Three-Two-One

Three-Two-One

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Whichever way you cut it, the Leafs endured a torrid season that no statistical tinkering can mend. Regardless, if there is one thing most opposing NHL fans can agree on it’s the increasing need for an overhaul in the leagues points’ structure and the farcical awarding of points in the overall standings.

Where once every game had two points at stake, either by means of two for the win or split after an OT tie, the inclusion of an extra point for teams losing in OT or, more prevalently, after the shootout, has spawned an lopsided points structure that favours teams and coaches who adopt an cautious approach toward the end of regulation time that is the polar opposite of what was originally intended.

Introduced in 1999, the overtime loss point was designed to increase attacking play in the overtime period by reducing the risk of an OT loss. Prior to the institution of the OT loss rule, overtime’s were often drab affairs with teams settling for the joint point payoff that resulted in a tie. Unfortunately, even prior to the lockout, the OT loss point had an adverse effect on the regulation time game. With tied teams each guaranteed at least a point in OT, many coaches adopted a batten-down-the-hatches approach to tied games at the close of regulation.

The problem has become even more systemic in the post-lockout era.

Love it or hate it, the introduction of shootouts were the game-time centerpiece to the NHL rebrand, offering a gimmicky circumvention of the dreaded tie and a spectacle both for the casual fan and for the supposed TV executives who`d long switched off. While the four-on-four play introduced in the “new” NHL has largely ended concerns regarding attacking extra periods, the shootouts have worsened the increasing apathy for regulation time wins.

Indeed, since the 2007-‘08 season the number of games requiring overtime has trended upwards from 272, to 282 the following season and 301 this past season constituting 24.4% of all scheduled matchups; and games requiring shootouts have followed suit with 184 this year.

While there is little doubt many of the rules implemented in the wake of the lockout has created greater parity amongst its thirty franchises, at least at a financial level; the forced and theoretical parity brought about by the OT point system has proved both counter-intuitive with playoff races often effectively dead at the 70 game mark and regular season games diluted by the devaluation of a regulation win.

Subsequently, everybody with even a passing interest in the subject has a theory concerning the way the NHL should allocate points in the standings. Ranging from commonplace to outlandish, the fact so many fans are concerning themselves with the issue should be indication enough to the league office that the situation needs addressing, preferably before the next labour stoppage changes the face of the NHL irreversibly.

And irreversible it is, at least with regards to the shootout. For those in the “hate-it” camp don’t hold your breath on the NHL turning back to the tie. Even if tied overtime would work better in the age of four-on-four OT, Bettman et-al have demonstrated zero precedence in tampering with their brainchild’s (read Phoenix Coyotes) and have even less call to as the shootouts are proving wildly popular at a showcase level.

Consequently this means any future alterations to the point system would have to take the shootouts into consideration.

One particularly popular idea amongst the chattering masses is the return to an OT loss being just that, a loss and a big-fat goose egg in the standings. While this would be a fine approach to man-on-man team hockey, do we want to start a precedence of making or breaking clubs seasons on the strength of the shootout?

We all know the Leafs have a history of being a fairly sorry shootout club despite their 4-4 record this season (incidentally one of only three teams to take part in 8 or less shootouts), but beyond the immediate bias, the shootout is still, fundamentally, not the team sport we love. Sure, as a spectacle it’s intense and fun and a platform for individual talents, but for the sake of integrity and tradition a points system that hinged on teams shootout records would make the previous 65 minutes seem, well, kind of pointless if you forgive the pun.

Aside from creating an era of specialisation where teams would basically ice and pay players for their talents on the once rare penalty-shot; placing the onus on shootouts seems too much like a Bettman patented move to sit well with the still vital die-hard fans.

Perhaps a better solution would be to adopt the three point system used in European soccer only with a twist that incorporates the concept of OT.

Much like the NHL of today, European soccer of the 70’s and early 80’s endured the suffocating effects of the two point win system. Back in those days, clubs such as Arsenal in the English First Division were famed for their win-at-home, play-for-the-road-draw attitude that bought about a League Championship in 1970-71 and the immortal chant “Boring Boring Arsenal.” The effectively score and retreat routine now commonly witnessed in regular season hockey eventually led to a Europe-wide and, following the 1994 World Cup where the three point structure was adopted, global restructuring in soccer leagues.

Of course, soccer fans still accept the inevitability of a tie as a logical conclusion to a game with a set time frame, but much like the current NHL points structure, the 3 points for a win, 1 each for a tie system still devalues games that result in a draw. While one could argue that it makes sense to punish drawing sides to enhance attacking play, the NHL effectively rewards matchup’s that conclude in draws and thus creates a more defensive approach to the game.

