The NHL Points System: Time To Rethink Points for Losing

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The NHL Points System: Time To Rethink Points for Losing
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Something has been bothering me for 12 years now. 

Its the point awarded for losing after regulation time has ended, in the NHL.  Before the 1999-2000 season, if a game was tied after regulation, the teams played up to 5 more minutes of 5-on-5 sudden death overtime.  If the game remained tied after overtime, that’s the way the game ended, tied.  There were no shootouts in the NHL until after the 2005 lockout. 

Points in the standing were awarded after the game as follows: 2 points for regulation wins; 2 points for overtime wins; 0 points for regulation loses; 0 points for overtime losses; and 1 point to each team for ties.  Entering each game, both teams knew that there were 2 points up for grabs. The system was as simple as it was elegant; either one team got both points, or they split them. 

However, the NHL decided that ties were a bad thing.  It’s not clear exactly why this was.  One could make the argument that games are more entertaining when one team wins.  It might also have had something to do with Gary Bettman trying to bring the NHL in line with the rest of the major sports leagues in North America, which either do not have ties games (MLB, NBA), or rarely do (NFL).

In any case, overtime was changed to 4-on-4, and the overtime loss (OTL) was introduced.  Teams that lost in overtime were awarded a single point in the standings.  The winning team still received 2 points.  The argument was made that teams would be more likely to play offensively in overtime and try to earn the extra point (for winning) rather than playing defensively in order to protect the single point they hoped to gain by tying.

This logic was flawed to begin with.  Coaches and players always try to win, even in overtime.  Exceptions to this are rare, such as if a team is playing its last game of the season and only needs a single point to qualify for the playoffs.  In fact, the new rule had an unanticipated opposite effect to the desired one.  It caused teams to play especially cautiously at the end of regulation so as to avoid losing the point that they would lock up by reaching overtime.

The new rule also annoys people like me who just can’t get passed the fact that in some games (regulation wins, and OT ties) 2 total points are awarded, while in other games (OT wins) 3 points are awarded.  An elegant symmetry and balance that existed in the league was lost.  And what was the benefit?  Pretty much nothing. There was no drastic reduction in the number of games ending in ties.  It seemed that the NHL had to take more decision action!

During the lockout, talk centered on how to improve the game and make it more exiting.  Naturally, a scheme for doing away with ties altogether was hatched.  Pundits said that it was coming, but few hockey fans wanted it. 

The shootout came, nonetheless.  Ties were officially eliminated from the NHL.  I personally hate the shootout.  It puts the fate of a game, fiercely contested by 20 players per team, in the hands of a few players in a mini skills competition exercise.  For me the only silver lining of the introduction of the shootout was that at least the NHL could do away with those, nearly as obscene, overtime loss points.

However, despite the fact that there was no longer any reason to reward losing in overtime, the NHL decided to keep the point for overtime losses.  Awarding points for losing merely pads teams year end point totals, and at worst, causes unjustified changes to the leagues standings.  Take this past season (2009-10) as an example.  If points for overtime losses are revoked, the year end standings for playoff teams in the east and west would be as follows (the number in brackets is the teams actaul ranking this year):

East
Rank    Team            Points
1(1)    Washington    108
2(2)    New Jersey      96
3(3)    Buffalo            90
4(4)    Pittsburgh        94
5(5)    Ottawa            88
6(7)    Philadelphia     82
7(8)    Montreal          78
8(6)    Boston            78

West
1(2)    Chicago         104
2(1)    San Jose        102
3(3)    Vancouver       98
4(4)    Phoenix         100
5(7)    Nashville         94
6(6)    Los Angeles     92
7(5)    Detroit            88
8(8)    Colorado         86

Now, this would have changed the 1st round matchups somewhat.  In the East, I predict that Washington would have beaten Boston; Montreal would have beaten New Jersey; Philadelphia would have beaten Buffalo; and Pittsburgh would have still beaten Ottawa.  In the 2nd round, Montreal would beat Washington; and Pittsburgh would beat Philadelphia.  Montreal would beat Pittsburgh in the Conference finals.

In the West the top four seeds advance (unless you think Detroit could upset San Jose), Chicago takes out Phoenix, and San Jose beats Vancouver in the 2nd round, and the conference finals end up the same as they actually are this year.  The only difference is that Chicago would start at home.  Would they be up 2-0 after two games?

So, perhaps not too many big changes happen apart from a few teams getting slightly better or worse matchups in the first two rounds.  Maybe so… this year.  But, we don’t have to look very far into the past to find a case where the overtime loss point changes which teams make the playoffs altogether! 

In 2007-08, the Boston Bruins squeezed into the 8th spot in the East, 2 points ahead of Carolina.  But, Carolina had 2 more wins than Boston.  Boston finished ahead of Carolina, for no other reason than the fact that 12 of their losses came in overtime, while only 6 of Carolina’s did.  How do you think that sat with Carolina fans, or management?  Their team was out because Boston was awarded more bogus points.

The same thing happened to Montreal and Colorado in 2006-07.  Both teams should have finished 8th in their respective conferences instead of finishing 10th and 9th, respectively. 

And, in 2005-06, Los Angeles should have been ranked 8th in the East instead of Edmonton.

The point is that the current system the NHL uses for awarding points in games needs to be changed.  My personal preference would be to simply remove the point for losing in overtime.  However, there are alternatives. 

A great system to consider is the one used in the 2010 IIHF Championships.  Teams earn 3 points for regulation wins, 2 points for overtime wins, 1 point for overtime losses, and 0 points for regulation losses.  There are no ties.  Here there are points for overtime losses, but this is balanced by awarding an extra point for winning in regulation.

There are many things wrong with today's NHL, and the points system is the only one that would be easy to fix.  Whichever system the NHL adopts in the future, whether the old NHL system, the IIHF system, or some other variation, a change is needed and should be made now so that no other NHL team is robbed of a playoff spot it deserves.

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