game better. For instance, tougher penalties for headshots would discourage such hits and reduce the number of concussions in the game. This is a positive outcome for players and fans, and so, it would be a rule change that makes sense.

Even the much maligned delay-of-game penalty for shooting the puck over the glass, while often criticized, does serve its intended purpose. It forces defending players to use other — more difficult — tactics of clearing the d-zone, thus creating more opportunities for sustained offensive pressure in the game.

But the offside challenge has not justified itself as having a positive effect on the game. It alters the outcome in a significant way, without legitimate cause. It always feels cheap; when you win such a challenge it is hardly a “fist-pump” moment, and when you lose one it feels decidedly unjust and changes the complexion of the game, on balance, for the worse.

It creates fodder for every team’s belief that the league is out to get them (Vancouver Canucks fans, of course, know that the league is truly out to get them) and it provides almost nothing positive to the experience of watching.

Time To Move On

As the Vancouver Canucks’ season drew to a conclusion, a large section of the fanbase were hoping the team would tank, dropping down in the standings to guarantee a higher draft position. In a key game against Arizona that would determine who finished lower in the standings, the Canucks’ former head coach Willie Desjardins used an offside challenge on the Coyotes’ go-ahead goal. Canucks twitter held its collective breath and the relief when the challenge failed was palpable.

Normally, of course, fans aren’t cheering for a loss. Predators fans can’t have been happy on Monday night when the first goal of the Stanley Cup Final was called back on an offside challenge. Last season, the story was the same, as offside challenges cost goals and often changed the direction of games and even entire series. In one case, St. Louis forward Vladimir Tarasenko had a goal called back and then, in frustration, took a slashing penalty that cost St. Louis a critical game. Given the timing and the shift in momentum, it may well have cost them the series.

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Did St. Louis deserve to win that series? It’s impossible to say, but the offside challenge did not get us any closer to that truth. The same can be said of Monday night’s episode in Pittsburgh. Would Nashville have won without the offside challenge? We’ll never know, but we are not the better for having to ask this question.

Just put a sensor in the puck and let’s get on with it.