A missed offside call in Denver on Monday afternoon conceivably cost the Nashville Predators one or even two points in their game against the Colorado Avalanche. Matt Duchene scored on a play that was, conservatively, two feet offside. Linesman Derek Amell had a clear view of the play as Preds players gave up on a play they assumed would be called back.
The video of the blooper went viral, embarrassing linesman and the league, infuriating the Predators and focussing attention on the quality of officiating. "@Panger40 Worst off side missed call ever. Ever. #Nashville#Avalanche ."
Across the NHL, media, fans, players and coaches believe that the team off to the slowest start since the lockout is the NHL officials. Ask them, and they'll all have their own grievance about a missed call that cost their team. Some even say that this is the worst officiated season in NHL history. "The season's half as long and the refs are making twice as many mistakes. Seems about right," said blogger Bloguin.
That would be difficult to quantify, but there's no doubt that calls from the officials are being scrutinized as never before.
Don't blame the referees for this crisis of confidence, however. They're probably not worse than many of their predecessors. What has happened though is that their employers at the NHL have set them up for trouble.
By its dogged insistence on parity, the NHL has minimized the competitive difference between teams. With a few exceptions at the top and bottom of the league, teams are crammed together around the median like sardines in a can. The mash-up is made tighter by three-point games that keep teams from falling too far back.
With talent being so evenly distributed across the NHL, games aren't decided, as they were in the past, by the variance in talent between the clubs . Instead, factors such as injury, travel the day before and ice conditions take on an inordinate role in deciding games.
But no single factor makes a difference in games these days quite like the refereeing and the morphing rule book. While zebras have always skated on the knife's edge, there were many nights before salary caps and parity where the talent of the 1970s. Montreal Canadiens, 1980s New York Islanders or Edmonton Oilers of the late '80s kept referees from deciding the game with a single call. These elite teams simply overwhelmed their opposition many nights.
A missed offside won't change a 10-4 score. Referees could (and did) make gaffes in that era that never impacted the outcome as significantly as they do today.
One former referee told us that they couldn't imagine surviving the scrutiny, the constant video review and the moving targets on tolerance set by the league for its officials. In a game that is faster by half than a generation ago, getting the call right is more difficult than ever. The 24-hour TV networks to point out the mistakes they made aren't helping either. And the support for officials from the league is perceived to be declining.
With many contests producing fewer than five goals in total (and many going to extra time) the interpretation of the rules or, as we saw in Denver, a blown call by a linesman has been magnified to a critical level. And it's not helping the perception of the NHL product.
Perhaps it's the giddy idea of the Montreal Canadiens leading the Eastern Conference. Or maybe it's the simply Gallic influence of an Ontario guy named Brandon Prust. But odd things come to mind.
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