Dear NHL: Get Rid of the Overtime Loss
A Reward for Losing
For those not too familiar with how the NHL standings work, the NHL utilizes a point system to rank teams in the standings to determine division champions and playoff berths. In this system, there are three categories: Wins, Regulations Losses, and Overtime Losses. Overtime Losses are losses that a team sustains either in an overtime or after a shootout, whereas Regulation Losses occur if a team loses in the standard three-period frame.
Each win nets a team two points, regulation losses zero points, but overtime losses give teams one point. Yes, teams are rewarded for losing in the NHL, the biggest league to employ such a backwards way of thinking. Why do they do this, you ask? We'll have to go back over a decade to go to the roots of the overtime loss.
The Tie Deterrent
From the 2003-04 season and earlier, the NHL allowed games to end in ties if teams were unable to determine the winner after one five-minute overtime period. Ties were frequent in the NHL, and in the ever-present "Ties = boring" sports culture, the NHL realized they were becoming a problem.
In the 1999-2000 season, the NHL first implement the overtime loss to give team incentive to decide a winner in the overtime period before the game could end in a draw. In this system, while a team would get two points for winning, zero for losing in regulation, if a game went into overtime, both teams were essentially guaranteed at least one point. If the game ended in a tie, they'd each get one point for the tie, but if one team wins in overtime, then one team would earn a second point while the losing side kept their one point via the overtime loss. It was a system that encouraged teams to play aggressively in overtime as the point they would've gotten via the tie was now guaranteed to them.
To the casual fan, however, this created a convuluated set of values for the standings. In the NBA or MLB, its easy to see a team's record, say, 50-32, and say "that's pretty good". Even in the NFL, where ties are possible, looking at a 10-5-1 record still tells a person "that's a good record". However, for five seasons, fans got to look at a 43-29-10-5 record and while they could discern that "43-29" meant "good team", it would be hard for a casual fan to remember what the 10 and the 5 stood for, and how they factored in the standings. If you told a casual fan that the above record yielded 101 points, would they be able to figure out how those points got calculated right away?
The System That Minimalizes the Win
Following the 2004-05 lockout that wiped the entire year, the NHL implemented the shootout to get rid of ties once and for all. However, the OT loss remained, with teams earning a point for losing either in the OT period or during the shootout.
As playoff berths are determined by points, not wins, teams have gotten into the postseason with fewer wins than teams that missed the postseason, thanks to compiling OT losses instead of regulation losses. This has happened several times since the advent of the shootout, including:
- In the 2005-06 season - the first season without ties mind you - both the Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings had 42 wins. Neither made the postseason. Meanwhile, the Edmonton Oilers - the West's 8th seed - had 41 wins, getting into the postseason thanks to 13 OT losses. The 2006 Oilers, of course, went on a huge playoff run, making it to the Stanley Cup Final, forcing the Carolina Hurricanes to a seventh game before finally falling.
- In the 2006-07 season, the 43-win Calgary Flames took the last playoff spot over the 44-win Colorado Avalanche thanks to 10 overtime losses.
- That same season, the Montreal Canadiens, with 42 wins, were bumped to 10th in the East thanks to the 8th place, 40-win New York Islanders (12 OT losses) and the 9th place Toronto Maple Leafs (11 OT losses)
- In 2007-08, the 43-win Carolina Hurricanes missed the playoffs. The 6th seeded Philadelphia Flyers, however despite having only 42 wins thanks to 11 OT losses, while Boston stole the final playoff spot with just 41 wins thanks to 12 OT losses.
- In the most damaging case, in 2011-12, both 42-win Dallas (10th in the West) and 41-win Colorado (11th) missed the playoffs. The final playoff spot went to the 40-win Los Angeles Kings, who snuck into the postseason with 15 OT losses. Those Kings did what the 06 Oilers were unable to do, and went on a dominant postseason run en route to their first Stanley Cup Championship. To add further insult to injury for Dallas and Colorado, the 9th place team, Calgary, had only 37 wins but 16 overtime losses.
This system has also affected division championships and playoff seeding, but reward losses affecting playoff berths - and championship runs - is a terrible result of a terrible system.
Alternatives to the Overtime Loss
Unfortunately, the NHL is perfectly content with the current system on the basis that it creates "parity" among teams. More teams remain in the playoff hunt thanks to these OT losses and that increased competition is all the NHL needs to keep the system as is.
It is even more unfortunate that they believe that other points systems wouldn't allow for similar levels of parity while simultaneously preventing teams from using reward losses to surpass teams with more wins.
I am going to present several alternatives to the present system, using the 2013-14 NHL Standings as an example for each one. Not all of these are preferred to even the current system, mind you, but presented anyway. Note that the Phoenix Coyotes are referred to "Arizona" here; they're going into the 2014-15 season as the "Arizona Coyotes" and I forgot to revert them back to "Phoenix" for these charts.
[W: 2 pts] [OT/SO L: 1 pt]
The NHL uses this system now
[W: 2 pts] [SO L: 1 pt]
Like the current system, but no point for standalone OT losses.
[R/OT W: 3 pts] [SO W: 2 pts] [SOL : 1 pt]
Each game now have 3 pts to distribute; shootout only gives winners 2 pts with the loser getting the other point.
