The NHL Overtime Loser Point is For Losers
The point awarded to teams after losing a game in overtime may keep more clubs in the playoff hunt, but it also lessens the quality of the regular season.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
As of Thursday morning, 26 of 30 teams in the NHL are at the league's version of .500, which is a mangled, bastardized version of the term .500. Because the NHL rewards teams one point for not losing after 60 minutes, only Colorado, Arizona, Winnipeg and Buffalo have fewer points than games played.
There is one obvious reason for this—the loser point, which has eroded the quality of hockey from the inside.
A tie game with five or 10 minutes to go in the third period should be exciting; instead, teams play it safe because they dare not lose that free point that comes from making it through regulation without losing.
If you don't think teams have that mindset, listen to St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, who will move into third place on the all-time wins list with three more victories.
"I like when you are playing all out, all the way," Hitchcock told the Boston Globe. "But I've got to tell you as a coach, if there's five minutes left in the game, and it's tied, I'm not necessarily thinking about winning it. I want at least a point. A lot of coaches think like that. We have to think like that. Because to get zero points in a tie game with 10 minutes left is devastating.
"If you can put more value in it, I am all for it. But to me, right now when there's 10 minutes left in a hockey game I want that one point, at least. I've got to have it. That's how you get in the playoffs."
Imagine this in football. It's 17-17, 45 seconds to play. A team has the ball on its own 25 with three timeouts remaining. Instead of running the hurry-up offense, they take three knees to get to overtime to get a loser point. Or maybe there's three minutes to go, and your rookie quarterback has been shaky, and you decide you're playing for one first down to get to overtime.
You'd hate that league.
How can we fix this? There are two options.
1. The 3-2-1 points system. You've heard it a million times, and people love it—three points for a 60-minute victory, two points for an overtime/shootout victory, one point for losing after regulation. The concept is simple: if teams know there's a third point on the line, a reward for winning in regulation that is greater than the reward for winning after regulation, their feet will remain on the gas until the third period horn sounds.
This sounds like a wonderful idea, except for the fact it would be even worse than the current system.
Think about how conservatively teams play when they're tied in the third period because they don't want to let one point slip away; now think about how much tighter to the vest teams would play if they knew one mistake would result in a three-point swing instead of a two-point swing.
The 3-2-1 system would suck the life out of any divisional matchups and most intra-conference games. If the Montreal Canadiens and Bruins have 69 points and are tied 2-2 with four minutes to go, there's no way their coaches will risk a scenario that leaves them three points back in the standings at game's end. They'll coast to overtime, where the worst-case scenario becomes falling behind 71-70 in the standings.
The NHL's loser point exists solely to keep bad teams closer to the playoffs for a longer period of time. This appeals to owners who want fans coming to their arenas, and also to coaches who are almost universally conservative. For the second group, the fear of giving away three points would supersede the thrill of capturing three points.
So if not the 3-2-1 system, what's the answer?
2. The 2-0 system. This is a pretty wild idea, so feel free to re-read this as often as necessary. I lack a degree in mathematics or statistical probability, so maybe my computations won't make sense. Hit me up on Twitter if none of this is clear. OK? Here goes.
The team that wins in regulation or overtime gets two points; the team that loses in regulation or overtime gets zero points. There is no shootout.
To further simplify, one team gets a win, one team gets a loss.
It's radical, I know, but I've seen this win-loss thing work in the NBA, MLB and NFL for decades, and they are the three most popular sports leagues in North America. Maybe someone at the NHL can work directly with the other leagues to learn how the win-loss idea works.
The principle is simple—when the consequences are all or nothing, you have nothing to lose by going all out for the win, which in turn creates the most exciting possible version of the sport. Some historians say the NHL used this format to some success in the past, but the old league scrolls have been lost to time, which means this way of deciding games is merely the stuff of legends.
Oh right, ties. You probably want to know about ties.
They're negotiable. We can either play 3-on-3 overtime until someone scores, or call it a tie after five minutes and give each team one point. The former creates edge-of-your-seat hockey; the latter can lead to conservative play in overtime. So give me 3-on-3 overtime, with all its flaws. As long as a third point isn't being awarded for not losing in regulation, we can talk about anything as a solution.
It's also odd how everyone agrees the product is better in the playoffs, when there is no loser point, yet the NHL uses that same point to practically sabotage its product during the six months before the postseason. Using a 2-0 system won't cause regular season games to feel like playoff games, but it will make the first 82 games more interesting. And that should be hockey's goal.
Instead, we're stuck with a system that allows Buffalo Sabres ownership to tell fans they are a .500 club if they beat the Detroit Red Wings on Friday. What's the point in that?
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