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Why the NHL’s harsh penalty for failed offside challenges could be a smart change

Teams may cut back heavily on challenging close calls if there’s actually something to lose.

New York Rangers v Ottawa Senators - Game Five Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images

The NHL made an interesting change to its rulebook for the 2017-18 season Wednesday, adding the wrinkle that a failed offside challenge after a goal will be punished with a two-minute power play for the scoring team. No other challenges are affected by the rule.

On its face, the aim of the move seems apparent. There’s extra pressure on coaching staffs when deciding whether to challenge a goal for offside because they’ll have to kill a two-minute power play if it’s upheld. Video coaches are going to have to be as good as ever now that penalties are coming if they suggest an offside challenge that doesn’t work out.

This should cut down on time spent on reviews, and adds a layer of suspense given how high the stakes are.

The main question with this rule as presented is what happens when the call on the ice is inconclusive. Punishing a team for initiating the review of a play that even the referees couldn’t decide one way or another seems unnecessarily punitive. There’s no doubt that a time will come when someone gets burned by one of these situations late in a game.

But that also seems like the point. The NHL probably wants to make only the most obvious offside reviews palatable to teams. If the punishment is a two-minute penalty for even inconclusive calls on the ice, which are common with offside reviews, then teams will more or less stop just taking shots on offside calls just because they can.

There will still be the occasional review that’s too close to call firmly one way or another, and fans will surely be unhappy when that puts their team in a massive hole. This won’t fix the offside challenge entirely. But teams know the stakes now, and you can bet that the burden of proof for challenging an offside call in the video booth just went up.

Reviewing offside has become controversial since its implementation for various reasons, and there’s good reason for that. Too many of the calls involve looking at a skate hovering a centimeter over the ice, then deciding that should take away a goal that happened eight seconds later. It never felt in the spirit of the rule, even if it was trying to follow it.

The NHL won’t get rid of the offside challenge, presumably to have a mechanism to handle the very worst mistakes by officials, but this is a change meant to alter the dynamic of when they’re used. It was clearly too liberally before, as teams were comfortable losing their timeouts late in games for the hail-mary shot at taking a goal off the scoreboard. But if that’s now a two-minute penalty kill, too, when you’re trying to start a comeback? It’s a much tougher decision. You’ll only do it if it’s a no-brainer.

This is by design, and it’ll be interesting to see the effect it has on the coach’s challenge next season. There will likely be fewer of them on close calls, and everyone will probably be happy with that.