This season, the NHL finally swallowed its pride and changed its standings algorithm to relieve a lot of ongoing befuddlement.
What befuddlement, you ask?
If you look at the NHL's tie-breaking procedure listed under its standings, you'll notice a new inclusion. If two teams share the same points percentage, the number of games won outright will decide which team ends up on top. Due to complaints over the fairness of shootouts, however, the league decided this year that shootout wins should be left out of this matrix; only games won in regulation and overtime will count in a rankings tiebreaker.
For ranking purposes, hockey teams earn two points when they win, one point for losing in overtime and zero points for a loss in regulation. Ties are not possible.
While the new system clears things up as far as rankings are concerned, it brings up a deeper perplexity: shootout wins still count as wins, but only until they're stacked up against other wins?
With this change, the NHL has essentially admitted that a shootout victory is less valuable than one achieved within 65 minutes of play. The idea is rooted in good sense, as a 7-0 crusher implies a stronger effort on the part of one team than does a 2-1 wire-walker in which both teams expend their whole roster in the shootout to declare a victor. So what is a shootout win worth, exactly?
Prior to the 1999-2000 season, the only way a team could earn one point for ranking purposes was to remain tied with the opponent throughout regulation and overtime and then lose in the shootout. This wielded a serious inhibition to the game's marketability and appeal. As players and coaches began strategizing to maximize their playoff berth, they resorted to a boring, conservative game plan throughout overtime to ensure that they would get one point for lasting to the shootout versus zero for an outright loss. And we all know that's not what overtime is about.
To end this spell of unwatchable hockey, the NHL made a change in 1999. Teams tied after regulation would each be awarded one point automatically and then play an extra five minutes of overtime 4-on-4 to earn a "bonus" point. This was effective for a while – the number of ties decreased and players made a concerted effort to score in overtime.
But wait - am I missing something here? Wasn't the whole idea of introducing the "loser point" – the point given to a team that loses in the shootout – to discourage players from deliberately dragging a game to death? Now that players know they will have an extra chance to win that all-important second point if they fail to nab the win in overtime, we find history repeating itself.
In the first couple of seasons following the lockout, games knotted in the third period were hard-fought and intense. Those scenarios meant something to the players, obviously, because they hadn't wised up yet.
But with every new rule, teams adapt to outsmart that rule any way they can. In the three seasons prior to the advent of the loser point, 20.2 percent of matches needed extra time. In the past three seasons, that number has moved to 23.7 percent. Clearly, something isn't working here.
With the new amendment to the tie-breaking procedure, the league has settled one quandary but created another. Before the amendment, there was no difference between an overtime win and a shootout win. What use is it having them both nominally worth two points when the former is intrinsically more valuable and representative of a stronger team?
Some have called to discard the current system and return to allowing ties, but I actually think the overtime/shootout combo is an excellent way to settle things. It's not the format of the game that's the problem – it's the way the point ranking structure is arranged.
I've come across several possible solutions, but the most sensible ones I've seen are those suggested by fellow hockey fans. One web forum proposed a 2-2-1-0 system: two points for a regulation win, two for a victory in overtime and one for a shootout win. Consistent with my axiom above, the loser gets jack no matter how long they hold on.
A similar structure – the same one in place during last year's Olympics – would be a 3-2-1-0 setup: three points for a regulation win, two for an overtime/shootout win, one for an overtime/shootout loss and zero for a regulation loss.
Either one of these structures would discourage ties and provide incentives for teams to try to win throughout the game and not just at the beginning or end.
The NHL says it has no current plans to change its system, but if it wants to keep the game exciting while erasing confusion among its community, it needs to take a good look at its ranking policy.
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: There is no point in losing.