Is current NHL point system hurting the game?

Current system encourages teams to play conservatively, slowing pace dramatically

A brief history of the National Hockey League

Pre-1983: All games were worth 2 points. There was no overtime, and the winner of each game got both points. If a tie resulted, the teams would split the points.

’83–’84 to ‘98–’99: All games were worth 2 points. There was a five-minute OT, and the winner of each game got both points. If a tie resulted at the end of overtime, the teams would split the points.

’99-’00 to ’03-’04: Same rules in-game, but now an overtime loss got one point, so some games were worth three points.

’04-’05: Work stoppage due to labor dispute.

’05-’06 onwards: In order to raise interest following the lockout season, the NHL instituted the shootout, and now all games have a winner. This guarantees that all games that are tied at the end of regulation will be three-point games.

Winner: 2 points

Regulation loser: 0 points

Overtime or shootout loser: 1 point (“the loser point”)

The problem with the loser point

From 1999 to 2004, no more than 13 percent of the games played in a season were three-point games, but from 2005 onwards, at least 22 percent of the games each year have gone to overtime and thus have become three-point games. Not only does this cause an imbalance where almost a quarter of all games are counting 50 percent more in the standings, but it also decreases the excitement in regulation if the game is tied with little time left. Both teams are content just to pass the puck around without going on a major offensive to try to score because such an attack may leave them vulnerable defensively. Each team would still like to win the game, but is trying to guarantee itself at least 1 point in case of a loss by forcing overtime.

This becomes especially apparent in the month of April, when teams with slim playoff leads in the standings are trying to guarantee themselves at least 1 point from every game to hang on to these leads. Since 2005, 47.8 percent more close April games have gone to overtime than have close October games. Over the last few games of this season, expect Boston, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Columbus games to have a greater likelihood of going into overtime, as these teams are holding slim leads in various playoff seed races.

It may be argued that this problem also existed in the ’99-’04 era when the three-point system was first introduced. This quite simply is not true because there was still a sense of urgency to try to win near the end of regulation because time was running out to win the game at all. Overtime was only 5 minutes long, and at the end of that the game would end without a winner, unlike now when it goes to a shootout. Because of this, teams continued to battle hard near the end of regulation, knowing that even if it did go to overtime, there wouldn’t be much time to score and win.

The introduction of the shootout has changed the dynamics of regular season hockey by guaranteeing a winner and thus changing strategy near the end of the game. In fact, some teams may now employ shootout specialists such as T.J. Oshie of the St. Louis Blues for the very purpose of winning in a shootout, and even in overtime may only be playing for the shootout.

Because of this, I suggest implementing the Olympic point system in the NHL. In the Olympics, all games still end with a winner, so if the NHL implemented this system it wouldn’t decrease the excitement of the endgame for fans, but all games are worth three points. If the game ends in regulation, the winner gets all three points, but if it ends in overtime or a shootout, then the winner only gets two points, and the loser gets one point.

This way, not only do all games count equally in the standings, but teams also have an incentive to score in regulation to get that third point. By causing a difference between winning in regulation and winning in overtime, the NHL will have done its fans a huge favor since teams will be less incentivized to hold off until overtime to guarantee a minimum of one point, as they do now. By trying to guarantee this one point in the case of a loss, they are penalized by one point if they win, since they will now only get two points rather than the three they might have earned in regulation.

General Managers’ thoughts

As an MIT student, I had the fortune of being able to attend the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference at the discounted student rate. It is a great event that I would suggest every sports fan go to. I had the opportunity to pose my three-point idea to two GMs, Donald Fishman of the Capitals and Brian Burke of the Flames. Fishman simply dismissed my idea because “the two-point win’s been in hockey forever,” but Burke gave a more detailed dismissal in which he explained that in the English Premier League, it has been shown that the proportion of matches that ended in a draw has not changed since the switch from 2 points for a win to 3 points for a win in 1981.

I disagree with the validity of Burke’s analogy because in the English Premier League, teams are trying to earn the most points in the league to win, not place in the top 16 to make playoffs, so the incentives for earning points aren’t comparable. On top of that, there is no overtime in soccer: it’s simply 3 points for a win and 1 point for a draw, so there is no equivalent in soccer to the hockey situation of waiting until overtime to guarantee a point while still having the opportunity to gain more.

Based on these two GMs’ reactions to my proposal, I think it would be quite tough to change what has been part of hockey for so long, but given that it was less than a decade ago when such large changes as the addition of the shootout were made, it may not be so far in the future that all NHL games are worth three points.