[R/OT W: 2 pts] [SO W: 1 pt]
Only 1 point is awarded to the shootout winner, no pts for losses regardless.
[W: 2 pts] [Ties: 1 pt]
The system the NHL used up until the 1998-99 season.
"Wins and Losses"
No points, only wins and losses
Basically, what the NBA and MLB uses.
The Current System
Win (2) - Regulation Loss (0) - Overtime/Shootout Loss (1)
In the 2013-14 NHL season, the league instituted a new divisional alignment. There are 16 teams in the East in two 8-team divisions, and 14 teams in the West in two 7-team divisions.
To make the playoffs, a team must finish in the top-three in their division or, failing that, finish in the top two in their conference amongst those who did not finish top three in their respective division. The wild cards face their conference's division winners (the top division winner vs. the lower wild card team), while the 2nd and 3rd place team in each division faces each other. The wild cards are "assimilated" into each division's playoff regardless of their division of origin. Unless you're already aware of the system, I'm guessing that made little sense. Between this and the OT loss, the NHL doesn't really consider being fair in their decision making.
To the right is a chart that shows how the standings broke down this season. Thankfully, for each conference, the top 8 teams in wins made the postseason; the OT loss provided little chaos this time around.
The "Shootout Loss" System
Win (2) - Regulation/Overtime Loss (0) - Shootout Loss (1)
This system, in which one point is awarded only in a shootout loss, is preferable to the current system, if only due to the "crapshoot" nature of the shootout. Even so, its still rewarding teams for losing, so its not a great system.
In the standings, only one major difference, and that is Nashville catching up to Dallas. Tying in points and the Regulation/OT win tiebreaker, Nashville wins the 2nd tiebreaker - points earned against one another - and takes the final playoff spot over Dallas.
The "3-2-1" System
Regulation/OT Win (3) - R/OT Loss (0) - Shootout Win (2) - Shootout Loss (1)
A preferred points format by many, the points system goes FIFA on the NHL and now rewards three points for a standalone win rather than the NHL-traditional two points. If a game reaches a shootout, those three points are then divided, with the winner taking only two of those points and the loser receiving the other point.
This system is liked by people because it addresses the "crapshoot" nature of the shootout and the need to put less emphasis on teams to reach that point in a game by rewarding shootout winning teams with less points. However, again, this system still rewards teams for losing so its not that good of a system to me.
Similar to the previous system, the only major difference a 3-2-1 system provides in the example is Nashville catching up to Dallas and passing them on the 2nd tiebreaker (this time, 6 points to 3 head to head).
The "Shootout Win" System
Regulation/OT Win (2) - ANY Loss (0) - Shootout Win (1)
This is my preferred system. Like the 3-2-1 system, there is an emphasis for teams to avoid the shootout by giving winners only a single point instead of the full two points, but it also DOES NOT REWARD TEAMS FOR LOSING, finally. Sadly, this system will probably never come to fruition.
Now, in the example there actually is very little difference. Columbus benefits somewhat, leaving Detroit out on an island and nearly passing Philly in the standings, but losing out on the 1st tiebreaker. More notably, Montreal passes Tampa Bay in the standings, but given how badly Montreal destroyed Tampa Bay in the playoffs, that doesn't really matter much (probably).
The "Ties" System
Wins (2) - Losses (0) - Ties (1)
The original NHL points system, this system pretends there is no shootout and instead gives out ties if no winner is determined following overtime.
In the example, both divisions in the West have new winners, creating a completely different set of first round matchups. In the East, however, Washington with 28 wins, 33 losses, and their league-leading 21 ties, lets them pass multiple teams, putting them 3rd in the Metropolitan - losing out to the Rangers in the 1st tiebreaker. Philly and Columbus fall into the two wild card spots while Detroit - possessing six more wins than Washington - has their playoff streak snapped.
So, perhaps its best we don't return to this system, though I don't think Washington would be so tie-happy if ties were in fact back.
The "Wins and Losses" System
No points utilized, only wins and losses counted.
Here, teams only get a win or a loss regardless if the game ends in regulation, overtime or the shootout. Its the easiest system for the casual fan to follow, but perhaps not the best system to use given the shootout is now weighted the same as the rest of the game (though, the current system gives the shootout even more weight).
In the example, only a couple of seeding changes occur in the East, notably Columbus taking 3rd in the Metropolitan to face the Rangers while the Flyers now face the Penguins and what might have been another exciting first-round series.
Fix What is Clearly Broken
The NHL needs to fix their standings system, it can not remain in its current incarnation for much longer without other scenarios like the 2011-12 season occurring. I know I make it sound like I'm upset the Kings won the Cup in 2012 despite having fewer wins than two teams that didn't even make the playoffs in the West, but those are the facts, and it's a fact that the Kings got to go on their run because they found a way to lose less often in regulation than those they passed.
In reality, nearly every alternative I've posted besides the Ties system I suppose would be an improvement to the current system. The NHL needs to put less emphasis on the shootout, and it needs to stop rewarding teams for losing in any capacity. As I've mentioned, the league has shown no interest in making any changes in this regard, which just means several more teams will have to be gamed by this system before complaints will finally start to trinkle in to warrant the change this system so desperately needs.