Scanlan: Time for an overtime overhaul

The NHL standings are a daily fraud.

Scanlan: Time for an overtime overhaul
As fans celebrate in the background, New Jersey Devils goalie Cory schneider reacts after giving up a goal to Colorado Avalanche center Ryan O'Reilly during the shootout of the Avalanche's 2-1 shootout victory in an NHL hockey game in Denver on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The NHL standings are a daily fraud.

Every day I look at them, hear fans boast that their team is “five games above .500,” and resist the urge to call them fibbers. But who can blame them? The NHL put them up to it.

A record of 23-18-10 is NOT five games above .500, it is winning 23 games out of 51 for a .450 winning percentage, well below .500, a record chock full of loser points.

For example, at a glance the New Jersey Devils appear to be two games above .500, having 21 wins and 19 losses. In reality, with 11 games lost in overtimes and shootouts, the Devils have actually won 21 of 51 games, for a .411 winning percentage.

The Ottawa Senators have 22 wins via regulation, overtime or shootout and 19 regulation losses. Add in their 10 overtime and shootout losses and the Senators have won 22 of 51 games, a .431 winning percentage.

Is it time to get rid of the points system and just rank teams by winning percentage, like baseball does?

And how did the NHL standings become so complicated, with ROWs (regulation plus overtime wins) and division standings that tell us nothing about playoff positioning. (Only conference and wild card standings tell the tale).

The internet is flush with proposals to change the way the NHL awards points and ranks teams, proposals ranging from: a switch to percentage rankings; eliminating so-called loser points (for overtime and shootout losses); a three-point system, rewarding teams that win in regulation (some suggest regulation and overtime, with the losers in regulation or overtime getting zero).

While there is no ultimate solution, it’s time for the discussion to ensue at the highest levels, and not just because of the complicated, bloated, points system that is seeing a proliferation of three-point games every night – two points to the winner, one to the loser in overtime or shootout.

The current system is developing into a serious competition and entertainment issue. On the latter point, chiefly: the “third period/overtime problem” that created this current system is rearing its ugly head again.

What was the third period/overtime problem? Prior to the 1999-2000 season the NHL awarded two points for a win, whether in regulation and overtime, and zero points for a loss. In the event of a tie after the five-minute overtime, each team was awarded a single point.

So desperate were teams to receive at least one point, the life was sucked out of games late in the third period and especially in overtime, when it paid to play conservatively to get at least a point.

In response, the NHL moved in 1999 to four-on-four overtime, awarding single points to both teams tied at the end of regulation. The message: you both have a point, so get after it in overtime for the extra one.

Those early overtimes were exhilarating, to the point that some observers advocated four-on-four play throughout the game. Eventually, though, conservative strategy seeped back into the NHL. We’ve all watched thrilling games slow to a crawl in the last half of the third period in the stall to get to overtime (the Jan. 16 game between Ottawa and Montreal was a classic example – breathtaking hockey for 51 minutes, and then a near standstill after the Canadiens tied the game 4-4 with nine minutes left in the third).

Overtimes can still be exciting, when both sides engage, but some teams are happy to sit back, defend and take their chances in a shootout.

Remedies?

OVERTIME OVERHAUL

In March, look for NHL general managers to adopt a plan to extend overtime periods beyond the current five minutes, which is over too quickly to settle most games. Ken Holland, the Detroit Red Wings GM, has long proposed a 10-minute OT, with teams dropping to three players aside for the final five minutes. More conservative GMs suggest 10 minutes of 4-on-4.

Those who have watched a lot of minor hockey tournaments can attest that 3-on-3, sudden death hockey is wildly entertaining.

This much is certain. With more than 15 per cent of NHL games ending in shootouts (120 total shootouts as of Friday), the league is on pace for the most shootout games since the format was introduced in 2005-06. The record of 184 shootouts in 2009-10 will likely be smashed, to the dismay of GMs who see the shootout as having way too much impact on playoff races.

SHOOTOUT ‘LOTTERY’

For some reason, hockey teams seem to wash their hands over shootouts as though they are an uninvited guest to the party. Beyond their control. A ‘skills competition.’

“Flip a coin and call heads, that might be a better way to settle it,” Senators goaltender Craig Anderson said after Thursday’s 4-3 shootout loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Not surprisingly, winners tend to be OK with shootouts.

For a telling contrast in approach to shootouts, consider Roy MacGregor’s piece in the Globe and Mail from the 2013 world juniors in Ufa, Russia. After losing an exciting semifinal to Sweden 3-2 in a shootout, Russian coach Mikhail Yarnakov shrugged off defeat, suggesting his team merely lost a “lottery.” His Swedish counterpart, Roger Ronnberg, held a dissenting view. Ronnberg told of scouting potential Russian shooters, and of training his own shooters. “You should take it more seriously,” Ronnberg said. “It’s a coachable skill.”

It’s a skill the New Jersey Devils (0-8) and Senators (2-6) have not learned well.

Mr. Holland, there’s at least two votes for extended overtime periods.

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