Since the NHL changed the points system and began awarding single points for overtime losses and shootouts, critics have pointed out that there’s a number of flaws with the system. Take this year’s incarnation of the Florida Panthers for example, they have 18 OTL points this year. 18! Without those points the Panthers are nowhere near a playoff spot, although the same could be said about a lot of teams. Last year, the Kings were dominant in overtime and the shootout and a good proportion of their points came from making it to extra time. But really, the problem isn’t so much that teams are being rewarded for losing in overtime or the shootout, had we never switched from allowing games to end as ties teams would still be receiving a single point for making it to the end of overtime, the problem is that in any given game there is the potential for 3 points to be handed out.
Since the lockout, the general consensus has been that there is more parity in the game now than ever before. True, the salary cap and the removal of the red line have allowed teams the opportunity to match up better with their opponents, but in reality I don’t know that the standings are close for either of these reasons. Sure they play a role, but maybe the bigger influence is the number of 3-point games we see in a given year.
On any given night, and much more regularly nearing the playoffs, it is entirely possible that the winning team is going to take home two points and the losing team will leave with one, which is all fine and good. Problems arise however, when you are a team that is trying desperately to make up ground in the standings. Sure, you have to take care of your own business and worry about what your rivals are doing later, but it’s become almost impossible to gain ground on your opponents in today’s NHL. If you’re 5 points out of 8th spot and the teams ahead of you keep trading 3-point games, you don’t stand a chance. Sure, you’ll stay within striking distance, you won’t get any further behind, but it is so hard to make any appreciable dent in the gap between you if teams keep taking home at least a single point every night.
Which is why the NHL loves this system. Heading into Thursday night’s action, there was 10 teams competing for the 8 spots in the West and 9 teams competing in the East. This is with two games remaining in the NHL season! The 3-point system has allowed teams to remain in the hunt for so much longer than was ever possible in the past, which means teams are playing meaningful games much later into the season. But are they really that meaningful? Sure the Avalanche are still in the hunt in the West, and yes it’s still mathematically possible for them to lock up the eighth seed, but haven’t they really been finished for the last few weeks? The 3-point system has allowed them to keep pace with the pack, but it has also made it nearly impossible for them to make up the necessary ground. BUT, the games have technically been meaningful, the team has been fighting tooth and nail to win, and the team has continued to rake in revenue from fans who are clinging to every last hope their team will make the playoffs. Gone are the days where those who were out of the running could stop watching their team in late January (unless you cheer for the Oilers, Blue Jackets, or Canadiens). In today’s NHL fans will continue to buy tickets for the games and teams will bring in revenue right up to the final game of the regular season, because that game will TECHNICALLY matter. It is a foolproof blueprint for the NHL to maximize its revenue.
But as a player and a fan, it can be frustrating. The Pacific Division has been a textbook example of the frustrations associated with this system this season, as on more than one occasion the Kings have won their game only to see two Western Conference rivals end up in the shootout, and the Kings were left to look at how little their win meant. I can only imagine how hard it is as a player to see that you are doing everything right, winning game after game, but you can’t seem to catch your opponents. The Capitals have three more wins than the Panthers this year, yet they sit behind them for the Southeast Division lead because the Panthers have 10 more OT points. It makes no sense.
I often hear people say that the solution would be moving to a system that hands out 3 points for a regulation win and adjusting the number of points handed out in overtime and the shootout, similar to the system used in international play. Personally, I don’t ever see it happening. The current system breeds tight standings and the NHL likes nothing better than to see the conferences log-jammed around the final playoff spot come the start of April; and if I’m being entirely honest, I can’t deny that 3-point games make for more exciting, meaningful hockey this time of year. But unfortunately, when you’re the fan of a team on the outside of the playoffs looking in, the 3-point games may make it all but impossible for your team to make up ground in the playoff hunt, and it will be all the more painful when they come up just short.