shootouts

The shootout was introduced in the wake of the 2004-05 lockout mainly because the NHL was incredibly — and deservedly — unpopular at that point. The thinking was ostensibly this: Ties are boring (for some reason), and penalty shots are exciting, so if we put a whole bunch of the latter at the end of the former and act as like the team with the most goals on penalty shots is the winner of the game itself.

This has, of course, led to considerable debate about the merits of the shootout at large, with supporters saying, “It’s fun,” and detractors saying, “It’s stupid.” The problem is that there can be no middle ground when it comes to whether you think it’s a good idea, or at least very little. Either you like it because it’s fun and might have gotten your team into the playoffs when they otherwise might not have deserved it (the Toronto Maple Leafs of this year and last, the Southeast-winning Florida Panthers, etc.), or you hate it because it’s a gimmick skills competition that, again, significantly effects the outcome of the season standings in a way that is not necessarily fair overall.

One can only imagine that there is a small sliver of fans on the NHL pie chart who grudgingly accept the shootout as something that’s not “for them” (and also: not “going away”) even if they think it’s pretty dumb to decide anything in this fashion.

But one group of people who seem to be pretty sick of the shootout, and rightly so, is the league’s general managers, who are now, after nine seasons of watching this event screw up the standings in ways that are unfair to most of them, finally moving to do something about it. This is a notable policy shift, after their having merely yakked about doing something about it for the last few years. There are apparently a number of ways in which these changes might be enacted so as to lessen the impact of the shootout, without actually doing the thing they’d all really like to do, which is just get rid of the damn thing and start having ties again.

The first of these, championed by Red Wings GM Ken Holland, is to have a 3-on-3 overtime period after the expiration of the 4-on-4 overtime period. This isn’t a terrible idea in theory because it puts five minutes of even more wide-open hockey between the teams and an anti-climactic and silly shootout. But the problem with 3-on-3 overtime is that it’s not much less of a gimmick than the shootout; yeah it’s guys skating around passing each other, and it gives coaches a little more wiggle room with tactics (would Claude Julien, for example, have Patrice Bergeron play both defense and forward to maximize two-way ability?), but the amount of time in the NHL spent at 3-on-3 is just about nil (about 10:15 total all season to this point); you actually see significantly more penalty shots during regulation and overtime — there have been 59 this season alone — than that. So if anything, 3-on-3 is more of a gimmick. You can see, then, why the NHL’s GMs really seem to want little to do with that.

Another thing we’ve heard a lot about, and one that is likewise not going to be very popular with the league, is extending the current 4-on-4 overtime to 10 minutes from the current five. This seems, to me, to be the most reasonable solution to the problem. But it — and other such fixes to the shootout problem — won’t stick for what I’d think are largely commercial reasons: The league probably feels like games take too long already (ideally, you’d imagine they want to aim for a straight two-hour window) and can’t really sell commercials for that extra five minutes of OT, so there’s not enough reason to change things in that regard either.

The change that seems most likely to be adopted, and which has been in place in college hockey for a few seasons now, and the stats show that it has largely led to fewer ties. In the NHL, where overtime is 4-on-4 rather than the 5-on-5 used in college. (Interestingly, all NCAA conferences are now given the option to play 4-on-4 instead, and none took advantage.) The USHL does it as well, and finds that 10 percent more games end in OT wins. You’d think with more open ice and the higher-skilled players the NHL obviously has, that this could lead to even more scoring and thus even fewer games decided by a shootout. While these aren’t likely to lead to, say, Florida Panthers-like line change mistakes, but guys can get stuck out there longer, and mistakes do happen.

The move that should be undertaken to lessen the impact of the shootout on the standings that a) makes the most sense and, b) is already in place in international hockey to some extent, is to go to the perfectly reasonable, logical, and responsible three-point system: Every game has three points, ensuring an extra magically appear when the game goes to OT. Win in regulation, get three points. Win in OT or the shootout, get two. Lose in OT or the shootout, get one. Lose in regulation, get none. This encourages teams to no longer play for the “extra point” and simultaneously makes the shootout less important even when it does happen as a handy bonus. Seems logical. Will never happen.

Or you could just get rid of it. But that one makes the most sense and is therefore not something the NHL is likely to ever consider.