It’s time to shoot the shootout in the NHL

Ken Campbell
Tatar And Neuvirth in the shootout (Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images)

It’s probably not the best idea to ask Patrick Kane and Stan Bowman what they think of shootouts these days. After a pretty decent career in the skills competition in previous seasons, Kane sat at an incredible 1-for-11 in attempts in 2013-14, which contributed to Bowman’s team being just 5-8 in shootouts.

But it’s really gone beyond the old cliche that if you’re good at it you love it and if you’re bad at it you hate it, hasn’t it? I never thought I’d say this, but the shootout has run its course.

This is a major shift. When the shootout was established in an effort to liven up the game after Lockout-Part-II-of-III, you wouldn’t have found a bigger proponent of it than yours truly. Remember, we were coming out of the Dead Puck Era and nobody knew how things were going to look. I thought that anything that added excitement to the game would be a step in the right direction.

And for a couple years, things were good. But when I watch games now, I find myself tapping away at my computer rather than watching the shootout proceedings. They’ve kind of become for me what overtime in the playoffs used to be. There was a time, kids out there, when OT was a battle of attrition that resembled more of a zombie rodeo than a hockey game. I came to dread overtime in the playoffs. I’m not at that stage with shootouts, but I’m definitely in the “meh” phase of my experience with them.

One reason for this is that when the shootout was established, I was envisioning star-on-star action. And, for the most part, what we’re getting is a conga line of players who only seem to be able to score when they take the puck wide or go in on the goalie at snowshoe speed.

“If you asked people when the shootout implemented what the (goal) conversion rate would be, nobody would have said 30 percent,” Bowman said. “It’s really more of a goaltending competition than anything else.”

Bingo. The shootout was established to break ties, but its primary reason for existence was to liven up the game experience for fans. If any of those fans are like me, they were envisioning the best players in the game scoring and winning games. Many opponents saw it as giving an unfair advantage to teams with more skilled players, as though there was something wrong with that. But the opposite has happened. The shootout is so skewed to goalies that, once again, the ability to stop a goal is more important than the ability to score one.

Kane isn’t the only star player struggling. Alex Ovechkin can rifle a shot through a maze of defenders or deke his way through an entire line and score goals. But give him nothing but open ice and just a goalie and his value diminishes significantly. He had two goals on 14 shots. John Tavares was 1for-6. But hey, Brad Boyes and Andrew Ladd had six goals. And Martin Jones, whose identity before this season was known only to family and friends, had stopped all 12 attempts on him. Even Marc-Andre Fleury, who can’t seem to stop anything once the playoffs begin, stopped all but three of the 19 shots he’d faced in the skills competition.

Something is wrong when you have people pining once again for the days of ties. There’s no indication that is going to happen in Gary Bettman’s NHL, but at least Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland is beginning to get more support for his bid to have teams play more time at 4-on-4 or go down to 3-on-3 in order to reduce the number of shootouts.

Speaking of numbers, the league is on its way to posting record ones when it comes to shootouts. When the shootout was introduced in 2005-06, just 11.8 percent of games were decided in shootouts. That number has ballooned to 15.5 percent just past the halfway point of this season. And the conversion rate of 31.8 percent is the second lowest ever.

Part of the problem is a downward trend in scoring league-wide. Fewer goals mean closer games, which means more games going to overtime and shootouts. And if players are scoring less frequently during the games, it would stand to reason they’re doing it less often in shootouts as well. The size of goaltending equipment has been reduced, but shooters don’t seem to be finding any more white space behind them.

The league has already reduced the importance of shootouts by having regulation and overtime wins as the first tiebreaker in the standings. It’s time for the league to go all the way and put the shootout to rest once and for all.

It was a good idea for a while and served its purpose. Now it’s time for it to go the way of the glowing puck, the red line and the goal judge.

This column originally appeared in the Feb. 10 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.