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This is why NHL ruled Cale Makar's Game 1 goal was not offside

The NHL got the call right on Cale Makar’s 3-2 goal on Tuesday night but it was just so unnecessary. 
Makar goal ruled onside
Cale Makar's first period goal for the Colorado Avalanche in Game 1 of the Western Conference Final was a controversial one after a video review for offside.

It’s not the Stanley Cup Playoffs without a little bit of controversy.

On Tuesday night, the Western Conference Final got a heaping dose of controversy when Cale Makar, with just 13 seconds remaining in the first period, scored a goal for the Colorado Avalanche that seemed blatantly, obviously offside. 

Edmonton Oilers head coach Jay Woodcroft quickly challenged the goal and the Sportsnet broadcast team of Chris Cuthbert and Craig Simpson called it “clear cut” and said, “There’s no question” that it was offside.

Only, after a lengthy video review, it was determined that the play was onside and it was a good goal. 

This stunned Woodcroft, enraged Oilers fans, and confused the commentators. Adding insult to injury, the failed coach’s challenge gave the Oilers a minor penalty for delay of game and the Avalanche scored another goal on the subsequent power play. 

The Oilers eventually lost the game by two goals, one of them an empty-netter, so the two-goal swing caused by the failed coach’s challenge was pretty significant. That said, it was an 8-6 game, so it’s hard to argue the game was actually won or lost in this one moment.

Besides, the officials got the call exactly right, though it may not be immediately obvious why.

Offside: a simple, yet incredibly complicated rule

The offside rule in hockey seems relatively simple: a player may not enter the offensive zone before the puck. In practice, it gets a little bit more complicated. 

On the Makar goal, the Avalanche’s Valeri Nichushkin and Gabe Landeskog were both in the offensive zone when the Oilers’ Darnell Nurse attempted a pass up the boards. That pass was picked off by Makar, who immediately jumped into the Oilers’ zone with the puck and fired a laser beam over the shoulder of Mike Smith.

After Nurse moved the puck up the boards, Landeskog cleared the zone but Nichushkin didn’t quite escape the zone before the puck crossed the blue line. Therefore, Nichushkin was in the offensive zone ahead of the puck and was offside: easy call, right?

But there are all sorts of times when the play isn’t always immediately blown dead if a player enters the offensive zone ahead of the puck. It’s called a delayed offside and it happens dozens of times every game.

The NHL rulebook defines a delayed offside as follows, from Rule 83.3:

“A situation where an attacking player (or players) has preceded the puck across the attacking blue line, but the defending team is in a position to bring the puck back out of its defending zone without any delay or contact with an attacking player, or, the attacking players are in the process of clearing the attacking zone.”

The relevant phrase comes at the end: “the attacking players are in the process of clearing the attacking zone.” Nichushkin was in the process of clearing the zone. So, this was a delayed offside situation.

Why Makar's goal was ruled onside: it's all about touch

Here’s the other key point: Makar never touched the puck in the offensive zone until Nichushkin came out over the blue line. The initial angle on the replay made it look like the puck was on his stick as it came over the blue line, but the opposite angle showed that there was clear daylight between Makar’s stick and the puck.

Normally, a delayed offside comes on a dump-in. Either a player has entered the offensive zone too early or they were trapped in the offensive zone when the puck came out over the blue line and everyone has to clear the zone before they can resume attacking. If Makar had dumped the puck in, Nichushkin cleared the zone, and Makar subsequently got the puck back on the forecheck, everyone would understand what happened. 

If you think of it as the tiniest dump-in of all time, there’s no issue. Makar dumped the puck in about two feet — whether intentionally or not — and then retrieved the puck once Nichushkin exited the zone.

Canucks fans have seen this exact situation before. In a game against the Boston Bruins in the 2019-20 season, Charlie McAvoy tapped the puck across the blue line before his teammate, Sean Kuraly, cleared the zone but he smartly waited to touch the puck again until Kuraly was out of the zone.

John Shorthouse and John Garrett were just as flummoxed at the time as Cuthbert and Simpson were on Tuesday night but it’s the exact same situation. Yes, the puck entered the zone before Kuraly cleared the zone, but McAvoy didn’t touch the puck while Kuraly was in an offside position.

This appeared to be entirely intentional on the part of McAvoy, while it seemed accidental for Makar, but the end result of the play is the same.

This play was even used by the NHL as an example of tagging up on a delayed offside, starting at 6:15 in their video rulebook.

“The puck may re-enter the offensive zone while the tagging up player is still in the attacking zone as long as it isn’t touched by an offensive player,” says the narrator of the video.

The keyword there is “touched.”

Possession doesn't matter for offside (except when it does)

For some reason, people got stuck on the idea that what mattered for this rule was “possession” — something that is never actually defined in the NHL rulebook. The argument is that Makar had possession of the puck even though he wasn’t touching it, so it should have been offside, but possession doesn’t enter into the discussion at all.

The NHL’s explanation for why the goal stood notably never mentions possession: “It was determined that Colorado's Valeri Nichushkin legally tagged up at the blue line before Cale Makar entered the offensive zone with the puck on his stick. Makar made contact with the puck in the offensive zone after Nichushkin was in an on-side position.”

