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Friday, June 15, 2007

As we descend into the deep, dark offseason with not even baseball or the Pistons to distract us, things get offtopic...

Offsides needs to die. Hockey offsides, that is. It is sort of required in football and soccer. But it is not in hockey, and every time the rule is invoked a little part of me dies. Entertaining rushes are blown dead because one player strayed a fraction into the attacking zone. Power plays go from excitingly set up to regrouping because a defenseman can't hold the puck in the zone. Defenders can stack the blue line and enforce a dump and chase strategy that's about as interesting as watching the Spurs play basketball. And for what? I can't figure it out. It's true the rule gives a certain structure to the modern game, but what would the consequences be if offsides did not exist?

Cherry-picking is not likely. No team is going to voluntarily put themselves a man down in the defensive zone in the vague hope a long lead pass goes tape-to-tape and puts a player in alone. The continued existence of the two-line pass would make the offensive zone verboten until the defending team had cleared their zone with control of the puck. At that point, players could go where they pleased with incurring the wrath of a whistle and a boring neutral-zone faceoff. No, the framework for a penalty-kill-and-breakaway based offense has been in place since the NHL adopted the collegiate two-line pass rule, but no one has seriously attempted to deploy it save for some Swedes in the Olympics. Breakaway passes remain difficult, low-return things; removing offsides is not going to change that.

So, then, what are the negatives? The ability of a team to remove pressure around its own goal by desperately poking the puck out past the blue line has always seemed a cheap maneuver, and there's nothing I hate more in hockey than the whistle that disrupts an interesting rush for no reason. (Except the delay of game penalty you get when you accidentally fling the puck into the stands in your defensive zone. Worst rule in sports? Other than "Anderson Varejao is allowed to participate in them"?) Those are the ways offsides inflicts itself on the sport. Removing both of these things would improve the game

The benefit is obvious: hockey gets to play to its strengths. It's always been a game of flow up and down the ice, players approaching and retreating. One of my favorite sequences in all of hockey came in Michigan's 3-2 overtime loss to BC in the NCAA tournament a few years ago. Michigan had been dominated the entire game until a gorgeous nine minute-plus stretch of nonstop end-to-end action unsullied by whistles. Michigan started to emerge. You could feel the momentum shift. The Wolverines re-asserted themselves as equals, and you could feel the tenor of the game change. By the time it ended and the freaked out network cut to commercial, the tension drained from the room and real-life reasserted itself after what seemed like a lengthy ten minute vacation. (This being Michigan sports in the past half-decade, Boston College would bat in a rebound off the offensive zone faceoff and go on to win in overtime; yea, Angry Michigan Hockey Hating God was wroth that day.)

Dropping offsides would not turn all games into that ten-minute pressure wave but it might do that for some. It would reduce whistles, kill deadly dull neutral zone faceoffs, and make it harder to stand up offenses at the blue line with impunity. It would make hockey awesomer.

Okay, okay: while I would be happy to see offsides disappear entirely, I do realize most observers of the game would file that under lunacy and move on. But there are less radical alternatives:

  • Widen the blue line, which is actually part of the offensive zone when you want it to be -- holding a puck in or gaining the zone -- and a part of the defensive zone when you want it to be -- skittering along the edge of the zone with one skate precariously onside.
  • A more extreme version of same: make the "blue line" functionally extend all the way to the red line. Once you have gained the zone the puck must pass the red line for it to be lost. When you are taking the puck up ice, once you pass the red line you are permitted to pass to anyone.
Any of these suggestions would be somewhere between a moderate and a drastic change, but... um... they're embiggening the nets in a desperate attempt to increase scoring. Drastic measures are called for.

1 Comment:

Bob said...

Regarding Nick’s question, David at 3:35 PM yesterday has it right. Without offside in soccer, the game would suck even more than it frequently does.

Backs in soccer defend in a line that moves up and down the field depending on the position of the ball. Teams that are afraid of a potent offense will usually play their defense “low.” They pack the zone near the goal and don’t stray too far. This is frequently effective at preventing goals, but creates boring soccer. When they get possession, they just boot the ball up the field. Their outnumbered attackers usually give it right back and the defenders brace themselves for another attack.

A more attack-minded team has their defenders play higher. There’s a trade-off: it enables their defenders to participate in the attack, keeps the ball in their opponent’s end, and when they lose possession they can frequently break up the attack before their own goal is put under pressure. But they leave themselves exposed to a well-timed run where an opposing forward anticipates the outlet pass and gets behind the defense. (Remember, the offside call is based on the player’s position when the ball is released, not when it arrives.)

The offsides rule requires the attacking player to respect the defensive line. Without offsides, the defense would have no choice but to pack the penalty area. Games would look more like sieges with no flow and little scoring.

The offside trap, when effectively deployed, can be a thing of beauty – the entire row of defenders move forward in unison. The attacker thinks he’s got a breakaway, takes the ball downfield, shoots and celebrates his “goal.” Then he notices the goalkeeper is laughing at him. When he looks to the sideline he sees the fat man in the stupid shorts holding his little flag up.

The only problem that I see with the offside rule in soccer – and it’s a huge problem – is that it’s called wrong constantly. This is because it essentially requires the linesman to see two things at once: the player making the pass when he strikes the ball, and the position of the receiving player at the same moment. Quite often these are crucial calls that determine the outcome of a game. One hopes technology has a solution, but changing the rule would only reward teams who are hoping for a 0-0 tie.