By Chris Withers: CanucksCorner.com
The first round of the NHL playoffs was arguably one of the best ever, and certainly one of the most unpredictable. But one of the most improbable upsets in league history, Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals losing to the 8th seeded Montreal Canadiens, would not have been possible except for a controversial decision, made some 10 years ago, that was designed to open up overtime. Where previously teams would get no points for a loss, now both teams would be guaranteed a single point for getting into overtime, and would compete for an additional point in the 5 minute extra frame. The decision, while arguably well-intentioned, has created a bewildering points system for the NHL. It is unlike the systems used by every other professional sports league on the planet, it is no longer relevant, it is costing teams playoff berths and it is past time for it to be changed.
First, a little history on the ‘loser point’. In the late 90’s, the NHL was beleaguered. The work stoppage of 94-95 was still fresh in people’s minds, ratings were slipping, the novelty had worn off for fans of the sun-belt expansion teams and the game had slowed to a crawl after the success of Jacques Lemaire’s New Jersey Devils and their stifling neutral zone trap. Some in the league office felt that the new American expansion markets would never fully accept a sport that embraced a tie. Like baseball, basketball and (usually) football, there must be a winner in hockey! The premise of the OTL rule was that teams would no longer have a reason to play ‘kitty bar the door’ hockey, since there was no penalty for a loss but an extra point for the win. The NHL also sought to make the OT period more fun to watch with an accompanying rule change that made all OT periods 4-on-4, thus opening up the ice and making the neutral zone trap more difficult to implement.
In practice, the rule changes worked. The amount of goals scored in overtime ballooned from 22 in 1998-99 to 114 in 1999-2000. That’s a better than 500% increase!
There were, however, consequences to the extra point. First, it made it significantly more difficult for teams to gain ground (or separation) in the standings. Teams were picking up points in more situations. A team could go on a 6 game winning streak, the team it’s chasing could win 1 out of 6 over the same stretch, and the difference could be as little as 5 points. Second, and most importantly, it allowed teams to quite literally lose their way into the playoffs. In the first year of OTLs, both the Anaheim Ducks and the Carolina Hurricanes were denied playoff berths because the teams in front of them had more ‘loser points’ than they did.
Fast forward a few years and another work stoppage, and the NHL introduced more rule changes. The game, start to finish, became more exciting. The tie was forever banished from professional hockey, replaced by the shootout (love it or hate it, you must admit it’s exciting!). The premise for the OTL point, namely spicing up the extra frame, seemed to have been taken away, yet the points system remained unchanged. In fact, the issues that OTLs present are now amplified. Rather than an extra point being awarded in approximately 44% of OT games (as had been the case from 1999-2004), 100% of OT games are now worth 3 points. This accounted for an average of about 150 extra points being distributed in the standings each and every year. As a direct result of this change, a total of 6 teams since the lockout have missed the playoffs; in one extreme case, the Carolina Hurricanes would have won their division under the old system. With the shootout, they missed the playoffs by 2 points.
Presently then, the NHL has a system for awarding points that only made sense in the context of the rules of the late 90’s. The shootout has obviated the need to make overtime more exciting, and simultaneously made a disproportionate number of games worth 3 points. A team is now penalized for losing a game in regulation, rather than in OT, without a corresponding penalty for teams that win in OT, instead of in regulation.
There are two solutions going forward. The simplest would be a straight Win/Loss system, but that is troublesome because of the shootout. Basketball and baseball are able to use that system effectively because the rules remain constant in those sports throughout extra time. The NHL breaks deadlocks with a skills competition that has little to do with the game itself. An outright loss for the team that loses the shootout would be unfair to those teams that build for 60 minutes of hockey instead of a penalty shot competition.
For an equitable solution, the NHL should look to international hockey. In round robin international play, all games are worth 3 points. Period. An outright win garners 3 points and a loss 0. Take it to overtime, and the points are split 2-1. It’s fair to everybody, understandable by all fans, and it properly benefits teams, like our beloved Canucks, that get their business done outright and don’t win 38% of their games in overtime, like the Phoenix Coyotes.
Colin Campbell was asked in 2007 about the league’s decision not to go to a 3 point system. He was quoted as saying “It’s time to establish continuity. You can’t keep making changes.” If the folks at NHL head office don’t think there’s a reason to change the system now, they may wish to take a poll of New York and Washington hockey fans; the Rangers would have been secure in a playoff spot this year even before that dramatic shootout with the Flyers to end the season. Who would have been on the outside looking in? The Cinderella, Cap-killing, Habs.