A year ago, the Los Angeles Kings became a rarity, as a team that didn’t get a chance to defend its Stanley Cup championship because it was on the outside looking in come playoff time.
But it shouldn’t have happened. When it comes to hockey – the 5-on-5 version played largely by the same rules the game has seen since World War II – the Kings were one of the best eight teams in the Western Conference. But the Kings weren’t as adept at the gimmicks – they had a wretched record in overtime and the penalty-shot contest that ends tied games.
The teams that are adept at winning the 4-on-4 (or now, 3-on-3) tiebreakers and the shootouts reap the benefits of the current system, for one reason – they get as many points as a team that wins in regulation. But at the same time, the team that loses in overtime gets half a win just for taking the game beyond 60 minutes.
The 2014-15 Kings had 37 regulation wins – only one shy of the most in the entire Western Conference – but had an almost-inconceivable 3-15 record in games that went beyond 60 minutes. The Calgary Flames and Winnipeg Jets had just 32 regulation wins each, but Calgary won 13 overtime games and Winnipeg won 11. And so both of the Canadian teams went to the postseason while the Kings sat home.
The culprit isn’t the “loser point” – the point that was introduced into minor pro hockey in the mid-1980s when the shootout was introduced in the International Hockey League and later spread to many other minor pro leagues, and eventually to the NHL in 1999. It’s the fact that the winning team in an overtime/shootout gets the same amount of points for winning beyond regulation as it does in regulation.
There’s a simple remedy – and one that has been proposed in hockey but quickly shot down as a “terrible idea” by the NHL’s Board of Governors in 2007. Give teams three points for a regulation win, two for an overtime/shootout win and one for an OT/SO loss.
Another team could be in the same spot as last year’s Kings – a better 5-on-5 team but one that gets bumped out by a team that plays a lot of OT games. The Philadelphia Flyers have made a late push to the postseason, but have done so with 13 overtime wins (out of 26 games tied at the end of regulation). Their 26 regulation wins are fewer than Buffalo and Montreal – Eastern Conference teams who have been well out of the playoff chase since the All-Star Break. In the current system, Philadelphia (39-26-13) has 91 points and is tied with Detroit (40-28-11) for the last playoff spot with 91 points, while Boston (41-30-8) is out despite winning more regulation games than both teams. In a 3-2-1-0 system, the Bruins would be almost safely in (32-9-30-9, 122 points), with Detroit (29-11-28-11, 120 points) holding onto the last spot over Philly (26-13-26-13, 117 points).
There are a lot of reasons for advocating for a 3-2-1-0 system, but one of the most simple is this – it makes each game worth the same number of points. Historically, hockey used a points system that awarded two points to the winner, or one for teams that tied. When the “loser point” was introduced as an enticement to the teams that win shootouts without penalizing teams that lost in them in the mid-1980s, it had the effect of making overtime games worth 150% of a regulation one.
It also had other effects, but one of the most notable is that it has a significant impact on distorting the playoff seeds, by elevating teams that play (and win) a lot of OT games, and punishing those who win in regulation.
Take the aforementioned 2015 NHL season, when the Kings tallied 95 points with a 40-27-15 record, but finished ninth behind the Jets (43-26-13, 99 points) and Flames (45-30-7, 97 points). But if overtime wins counted only two points and regulation wins three, the Kings would be 37-3-27-15 and have 132 points, ahead of both teams. Winnipeg (32-11-26-13) would be in as the eighth seed, but by getting only 2/3 credit for its 11 OT wins, it would have 131 points. Calgary, with 129 points and (32-11-30-7) would have been golfing.
A 3-2-1-0 system would make some differences – most notably, the 2005-06 Edmonton Oilers would not have made the playoffs, Montreal and Toronto wouldn’t have been shut out the next year, the 2008 Carolina Hurricanes would’ve won their division instead of missing the playoffs (and Washington would’ve fallen from the division champ to the No. 8 seed), and the 2010 Montreal Canadiens wouldn’t have had the chance to get to the conference final as they wouldn’t have made the postseason (after undeservedly making it the two previous years).
But it would also create better, more accurate seedings (the St. Louis Blues would especially applaud), as many cases of an excellent team getting a tougher first-round draw than it should have because the opponent was underseeded due to another team piling up overtime wins.
In the current situation, a team that ties 10 straight games and wins half of them in shootouts has more points (15) than a team that wins seven of 10, all played in regulation (14). In a 3-2-1-0 system, the team that goes 7-3-0 has 21 points, while the team that ties 10 straight and wins five shootouts still has 15.
A 3-2-1-0 system would also create better hockey.
As things are right now, teams have nothing to lose and everything to gain by going to OT, so when a game is tied late, teams go into an ultra-conservative mode – gain the red line, dump it in, send one forechecker but by all means, make the safe play. They only “go for it” if there’s a clear scoring chance available, because while a goal would be great, a goal against would be catastrophic. Give up a breakaway goal in a tie game late in regulation means coming away with nothing, but giving up the same goal in OT, and at least the team gains some ground in the standings. Meanwhile, there’s a 50/50 guarantee of getting that second point in OT or in a shootout – neither of which are played under the same conditions as either regulation hockey or a playoff game – and coming away with as many standings points as a team that dominates its opponent and wins 9-0.