In other words, possession doesn’t matter. Actual physical contact matters. Just don't get me started on the one instance for offsides when possession does matter — when a player backs into the offensive zone with the puck. 

Others pointed to another portion of Rule 83.3, which states that if “any member of the attacking team…attempts to gain possession of a loose puck,” then the play is offside. The argument is that even if Makar wasn’t touching the puck, he was at least attempting to gain possession of it.

By the letter of the law, this seems correct, but it’s not the way the NHL has interpreted this rule, as shown in the video explainer above. Instead, the rule about attempting to gain possession of the puck has only applied to those players who have preceded the puck into the zone and are in an offside position. 

Since Makar had not yet entered the zone, that didn’t apply. All that matters is that he didn’t touch the puck.

Elliotte Friedman instead tried to argue that it wasn’t a delayed offside at all, which doesn’t make any sense. He calls it a “tag-up offside” and not a delayed offside but the only reference to tagging up is in the Index and it literally just points to Rule 83.3 for delayed offsides. A "tag-up offside" is just a delayed offside by another name.

Friedman’s argument rests solely on the fact that the linesman didn’t raise his arm to indicate a delayed offside but the play happened so quickly that it would be perfectly understandable if the linesman simply didn’t have time to lift up his arm.

The offside rule is a relic of a bygone era: get rid of it

This is all very complicated and confusing for what should be a simple rule: don’t enter the zone before the puck but the offside rule has many issues. 

Offside reviews are one of the most aggravating things in hockey, as officials take eons going frame-by-frame over a replay to determine if a skate was a millimetre over the line a minute before a goal was scored. 

Like many of the rules in the NHL’s rulebook, the offside rule is ambiguously written, as illustrated by the lack of a definition for “possession” and the lack of clarity over who is allowed to “attempt to gain possession” on a delayed offside.. Frankly, the entire NHL rulebook could use a rewrite for clarity.

But part of that rewrite should include tossing the offside rule out the window.

This may sound drastic but the offside rule is a relic of a bygone era when forward passing was not allowed in hockey. 

Early hockey was a lot like rugby: all passes had to be lateral or backwards and the only way to move the puck forwards was to skate with it. Any forward pass was determined to be “offside.”

When forward passing was finally allowed, the NHL kept a part of the old rule: you still couldn’t enter the zone before the puck to receive one of those new-fangled forward passes. 

The offside rule is explicitly designed to limit scoring. Sure, Tuesday’s game between the Avalanche and Oilers featured 14 goals but that’s still an outlier. NHL scoring may be slightly up from its nadir in the dead puck era but it’s still nowhere near its peak in the high-flying 80’s and the NHL has repeatedly looked to increase scoring, with everything on the table, including increasing the size of the net.

So, why not simply remove the offside rule that has caused so many goals to be overturned after interminable offside reviews?

The objections: cherry-picking and flow

There are issues with removing the offside rule entirely. The one that frequently comes up first is that teams will cherry-pick, planting a player in the offensive zone for endless breakaways.

This seems like a non-issue. Frankly, if this was such a good strategy, teams would already be using it.

Teams could already have a player float in the neutral zone waiting for a breakaway pass if they wanted to. They don’t and for good reason: it would give the opposing team the equivalent of a 5-on-4 power play in the offensive zone. 

Perhaps the appeal of having a player cherry-pick in the offensive zone rather than the neutral zone would change things. If so, perhaps the opposing team would drop a defenceman back to mark the cherry-picking player, resulting in a 4-on-4 situation for everyone else. That would also increase the amount of space on the ice and create the potential for more offence.

To me, that just sounds like it adds another layer of strategy to the game. 

A more pertinent issue is that it could lead to teams expanding the “offensive zone” too much — moving back into the neutral zone while in possession of the puck rather than attacking the opposing net. Contrary to expectations, this might actually slow the game down and decrease offence.

Consider how 3-on-3 overtime has gradually become slower and less interesting since it was introduced as teams will repeatedly regroup in the neutral zone to maintain possession. Something similar could happen if the offside rule was eliminated, completely changing the flow of the game.

Replacing the offside rule with something better — or at least different

One option would be to actually go back to one of the rules that existed prior to the implementation of the offside rule: no forward passing over the blue line into the offensive zone. More specifically, players can skate the puck into the offensive zone with a teammate already in the zone but they can't pass it to a teammate already in the zone.

That would eliminate the cherry-picking and maintain the blue line for strategic purposes but completely eliminate any offside when a player skates the puck into the zone, as Makar did on his goal on Tuesday night. It wouldn't entirely get rid of the problem of video reviews — was that player a millimeter in the zone when he received a pass?!?! — but it would get rid of most of them. 

Another alternative, and my personal favourite, comes from Dom Luszczysyn: treat it like over-and-back in basketball.

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.

Rush chances in transition could become even more dangerous as players can aggressively skate in behind the defence to take passes but in-zone offence would stay the same, as teams would still have to hold the blue line to keep the puck in the zone.

It’s a solid idea and one worth exploring, if only the NHL had the guts to change a rule that’s been in place for over 90 years.