There was a very silly moment in the NHL last week.
Well, there were a few, because it’s the NHL, but the one I’m referring to happened in a game between the Golden Knights and Maple Leafs. A few minutes into the game, Phil Kessel scored a goal to put Vegas up 1-0. This was cool, because it was the 400th goal of Kessel’s career, his first as a Knight, and was also the game in which he tied the all-time ironman record. The building was rocking.
And then came the review. Well, that’s not actually true, because first came the now-required extended pause to think about the review, making sure the coach has plenty of time to squint at an iPad while everyone else stands around waiting for them to make up their mind. Then came the timeout, because Sheldon Keefe and the Leafs still weren’t sure. Then came the review, which went on forever. The Leafs had challenged the play for being offside on the zone entry, a full 19 seconds before Kessel scored. There was no clear view that showed whether it was or wasn’t, but if you spliced together a few angles it looked like it probably was, by maybe an inch or two, for a fraction of a second, although it probably wasn’t quite conclusive if you were a Vegas fan.
Then, after an almost seven-minute delay had sucked all the life out of the building, the verdict finally came in: No goal.
Then the Golden Knights scored immediately and the whole thing didn’t matter. Hot dog don’t lie.
I’m not knocking Keefe and the Maple Leafs for the challenge. It worked, after all, and they were just doing what teams are supposed to do in that situation, which is to look for any nitpicky detail they can find to get them off the hook for allowing a goal. But imagine explaining all of that to a new fan. Imagine them seeing all the excitement from Kessel’s moment, then telling them that a league that’s been starved for offense for 25 years and counting somehow feels the need to stand around for seven minutes to see if there was a way to make it go away. It’s madness.
There’s an easy answer to this problem: Get rid of offside review. All of them. Go back to how it worked for the first 90-plus years of the league. Have the linesmen do their best to make the calls in real time, accept that the occasional razor-thin call might be missed, understand that most of those misses won’t directly lead to a goal, and be able to shrug and deal with the rare ones that do because that’s just sports. And yes, if there’s a Matt Duchene-sized miss once or twice a decade, we can live through that too.
According to the NHL, that’s not an option. They like offside review, and Gary Bettman says the ship has sailed.
If you’re the sort of person who supports the way things work now — because we just need to Get It Right, no matter how long it takes, no matter how many goals come off the board based on freeze-framed pixels, no matter how much fun and energy get sucked out of buildings around the league every night — then I have two important things to tell you. First, you’re wrong. And second, you’ve won. The status quo is what it is. You’ve got the system you want, and there’s been little to suggest that this league will ever change it. This piece isn’t for you. Go celebrate by watching paint dry, or whatever it is you people do for fun.
For the rest of us, the easy answer is to get rid of offside review. But if we can’t do that, the next best thing is to make it better. So let’s talk about that, with five ways we could improve offside review without getting rid of it entirely.
1. Lean into “conclusive and irrefutable”
Here’s what the rulebook says about overturning a call on review:
“In all Coach’s Challenge situations, the original call on the ice will be overturned if, and only if, a conclusive and irrefutable determination can be made on the basis of video evidence that the original call on the ice was clearly not correct. If a review is not conclusive and/or there is any doubt whatsoever as to whether the call on the ice was correct, the original call on the ice will be confirmed.”
I’ve added the emphasis, but you get the point. They’re being very clear here, to the point of redundancy: You only change the call when it’s very obvious that it was wrong. If there’s “any doubt whatsoever,” you go with the call on the ice.
Does it feel like this is how review actually works?
It’s obviously not. If we were going by those words in the rulebook, it wouldn’t be possible to have a seven-minute review, because anything that took that long clearly isn’t conclusive. Whether it’s offside or the dreaded goalie interference or anything else, we’ve all seen calls reversed that surprised us, or that led to hours (or days) of debate over whether they actually got it right.
The rulebook says that shouldn’t happen. So call the rulebook as written.
It’s bizarre that the NHL doesn’t already do this. After all, this isn’t some weird relic of a rule from 1920 that’s evolved over the course of a century and doesn’t really work in the modern game. We only added coach’s challenges a few years ago. The NHL wrote the rule in a specific way to make it clear how things were supposed to work. Then they pretty much immediately started doing something else.
This is the easiest fix on the list, because we don’t have to change anything. No votes, no task forces, no debates. We just have to remind everyone to read the words in the rulebook. Use replay review to overturn obvious misses, like Duchene being offside by 10 feet. But if it isn’t “conclusive and irrefutable,” the call on the ice stands.
Of course, there are a couple of problems with this approach. The first is that the NHL would actually have to tell us what the call on the ice was, instead of leaving it up in the air like they’ve been known to do. But the bigger issue is that the “get it right” zealots would argue that a single frame showing a play was offside by one pixel is conclusive, even if it takes five minutes to find it. That feels pedantic, but maybe they’re right. If so, then we need to get a bit more heavy-handed here.
2. Limit how long the reviews can take
I hear this one a lot from frustrated fans, and it’s really just an extension of the first suggestion. The idea here is that any review that drags on for too long can’t be conclusive and irrefutable, so we put a time limit on things. Let’s say that from the moment the review begins, we have two minutes before the screens shut off. If you haven’t made your mind up by then, that’s fine. It means that the call on the ice was right, or at least that it was close enough that we can live with it. Let’s get the game going again.