For fans and teams involved in a playoff chase, the last thing you want to see when two other contenders play is an OT game, because the two teams will split three standings points rather than the traditional two, and both will gain on your team. Meanwhile, when a team is playing in one of those games, the likelihood of OT is greater, because neither team wants to risk giving two full points to the other. A study by Five Thirty-Eight showed that, since the shootout was implemented in the NHL in 2005, more than one-fourth of games in the final quarter of the season go to overtime (up from less than 20 percent prior to the introduction of 4-on-4 OT and the “loser point” in the NHL in 1999), and the goal rate per minute drops dramatically in the final 10 minutes of tied games.
The NHL proposed a 3-2-1-0 system in 2004, but put on hold due to the lockout that wiped out the ensuing season. It was shot down when proposed again in 2007, and all North American leagues follow suit. The NHL claims it would break continuity in records and confuse fans, the reality is, that continuity was broken when the league began awarding three points for OT games and two points for regulation ones.
The unspoken reality is, teams like the current system because it makes records appear better than they are. Entering the last week of the 2015-16 season, 21 of the NHL’s 30 teams can post a winning percentage above .500, including teams well out of the playoff chase. That helps from a marketing and public relations standpoint, but it doesn’t create better hockey.
However, there is precedent for a three-point system. The IIHF uses a 3-2-1-0 system in international competition, and college hockey conferences have used variations of it. In soccer, another sport where making change is difficult due to tradition, a variant of the three-point system is used in league games and pool play. Teams split two points for a tie, but the winner gets three, incentivizing a team turning up its attack in a tied game. A team only risks losing one point if it loses, but gains two additional points if it wins.
While longtime NHL executive Brian Burke said of soccer’s three-point system in 2007, “teams would get ahead and shut it down,” the reality is, teams go into defend-the-house mode when they take a lead in any system. However, it’s harder to sit on a lead in hockey – a sport with faster gameplay, more scoring, a smaller surface and more shots – than in an 11-on-11 game played on a 110-yard field.
A 3-2-1-0 system would also yield playoff seeds that are more reflective of the caliber of the teams. Often, a team is overseeded in the NHL playoffs because it won a lot of OT games (which count as much as regulation wins), or underseeded because its wins in 5-on-5 play counted as much as a team’s wins in 4-on-4 (or now, 3-on-3) play or a breakaway contest. And in the playoffs, there is no 3-on-3 OT or shootouts. On rare occasions, a team makes or misses the playoffs due to someone’s piling up OT wins.
I analyzed the NHL standings going back to 2005 – the introduction of the shootout – and refigured the seeds based on both a 3-2-1-0 system and a system briefly used in some college conferences – a 5-3-2-0 system, which would further incentivize winning in regulation. There was little difference between the two, but if hockey is going to be using a tiebreaker that doesn’t simulate regular gameplay – only fastpitch softball changes its rules in tiebreaker situations – then the standings points need to reflect that.
Going back year-by-year, the modified standings reflected a truer picture of what the seedings should have been versus what they actually were – and in some cases, shut deserving teams out of the playoffs. It’s not a perfect analysis. Teams play differently risking nothing as in the present system – gain a half-win and the opportunity for a full-win – than they would with something to lose. Go to OT, and the best a team can get is 2/3 of a full win, while a team that loses in OT only gets 1/3, rather than half, of a regualtion victory.
By removing the reward for playing for OT and making all games worth the same, the NHL would be doing its teams – and its fans – a great favor.
Here is the annual analysis (thanks to sportingcharts.com for the OT W/L data).
2014-15: The Los Angeles Kings would’ve made the postseason, with 37 regulation wins but only 3 OT wins (and 15 OT losses), while the Calgary Flames would’ve been left out (32 RW, 13 OTW, 7 OTL). Calgary had 97 points to LA’s 95 in the actual standings; in the modified standings, LA would’ve had 132 points and been the seventh seed, Winnipeg 131 points as the eighth seed (Winnipeg had 99 points in the actual standings and finished seventh) and Calgary 129 points and been out. St. Louis (109 points actual, 146 points modified) would’ve won the West instead of Anaheim (146 points actual, 144 points modified) and drawn Winnipeg instead of Minnesota in the first round (the Ducks would’ve played the Kings). In the East, it affected a division title, as Tampa Bay (43 regulation wins, 7 OT wins, 8 OT losses) would’ve won the Atlantic Division instead of Montreal (37 RW, 13 OTW, 10 OTL). The stronger team during the season, Tampa beat Montreal when they met in the playoffs despite the Habs having home-ice advantage and an easier first-round foe.
