The NHL preseason isn't usually as closely followed as it has been in its opening days but, of course, this hasn't been any normal preseason. Besides the first pro action from highly-touted rookies Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, there has been a different look in many of the games so far: the five-minute overtime period has featured the newly adopted three-on-three format.
In a move that has been welcomed by those who doubt the validity of the shootout and also those who constantly dream up video-game-type line combos and rushes, the NHL is attempting to reduce its reliance on the shootout as a means to decide the outcome of games. This is a good thing.
Shootouts will occur if after the five-minute overtime the score remains deadlocked, but as the first week of preseason hockey has showed, its unlikely we'll see much of it. Over the first three days of preseason action, 10 of the 11 games that needed an extra frame were decided by the new rules.
Sure, there is some level of inherent excitement in seeing the shootout, both for the dramatic, one-on-one spectacle of it all and the anticipation of what type of unprecedented, dangle-heavy move a sniper can pull off—even non-snipers, which can be just as exciting.
But as playoff races get tighter as the regular season wears on and every point becomes that much more elusive, the inherent flaw of the shootout eventually rears its ugly head—it rewards individual performances and acts as a poor representation of the two teams in the previous 65 minutes.
Enter three-on-three, the NHL's latest attempt to grab eyeballs and force an evolution of the on-ice product. In a game that puts a premium on speed and skill, it will be the teams that have a plethora of both that stand to benefit the most from the league reducing the number of overtime skaters. Overtime will perhaps offer the most excitement early in the season, when those young legs are at their freshest and before coaches have had a chance to breakdown the opponent's three-on-three model and develop their own counter-attacks.
At first glance, teams that can successfully execute breakout passes from offensively-minded defensemen and utilize open ice will likely experience the most success. The ability of goalies to move the puck with confidence is another element that may go overlooked early in the season.
The issue of shift changes is also one that raises a lot of questions—players who will be able to manage their own ice time and change effectively will be those most relied upon.
A careless Kyle Turris change in overtime against the Toronto Maple Leafs earlier in the week led to an odd-man rush and an eventual Joffrey Lupul goal. Those lapses in judgment when the games matter will prove costly, especially to bubble teams like the Senators.
Other teams will likely have an easier time adapting to the three-on-three format. Here are some teams to watch after 60 minutes.
If you were excited about watching the Penguins on the power play, seeing them in overtime may be an otherworldly experience. Armed with Kris Letang, one of the best puck-moving defensemen in the game, and speedy winger Phil Kessel, Pittsburgh will get a jump on opposing teams early in the overtime frame. Add in Sidney Crosby to anchor the three-piece outfit and they may be the most dangerous.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Yes, Steven Stamkos will have lots of opportunities to receive passes from Anton Stralman and Victor Hedman, but Lightning goalie Ben Bishop could be the team's secret weapon and key to success in the three-on-three format, as he can handle the puck as well as any keeper in the league. Tampa is a young team, too, so expect it to take a lot of exciting chances.
Flames goalie Karri Ramo might not have the puck-moving skills of say, Bishop, but of goalies who faced a minimum of 15 shootout attempts last season, Ramo's shootout save percentage ranked fourth—he's used to shooters getting a clean look at him and can stand tall between the pipes. Newly-acquired defenseman Dougie Hamilton has the mobility to adapt to both ends of the ice, while tiny speedster Johnny Gaudreau could be very exciting in three-on-three action, as well.
You have to feel for Roberto Luongo. The aging keeper saw a whopping 75 shootout attempts last season, the only goalie in the league to face over 50. And he figures to see a lot more easy attempts at the net as the Panthers' top offensive weapon, Jaromir Jagr, isn't getting any younger himself. Other options such as Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov are still unproven.
Zdeno Chara's massive reach doesn't exactly apply when there's much more ice for opposing teams to play with. Tuukka Rask can handle the puck when he needs to but his volatility can be exploited. Sophomore winger David Pastrnak is a natural scorer, though, and if he has a big year, his three-on-three time may help his cause.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Jonathan Bernier has never been the most adept puck handler. Couple that with the seemingly never-ending goalie drama in Toronto and its tough to envision the Leafs having the confidence needed to thrive during three-on-three time. Sure, defensemen Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner are well-suited to join the rush but there's still no elite scoring option.
The Wild Cards
A reflection of their entire season, the Oilers could go either way in three-on-three. McDavid's explosive stride and keen hockey sense seem built for open ice, and having Taylor Hall alongside him could lead to a lot of goals. But Cam Talbot didn't look good in the shootout last year and given young teams' propensity to turn the puck over, there could be a lot of odd-man rushes.
Can Frederik Andersen, who placed in the bottom half in shootout save percentage last year, rebound from a tough go and also improve his puck handling skills? Can the Ducks' young blue line continue to play a strong two-way game largely free of mistakes? They have the scoring up front but how Anaheim answers those questions will determine its three-on-three fate.
Three-on-three could provide an opportunity for the Jets' up-and-coming stars, including centre Mark Scheifele and Jacob Trouba to come into their own. Linemates Andrew Ladd and Bryan Little will share ice in overtime, which helps. Though hulking defenseman Dustin Byfuglien might eat a lot of minutes, he doesn't have that quick first step needed. Ondrej Pavelec's consistency and puck moving skills have always been a question mark, too, and could be the difference maker.