Boston’s Luck With NHL’s Offside Rule

(Photo by Seth McConnell/The Denver Post)

By: Michael DiGiorgio  |  Follow Me On Twitter @BostonDiGiorgio

In 1929, the NHL implemented the offsides rule, which players abide by to this day. Rule 83.1 in the current NHL handbook states, “Players of the attacking team must not precede the puck into the attacking zone. The position of the player’s skates and not that of his stick shall be the determining factor in all instances in deciding an off-side. A player is off-side when both skates are completely over the leading edge of the blue line involved in the play.” The rule was created to ensure a level playing field and allow players to defend their goal, without having to worry about an attacker cherry-picking behind them.

If a player is deemed offsides entering the zone, the whistle will be blown by an on-ice official and a face-off will occur. The ensuing face-off will take place outside the attacking zone or in the attacker’s defensive zone, depending on intent. In 2016, the NHL Board of Governors allowed its coaches to challenge an offsides ruling if it resulted in a goal. The amendment to the rule has created a frenzy of unhappy players, coaches, and organizations, and confusing explanations.

Hockey has always relied on referees to call its game fairly and objectively. Referees have been trained by the NHL to uphold the rule book and keep order on the ice. On-ice officials are entrusted to call a fair and unbiased game. This has, however, created an opportunity for human error. As the players become bigger, faster, and stronger, so does the game. It is always a criticism from the average hockey fan that the game is “too fast” and the puck is “hard to follow.” On-ice officials need to adapt to the changes and ensure their calls are correct. One bad judgment call by the referee can change the landscape of an entire game. With the emergence of challenging in-game video review across all sports, the NHL decided it was time to allow their referees to review offsides.

The challenge was implemented because in many instances (some in key games) a play should have been offsides and a goal was scored. The NHL wanted to give the referees a chance to reverse the call if, upon video review, their original ruling was wrong. When a coach requests a challenge, the referees stop the game, call the NHL review headquarters in Toronto, and have a phone call about the play. Referees talk to Toronto as they look at the play on an iPad, which most have scrutinized. Challenges have taken anywhere from three to ten minutes. As a whole, game-play slowed down significantly and coaches took advantage of the break to give players a breather. The NHL changed the penalty of a failed offsides from a loss of a time-out to a two-minute minor penalty.

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With the decrease in challenges, scrutiny increased in turn. Your Boston Bruins have been at odds with this rule numerous times, especially in the playoffs. In-Game 1 Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2018, Brad Marchand entered the attacking zone with the puck and ended up scoring on the play. His teammate, Patrice Bergeron, was run into by a Maple Leafs player. Bergeron’s right skate was in the zone, and his left skate appeared to have dragged on the blue line. As 83.1 further states in the NHL rule book, “A player is on-side when either of his skates is in contact with, or on his own side of the line, at the instant, the puck completely crosses the leading edge of the blue line regardless of the position of his stick.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xKrRCCae2AA?start=25&w=560&h=315

 

Bergeron’s skate is simultaneously entering the zone as the puck enters the zone. Stop the video at 41 seconds and the puck is clearly in the zone, while Bergeron’s skate is touching the blue paint. The NHL’s rule book states this is a good goal, but the referees and the NHL called the goal back upon video review. Any camera angle showing the replay on the jumbotron or on the at-home TV broadcasts are the same cameras the NHL sees. So Bruins fans are left wondering, why was this called no-goal? These plays are happening during the most crucial time in the sport, and goals are held to the interpretation of the referee on an iPad.

More recently, Weymouth-native Charlie Coyle scored what looked like a good goal in the eyes of the rule book in Montreal on November 6, 2019.

 

In this instance, rule 83.1 allows Coyle’s goal. “A player actually controlling the puck who shall cross the line ahead of the puck shall not be considered “off-side,” provided he had possession and control of the puck prior to his skates crossing the blue line.” Control of the puck means the act of propelling the puck with the stick, hand, or feet, which Coyle displays. Players nowadays are talented enough to use their skates as a way to pass the puck to their stick, which is considered possession. The referees and NHL determined Coyle did not have possession, even though he corralled the puck from his skates to his stick upon entering the zone.

Interestingly enough, a similar play occurred in 2016 between the Carolina Hurricanes and the Washington Capitals.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MSy7ZCMV6Z0?start=24&w=560&h=315

 

Evgeny Kuznetsov (Washington Capitals forward) entered the zone and lost the puck for a brief moment. Moments later, Evgeny’s teammate, Alex Ovechkin, scored the game-winning goal. The NHL reviewed the goal and the goal was upheld, meaning the NHL determined Kuznetsov had possession of the puck while entering the zone even though he did not have it on his stick for a moment.

The NHL is inconsistent with their calls. Ovechkin’s goal stands when, for a moment, Kuznetsov did not have clear puck possession, but Coyle’s goal is overturned when he, too, had possession. Many around the league feel the referees do not want to reverse their own call, especially if the replay is inconclusive. Even further, when referees give an explanation, it is too vague and does not explain the decision. Herein lies the problem.

This past Tuesday, the NHL and General Managers met at their annual November meeting. The meeting is designed to review how the year has progressed and discuss any rule changes that need to be reviewed during their annual March meetings. Rules are changed, created, or deleted during these March meetings. “Commissioner Bettman said a discussion on the offside rule, possibly regarding the way it is written in the rulebook and how it is being applied in video replay through a coach’s challenge, will be one of the many topics the GMs will talk about.” Don Sweeney, General Manager of the Boston Bruins, is a lock to be one of the many GMs to voice his displeasure with the rule and how it’s being evaluated.

It is unclear what the NHL will do (if anything) to change the challenge process. The most likely scenario is that the NHL will hear out its General Managers now and see how the current year progresses with the rule. If the on-ice ruling has a significant hand in how a game ends this year, the NHL will have more pressure from the public eye to make a change. Unfortunately, the NHL and its fans will have to wait until March for an actual revision. Even so, a new rule may not go into effect until next season. The NHL needs to educate its fans, referees, and organizations on all scenarios that come from the offside challenge. The calls need to be consistent and free of mistakes. The NHL comes down to a game of inches and a crucial call can create a controversial outcome.

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