2013-14: St. Louis gets hurt again, as the Blues would’ve won the Central (40 RW, 12 OTW, 7 OTL) instead of Colorado (37 RW, 15 OTW, 8 OTL) and played Minnesota while Colorado faced Chicago in the opening round.
2012-13: Ottawa was underseeded by one spot, as it should’ve been seeded sixth and played Washington in the opening round, instead of the Rangers. Both the Sens and Rangers won their first-round matchups that year. In the West, Los Angeles and Detroit both won first-round matchups, and both were underseeded according to the 3-2-1-0 formula.
2011-12: Again, St. Louis gets the shaft, as it should’ve had a No. 1 seed and playeded the Kings in the first round. Instead, a weaker Vancouver team did – and got dispatched by the eventual champs. St. Louis had 42 RW and 11 OTL (as well as 7 OTW), while Vancouver had just 36 RW (less than second-seeded STL and sixth-seeded Nashville), but had 15 OTW and 9 OTL.
2010-11: Philadelphia should’ve been the top seed in the East instead of Washington. In the west, Anaheim was overseeded by two spots and got home-ice advantage in the first round as a result.
2009-10: Montreal undeservedly made the playoffs. The Habs won just 24 regulation games – 11th-most in the 15-team Eastern Conference, but won 15 in OT, while the Rangers (34 RW, 4 OTW) got left out. Montreal did go on a run to the conference final, but the Rangers should have been in as a seventh seed. Stanley Cup finalist Philadelphia was also underseeded at seventh.
2008-09: Again, Montreal gets in undeservedly. Habs won just 30 regulation games (but 11 OT games) and get in ahead of Florida (34 RW, 7 OTW), and won the eighth seed on a tiebreaker. Adjusted points, Florida gets the seventh seed with 127 points, the Rangers eighth with 125 (they had 95 points and the seventh seed) and Montreal is out with 123. In the west, Calgary (40 RW, 6 OTW, 6 OTL) would’ve won the Northwest Division over Vancouver (37RW, 8 OTW, 10 OTL) with 138 points to the Canucks’ 137.
2007-08: This time, the Carolina Hurricanes have a beef, while the Boston Bruins get in thanks to the “loser point.” Carolina got left out of the playoffs, but with an adjusted system, would’ve won its division (and Washington would’ve been the 8 seed). Carolina had 36 RW, to 32 for Washington and Boston, but just 7 OTW, while Washington won 11 OT games and Boston nine (and the Bruins and Caps both had more OTLs, as well). In adjusted points, Carolina has 128, Washington and Boston 126, and the Caps win the tiebreaker. The entire Eastern Conference would’ve been different.
2006-07: This brings about a huge upheaval – both Montreal and Toronto undeservedly missed the playoffs. The Isles (30 RW, 10 OTW, 12 OTL, 92 points) and Lightning (29 RW, 15 OTW, 5 OTL, 93 points) both got in, while the Leafs (32 RW, 8 OTW, 11 OTL, 91 points) & Habs (34 RW, 8 OTW, 6 OTL, 90 points) get left out. In adjusted points, Montreal finishes seventh (124), Toronto eighth (123), while the Isles and Lightning are left out with 122. Carolina, which also had 34 RW, also just misses with 122 points. In the West, again, a division champ is decided, as San Jose – with its 48 RW (and just 3 OTW and 107 points) is nosed out by Anaheim and 39 RW (9 OTW, 14 OTL and 110 points). In adjusted points, the Sharks have 155 and the second seed, and the Ducks 149 and the fifth seed. Anaheim took advantage of its favorable matchup to win the Stanley Cup.
2005-06: Speaking of conference champs being benefited by the system, the Edmonton Oilers made a big run to the Cup Final behind Dwayne Roloson’s hot goaltending. According to a 3-2-1-0 point system, the Oilers should never have been in the playoffs. Edmonton had just 28 RW, but 13 OTW (and 13 OTL) to finish with 95 points. Vancouver, with 34 RW, 8 OTW and 8 OTL, missed the playoffs with 92 points. In modified points, the Canucks have 126 and are in, the Oilers 123 and are out. The points system also benefited the Devils, who won the Atlantic title over the Flyers thanks to two more OTL and one less RW.(Notes: The NHL has always awarded 2 points for a win & 1 point for a tie. It also began awarding a point for losing an OT game in 1999 when the regular season overtime format changed from 5-on-5 to 4-on-4. When the shootout was introduced in 2005, the losing team in OT/SO was granted a point. The IHL introduced the shootout in 1985 and began awarding a point to OT/SO losers, and eventually did away with overtime entirely. The AHL followed suit briefly, but then did away with the shootout. Since its introduction in 1988, the ECHL has always had a shootout and given a point to the losing team after regulation. European soccer leagues gradually began giving 3 points to a regulation winner and one point for teams that tied in the 1980s, a practice that became almost universal throughout that sport by 2000 and is now used in virtually every professional soccer league and competition worldwide).