After the lockout of the 2004-05 NHL season, several changes were made to the sport to bring in a wider audience. One new change to the traditional play of hockey in the post-lockout era has been to continue play after the conclusion of a regular season game that remained in a tie at the end of overtime and to allow for a shootout. Only several skaters have the opportunity to participate in a shootout on any given night and the winner adds two points to their point total, while the loser still takes away a point from the game. While there are many spectators who are excited about the shootout, there are also many who are critical of the event and view it as nothing more than a vehicle for the promotion of further parody in a sport which already offers eight playoff seeds per conference.
Should the shootout be reformed, removed, kept as is, or should other changes be made to the game that would not alter the shootout?
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with deciding games in a shootout when 65 minutes of hockey have yielded a tie. A shootout is an exciting and fan-friendly way to end a game, and entertainment, after all, is the NHL's business.
The true problem with the shootout and overtime, as they are currently structured, is the extra point that is available if the game is tied after regulation. This has created awkward standings, with not every game being worth the same, as well as perverse incentives. Once the game is tied in the 3rd period, nobody plays for the win, knowing they've got 1.5 points waiting for them if they get to overtime.
The obvious solution to this conundrum would be to award 3 points for a regulation win. This would restore balance to the standings, create the correct incentives, and allow the best teams to rise to the top of the league. It also has the advantage of not changing any of the way the game is played today, 4-on-4, shootout and all.
I completely agree with Tom's take on this. The NHL has created an incentive to tie games that it could almost completely eliminate by making every game worth three points in the standings. Think about it: right now, if the game is tied with three minutes to go, your team has three options: 1) win (worth 2 points); 2) lose (0 points); or 3) tie (worth 1.5 points.) So your incentive to win is +0.5 points, while your disincentive to lose is -1.5 points. When giving up an extra goal is three times as bad as scoring one is good, you're not going to try to score! Make it three points for a regulation win, and in addition make one more goal equivalent to one more goal against - plus each team will have a shot at a 3rd point. Of course, this would tend to favor good teams and decrease parity, so it'll never get approved by the league.
I also agree with Tom and Gabe. If we must have shootouts in the game (and apparently we must), then awarding three points for a win would do a world of good in reducing the boring, defense-first hockey that permeates the late stages of tie games. It was a predictable result when the point-for-a-loss rule was introduced: the proportion of games decided in overtime would go up, but so would the number of games going into overtime in the first place, thus defeating the purpose of introducing the extra point.
It's always perplexed me that the league spends so much time fiddling with the game for a very small subset of the total playing time. They'll "fix" overtime and tied games but won't address any problems there might be in the majority of the gameplay.
If I had my way, of course, we'd just go back to allowing ties to occur and forget about the shootout. But that's not going to happen.
Gabriel Desjardins recently confirmed that there is a 20% increase in games that end regulation time in a tie, and there's actually a very good reason for this reduction in late-game scoring. Since there is no statistical correlation between team winning percentage and shootout performance, that means that a coin toss would be as effective a method of awarding the extra point as any. Therefore if ANY team were to somehow manage to eliminate regulation scoring altogether, either with a new system or by cooperating with their opponents, they would finish the season with 123 points and a top playoff seed. In essence, the shootout creates a statistical incentive to reduce scoring, especially for the weaker teams. It also creates the illusion of league parity where there is none, often allowing inferior teams to advance to the postseason and denying us more compelling playoff matchups.
How can this be statistically corrected? First of all, any answer assumes that there is something inherently wrong with regulation ties, which is an awfully big assumption indeed. Effectively the issue of reduced late-game scoring can be addressed either by choosing a method of resolving ties that actually does have a statistical correlation to winning percentage, or by reducing the proportional weight assigned to the statistically arbitrary method (the shootout). For example, the extra point awarded in ties can be assigned to whoever scored first, or perhaps who took the most shots, both of which would have a strong correlation to team winning percentage, although the latter would necessitate some improved consistency in which shots are recorded league-wide. The simpler solution may indeed be to simply award 3 points for a regulation-time win (as my colleagues suggest), or perhaps for points awarded in shootouts to be used only to resolve ties in the standings between teams with identical regulation-time records.
1. Though you might not be able to tell from their relatively diplomatic responses, most of my colleagues thumb their noses in disgust at the thought of a pure, traditional hockey game being decided––heavens to Betsy––by “an arbitrary skills competition” that has nothing to do with the regular flow of the game. But I’ll let you in on a little secret: the rules of every sport are by definition arbitrary. There’s no reason why a hockey game couldn’t be 90 minutes long, have 4 skaters aside, be played without icing or offsides and with a ball instead of a puck. Any of those rule changes would seem foreign only because they depart from what we’re used to. Therefore, I contend that there would be less objection to shootouts if shootouts were, in fact, part of traditional hockey. Like faceoffs.
Talk about an arbitrary skills competition that’s essentially the equivalent of a coin flip (the difference between a great faceoff team and a poor faceoff team is 55%/45% - more “random” than a shootout), faceoffs happen during the course of the game, which is much more intrusive. Think about it: why couldn’t possession of the puck be awarded to the team that didn’t cause the stoppage of play, as they do in soccer, basketball and rugby? This would eliminate the random and arbitrary skills competition. But both you and my colleagues don’t even think to complain about the blight on hockey that faceoffs are because you are used to them as a time-honored part of the game.
2. As hockey has so many quickly moving parts, it’s hard to reliably and confidently isolate individual contributions. Enter shootouts, sabermetric candy. What better way to break down one-on-one skills? It wouldn’t be surprising to find some correlation between power play and shootout prowess––see Jussi Jokinen––both are situations where the goaltender is more isolated and needs to rely more on individual skills than team defense.
3. Why three shooters, instead of five, like in soccer? With five shooters, a greater percentage of the team would get a chance to participate in the shootout, and the element of luck would be diminished.
I cannot say that I'm a big fan of the shootout as it allows mediocre and poor teams to remain in the hunt for a playoff spot with teams that are clearly better. However, more random events leads to more parity, and more parity implicitly means that a greater share of markets are following their respective teams, since those teams have a greater opportunity of advancing to the postseason.
The Dallas Stars have been outscored 107 to 112 and should have no business being in the playoff race in the Western Conference. But because of their 7 shootout losses (and 7 points), they find themselves a mere point out of the eighth seed. That likely means more revenue for the Dallas Stars and the National Hockey League. However, it is important to note that this is only one team that has benefited from the shootout this year and that there are many others.
The unfortunate side to this argument is that the level of disinterest rises because of the increase in parity in the league brought about by the shootout. Most fans expect their team to be in the race for the postseason because of the number of playoff seeds available and the minimum number of points each team is likely to accumulate by April, which makes each individual game fairly meaningless to the average mainstream fan.
A cost-benefit analysis should be done, and most likely has been done by the NHL, to determine whether the shootout is helping the league make more money with increased parity or whether the high amount of parity has made fans more disinterested during the season. Based on the outcome of the analysis, the league should have it's answer on what should be done. However, on a non-economic note, I find myself in agreement with Tom, Gabe and the rest of the Puck Prospectus team.
This column was authored by the staff of Puck Prospectus.