Would it help? Let’s hold that thought, because the next idea is a similar approach …
3. Real-time reviews only
This is a different way to get at the conclusive and irrefutable problem. You let the officials take as long as they want to review a play, but they don’t get to see it in super slo-mo. Instead, all the replays have to be in real time. If it’s a Duchene-level miss, a few looks will be more than enough. If it’s a fraction of an inch, you won’t be able to see it here, but that’s fine. The game is played in real time, it’s officiated in real time, and we’re all watching it in real time. If you need freeze frames to realize a call was wrong, it’s too close to worry about.
Both of the last two ideas would cut down on overturned calls while also making reviews quicker. That’s good. But while I see the appeal, I’m not sure either is the right answer here. You can limit what kind of replays the officials can watch, but that won’t stop your TV partners from showing the same endless frame-by-frames that a coaching assistant has probably already watched. There would definitely be cases where a call that was probably wrong was allowed to stand, and while that’s how the rule is supposed to work, it would drive the “just get it right” crowd crazy, and lead to all sorts of whiny postgame meltdowns from coaches. Add it all up, and I’d worry that we’d just be creating more animosity for the officials, and more crying from the fan bases that have a well-developed persecution complex. Which is to say, all of them.
No, I think there’s a better way to artificially limit reviews, and it’s one that doesn’t drop all the blame at the feet of the officials. That’s why it’s my personal favorite option …
4. Shorten the coach’s time to decide
Offside review has always been broken, but it certainly seems like there’s one element that’s been getting worse over the last year or two: The interminable delays while we wait for the coach to make up his mind.
This is bad, for two reasons. First of all, hockey was way more fun when a goal would be scored and we’d cut to a shot of the other team’s coach looking mad, or yelling at this team, or waving his arms around, or reacting with some form of human emotion instead of just passively staring at a little screen like a bored toddler at the end of a long car ride. But more importantly, it’s giving all these coaches even more time to find those freeze-frame pixel plays that shouldn’t able to overturn a call but somehow still do.
You’d think we could turn to the rulebook for some sort of time limit here, but there actually isn’t one. It just says that the review has to be initiated before the next faceoff. And if the officials are willing to just stand around before dropping the puck, then the coach has all the time in the world to figure things out.
We need a limit, and here’s my suggestion: Five seconds.
That’s it. Five seconds from the moment the goal is scored until the coach has to make up his mind. The referee in the offensive-zone signals goal, and the trailing referee looks over at the coach and holds up five fingers. Count it down. Five seconds, coach, what do you got?
OK, I’m guessing you think that’s too quick. If so, make it 10 seconds or whatever. The point is that we want a quick decision, one that has to come before the video coach has had time to dig through every replay like it’s the Zapruder film. If the coach thinks he saw something in real time, or he trusts his players who say they did, then we’ll review it. But you don’t get to tell the linesman he missed a call when you didn’t see it either.
The beauty here is that we’d still be missing plays that were technically offside. It would probably happen even more often than with our other ideas. But now it’s not the officials’ fault anymore. Now it’s on the coach for not being quick enough. If the broadcast discovers an angle that shows a skate was a half-inch over the line, they won’t be blaming the linesman for not finding it on replay. They’ll blame the coach instead.
Is this just me being punitive toward NHL coaches, who are the main reason the game has evolved into such a defensive grind over the years? Absolutely, and I consider that a feature, not a bug.
Let’s close with one more suggestion that can work with any of the others, or all on its own.
5. Only review calls that lead directly to a goal
I’m against offside review in all cases, but if you want to hold my feet to the fire, then sure, I can see the argument if it’s on a two-on-one that leads directly to a goal a second later. But those plays are exceedingly rare. Again, that Leafs/Golden Knights review up above was for an entry that happened 19 seconds before a goal was scored. That’s forever in an NHL game. The Leafs had possession during that time, but couldn’t clear the puck. Why do they get a do-over for something that happened so long ago?
But don’t we need to just get it right, no matter how long ago the missed call was? No, and we already concede that, because we don’t allow the reviews of zone entries that came prior to the one before the goal. If either team was offside on a previous entry from three trips down the ice ago, we can’t review that, and literally nobody argues that we should. But why not? If a whistle was missed, and we have to just get it right, then we should be able to go back as far as we need to. But we don’t, and nobody wants to, because we all understand that it would be silly.
It’s ridiculous to let a team off the hook for an entry 19 seconds ago too. But that leads to the question of how time is too much. Is it 10 seconds? Five? Fifteen? And does that mean we have to be reviewing the clock too, just to make sure?
You can see where this would all turn into more of a pain than it needed to be. Luckily, my idea is simpler: We just go based on whether the defending team had control of the puck at any point. Not just touched it, but the same sort of loose possession standard we use for delayed penalties. If a team is offside on an entry and never gives up the puck before scoring, we can at least draw a straight line from that missed call to a goal. But if the defending team has the puck on their stick and coughs it back up, they don’t get to cash in a “get-out-of-goal-free” card anymore. You blew it, don’t blame the linesman.
So there you go. Five ideas, all of which would be an improvement over the current system.
Personally, I’d vote for a combination of 1, 4 and 5. We only review potential offside calls that lead directly to a goal, the coach has only a few seconds to make up his mind, and it has to be conclusive and irrefutable to take the goal off the board. Do all of that, and the games would be faster and higher scoring. Maybe we’d even all learn to get excited about goals again, without having one eye on the refs to see if a challenge is coming.
Or we could just get rid of the whole thing entirely. You know, if we want to just get it right.
(Photo of a referee overturning a Colorado Avalanche goal in Game 3 of the 2022 Stanley Cup Final because of a Tampa Bay Lightning offside challenge: Julio Aguilar / Getty Images)