By Michael Lopez
On Valentine’s Day in 2010, Nashville travelled to Pittsburgh for a matinee affair that was rife with playoff implications and a sold out Mellon Arena crowd was treated to an exciting, back and forth contest.
Well, 90 percent of one.
After combining for 52 shots and six goals through the game’s first 54 minutes, the teams didn’t score as regulation time wound down. Worse, they didn’t try to.
In fact, in the final 6:21 of the game, neither team registered a shot and Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin played just 50 seconds. As a point of reference, the teams went on to combine for seven shots in the ensuing five-minute overtime with Crosby and Malkin each getting more than three minutes of ice time.
Such a contest, eventually won by Nashville in a shootout, is emblematic of an NHL culture in which several franchises not only play for overtime, but pick and choose when they do so. You see, while Pittsburgh and Nashville were both competing for playoff spots back in February of 2010, they were doing so against different competition. Specifically, Pittsburgh’s stranglehold on the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference wasn’t hurt by ceding two points to the Predators, nor was Nashville’s spot as the seventh seed out West hurt by the Penguins receiving one point for the shootout loss. And because the NHL’s point system rewards an OT or shootout winner with the same two points as if that team had won in regulation, both the Penguins and Predators benefited by the game heading to overtime.
Hence, no shots in six-plus minutes of regulation.
“Every team has its version of a shutdown defense which they adopt when they take the lead,” says Bruins play-by-play man Jack Edwards. “But if you really pay attention, you see that mode late in a tie game.”
Bothersome? Indeed. To help prevent finishes like the one in Pittsburgh, the league should adopt a three-point rule, where teams winning in regulation or overtime would receive three points, teams losing in overtime zero points, with points staying the same for the shootout winner (two) and loser (one).
A three-point rule would increase teams’ desires to win in regulation, ease the interpretability of league standings and limit another silly result of current policies: in every season since 2005, at least 20 of the league’s 30 teams have finished with records above .500. In that regard, NHL teams are like Charlie Sheen – they’re always winning, even when losing.
But the evidence isn’t just anecdotal. In an article recently published in the Journal of Sports Economics, I examined the probabilities of overtime in the NHL’s three most recent point systems (pre-1999, 1999-00 to 2003-04 and 2005-06 to 2011-12) and found several statistically significant differences. First, overtime likelihood rose dramatically after a 1999 rule change guaranteed the overtime loser a point. Second, in the current point system, overtime likelihood has been dramatically higher in March and April, when teams push for the playoffs.
Lastly, teams have been playing overtime games at a significantly higher rate against non-conference opponents, with that effect only noticeable in games played since 2005. In fact, over the past two years, non-conference games went to overtime 23 percent more often than conference ones, with several teams appearing to have recognized the benefits to playing for overtime in these contests.
If this inefficiency in the NHL’s point structure doesn’t bother you yet, it will soon. With next season’s realignment plan, teams are slated to play 28 or 32 non-conference games, substantially higher than the 18 non-conference games played in 2011-12. Further, while playoff eligibility is currently based on conference standings, future standards will have teams competing primarily against their divisional opponents for post-season spots. Overtime incentives currently highest in non-conference games will now extend to all non-divisional contents.
Proponents of the current structure suggest it keeps playoff races tighter, but alas this parity is artificial. As Bruins forward Jay Pandolfo correctly points out: “It’s difficult to catch teams that are losing but still gaining a point.”
The NHL says it will only explore altering the point system if an owner raises the issue at an upcoming board of governors meeting. With opportunities for teams to work the system set to grow in 2013-14 and realignment already planned, now is the perfect time for a change. Are NHL officials bold enough to adopt a three-point rule? Or, like the Penguins and Predators back in 2010, will the league play it safe and do nothing?
Michael Lopez is a biostatistics Ph.D. candidate at Brown University.