Subsequently, taking into the consideration the shootouts that necessitate parity amongst the games (because no game can end in a tie), perhaps the NHL should consider awarding teams that win in regulation with 3 points, teams that win in OT or shootouts with 2 points and teams that lose in OT or the shootout with a single point.

The rationale would be every single game would be worth three points. Teams would be encouraged to play attacking hockey both in regulation and overtime and teams that lost in overtime or shootouts wouldn`t be burned to the effect that the 60-minute games integrity is harmed. After all, for those calling for teams losing in OT or shootouts to be stripped of any points; where do you begin to draw the line?  The game is sixty minutes long, if you are still equal with a team at the close of that allotted time frame why would you subsequently lose points in the additional five minutes? Why not just make the game five minutes longer or ten minutes longer and so forth.

Taking the proposed scoring structure into effect and using regulation wins as a tie-breaker; this is how the NHL would have looked at the close of 2009-10.

Eastern Conference:

Position Team Regulation Wins Overtime/Shootout Wins Overtime/Shootout Losses Overall Points Position Change
1 Washington Capitals 43 11 13 164
2 New Jersey Devils 40 8 7 143
3 Buffalo Sabres 35 10 10 135
4 Pittsburgh Penguins 33 14 7 134
5 Ottawa Senators 34 10 6 128
6 Philadelphia Flyers 35 6 6 123 + 1
7 New York Rangers 34 4 11 121 +2
8 Boston Bruins 25 14 13 116 -2
9 Atlanta Thrashers 29 6 13 112 +1
10 Montreal Canadiens 24 15 10 112 -2
11 Carolina Hurricanes 26 9 10 106
12 Tampa Bay Lightning 25 9 12 105
13 Florida Panthers 24 8 13 101 +1
14 New York Islanders 20 14 11 99 -1
15 Toronto Maple Leafs 21 9 14 95

Western Conference:

Position Team Regulation Wins Overtime/Shootout Wins Overtime/Shootout Losses Overall Points Position Change
1 San Jose Sharks 43 8 11 156
2 Chicago Blackhawks 37 15 8 149
3 Vancouver Canucks 41 8 5 144
4 Phoenix Coyotes 31 19 7 138
5 Detroit Red Wings 33 11 14 135
6 Nashville Predators 33 14 6 133 +1
7 Los Angeles Kings 32 14 9 133 -1
8 Colorado Avalanche 34 9 9 129
9 Calgary Flames 35 5 10 125 +1
10 Anaheim Ducks 31 8 11 120 +1
11 St. Louis Blues 30 10 10 120 -2
12 Dallas Stars 28 9 14 116
13 Minnesota Wild 28 10 8 112
14 Columbus Blue Jackets 27 5 15 106
15 Edmonton Oilers 18 9 8 80

Naturally you have to take into consideration that the above teams were not playing to the potential of a three point system and subsequently the above example can be taken with a pinch of salt. Nevertheless it does demonstrate the nuances of a play-to-win awards system, even if you take 2009-‘10 as an isolated example.

Obviously the system is weighed in favour of attacking teams that win in regulation as opposed to teams that require excessive overtime/shootout victories to bolster their wins columns, but not to the extent that a system that penalized teams losing in overtime or a shootout would. Subsequently, while the consistently good and consistently bad teams remain relatively unaffected, the meat of the changes comes with the inconsistent, 6 thru 11, playoff race spots. In the above example the average point spread between those positions is 15 points (or 5 regulation time victories) between those positions in the opposing conferences.

By comparison, the average point spread between 6th and 11th in the opposing conferences in the actual standings is 11.5 points (11 points between Boston and Carolina in the East, 12 points between Los Angeles and Anaheim in the West) or 6 regulation or overtime/shootout victories. With many subscribing to the belief that the current system is designed to keep the playoff race exciting during the peak, mid-season, competition of the NFL, the three-two-one system would also provide a competitively closer race entering the final weeks of the regular season with teams battling for regulation victories as opposed to the “extra point.”

With shootouts reinforcing the need for an overtime loss point, adopting a third point for regulation victories is the only positive step the NHL can take in bucking the current trend in overtime/shootout games that creates a false sense of parity in the standings.

While traditionalists may bemoan the Capitals record breaking 164 points, or Canadiens fans may argue the virtues of why their team won their way into the playoffs this season fair and square (despite winning only 3 more games in regulation time than the Leafs) the fact is the current system rewards cautious hockey and is perhaps the leagues greatest quirk in desperate need of upheaval.