An NHL Pipedream: No Off-Sides

Who watched the 2017 NBA Finals? If not, you missed one of the better exhibitions of skill in sports and some exciting basketball. With three of the best players in the game, offense was in abundance, with Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, and Lebron James flying down the court to drain shots. Although Golden State was clearly the better team, the basketball display was top-notch.

Now who watched the 2017 Stanley Cup Finals (SCF)? If not, you did not miss anything exhilarating. Arguably, the best player in the world, Sidney Crosby, and a high-flying Nashville Predators defense-core led by Norris Trophy winner, P.K. Subban and what do the fans get: hockey that is boooooorrrrrring. Which maybe explains how the Pro Bowl had higher ratings than Game 6 of the SCF.

If you watch hockey enough, especially at the world’s highest level, you can see it is not any more exciting today than yesterday. In fact, it is quite dull. Officials continue to not call penalties, especially holding or interference, which defenders say is “letting the players play.” What may be helpful for players without the puck is killing the game.

But I am not going to go on about the lack of penalties called in the NHL, I am going to discuss what NBA players do not have to worry about: off-sides. In a change of possession, Kevin Durant can run down the court for a stretch pass while not worrying if his toe is off the floor before crossing a line. In hockey, the officials spend three hours to review the eighth of an inch that the skate is off the ice a minute before the goal was scored.

Although it will never, ever, happen, eliminating off-sides would bring legitimate excitement to hockey. The obvious result would be more breakaways and less stoppages in play. Detractors would argue that it would lead to goal-hanging, an excuse that is very generic. Well, if one team controls the puck in the offensive zone, the defending team would not be wise to be a man down but would allow players to move quickly when possession changes.

Guess what hockey players deal with that basketball players do not on a breakaway? One hint: they all are about 6’5” and have a .920 save percentage. Goalies occupy more space and are more athletic than ever in the game, as is the average hockey player. On a breakaway, netminders are more likely to make the save though there may be more of them. The percentage scored will likely be about the same, similar to how powerplay scoring rates are very similar despite fewer of them. But more chances lead to more goals, to be obvious.

Another reason why it would not hamper defenders is that the they are as fast, if not faster, than the forwards. More than ever, defensemen are not burned by opposing scorers. And if you need further proof, watch clips of P.K. Subban, Erik Karlsson, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, to name just a few. On average, blueliners skate better and faster than at any other time in the game. Smallish, quick defenders were not as sought after as the 6’4” physical beasts of the past. Cale Makar might not have been drafted in the second-round ten years ago but was taken fourth overall by the Colorado Avalanche. Speed and offense by defensemen is becoming the norm. It was a surprise when Bobby Orr flew by forwards but it is not an anomaly if Nathan Beaulieu does. That being said, catching a forward who does not have to worry about staying behind the opposing blueline will not be a problem.

Again, I know this will not happen. It would take a complete overhaul of the sport itself. Eliminating off-sides is as likely as the NHL permitting puck being kicked into the net. I mention this as my solution to the scoring drought of professional hockey, knowing that the Buffalo Bills have a better chance at ending their seventeen-year playoff drought than the league taking any serious action to improve scoring, in general. Until Gary Bettman and the owners do something worthwhile, do not expect a scoring increase. Outside of the post-lockout season in 2005-2006, league scoring has not shown significant scoring revival. And if Bettman cannot make enough subtle changes to improve goals, he will never implement radical changes that would have a larger impact.

Fans want fun. Scoring does that. The NHL does not have much scoring and ESPN barely covers the sport. And although the extinction of off-sides is a pipedream, it is still a better suggestion than anything the NHL has proposed publicly. I hope that I am wrong but I do not expect the scoring trend to change this season, despite an incoming group of highly skilled, fast young hockey players. If Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, and Auston Matthews are drawing attention now, imagine their impact if the league removed off-sides from NHL hockey.

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Benjamin Burke