NHL Needs New Mathematics

The Hockey Writers ~ Guest Commentary

The Hockey Writers ~ Guest Commentary


     From time to time during the offseason, The Hockey Writers will have Guest Commentary from writers throughout the league. Todays commentary comes from Jeff Little at A Shot From The Point, an excellent Columbus Blue Jackets blog. He also contributes articles to Inside Hockey.


NHL Needs New Mathematics
by Jeff Little


     The NHL has made some huge strides over the past few years.  The painful work stoppage has not proven to be the panacea that many wanted, but is a distinct improvement over the pre-existing economic climate.  The anticipated reduction in the salary cap next year will go a long way to validating the new system, even if it will be a painful validation.  On the ice, the elimination of the two line rule and enforcing interference has created a faster game showcasing the skilled players.  So far, so good.  

     Leaving aside some obvious issues, such as a new television contract with a network people can actually find and admitting that Phoenix is not really a hockey town, there is another issue that we all stare in the face, and yet do nothing about:  the patently absurd NHL points system.

     Let’s start the ball rolling with this question:  When does 3 = 2?  Well, in an orderly universe, governed by the laws of physics and mathematics, the answer would be “never.”  Instead, the answer is “almost never . . . except in the NHL.”  An NHL season has 82 games that count for each team, with some of those games counting for two points and some counting for 3.  The problem is that when the puck drops at the beginning of the game, neither team knows which it will be, nor does any other team know what the result will be in their games.  Yet, all too often, when that same game gets to the last part of the third period, the teams can manipulate what the point total will be.  Now, I am not even coming close to suggesting that teams collude or conspire between themselves to achieve a certain result.  However, anybody who has watched an NHL game with even a modicum of attention has seen teams get conservative and protective of the status quo as a tie game winds down – a “one point is better than zero” mentality prevails.  More significantly, the teams preserve the potential to earn the same number of points they could have earned with a regulation win.

     I am not a purist, but this is just wrong.  Every team needs to know what they are playing for when they step on the ice, and other than doing the best they can to win, they should not be able to increase the amount at stake through their own actions.  Every fan knows what it is like to sit there in the last half of March, agonizing because teams ahead in the standings are involved in 3 point games.  So, we need to adopt the European system – 3 points for a regulation win, 2 points for an overtime or shootout win, and 1 point for an overtime or shootout loss.  It is also the system used in the World Juniors and elsewhere.  While there are detractors of this system, the criticisms fail to stand up to any reasonable scrutiny.


     Let’s look at the common sense approach.  A team that has beaten another team in the regulation sixty minutes has achieved more than beating the team in sixty five minutes or in a shootout.  Similarly, the team ending up on the short end of the score has played better when it extends the game to OT or a shootout, than when it succumbs in regulation.  I have no problem with rewarding a team that has battled beyond sixty minutes with a point for its efforts.  After all, we sacrificed the tie on the altar of publicity and popular demand, so there needs to be an appropriate reward.  But the flip side is that the team that needed more time needs to be penalized for not wrapping it up in the stipulated amount of time.  The three-point system does exactly that.

     The three point system preserves the integrity of the third period.  With points to be both gained and lost if the game goes to overtime, the intensity of play in the third period should increase. More fundamentally, regardless of the way the teams play in the third period, the ultimate value of the game will remain the same, regardless of when the outcome is finalized.  A game will always be worth three points.

     Opponents raise two rather specious arguments against adopting the rule.  First, they assert that it would upend all of the record books for team performance.  Sorry, doesn’t fly.  First of all, the NHL has had seasons of different lengths, up to 84 games, so that argument goes out the window.  Second of all, when the tie was abolished, the old records were out of the window anyway.  Indeed, hockey could survive very nicely without points at all, as do other sports, but I am not advocating abandoning points altogether.

     The second theory uses analogies to European soccer, where the same system is often used, and asserts that it has made little difference there.  First of all, comparing hockey to soccer is absurd.  Soccer is ninety minutes of prevent defense, periodically interrupted by a goal.  The size of the field and pace of the game in soccer makes it far easier to manipulate the ultimate result than in the fast paced game of hockey.  Secondly, and far more importantly, the fact that it may or may not have made much of a difference is beside the point.  The salient point is that it restores uniformity and predictability.  Regardless of the circumstances, a game will always be worth three points, and nothing the teams do can change that.  That is particularly true when we have a system, such as a shootout, which decides games in a contrived fashion.

     The NHL needs to restore order to the universe and get the mathematics correct.  Let’s make 3 = 3. 

  • Rick Moldovanyi

    First off, I like the shootout. I didn’t think I would, but I do.

    Second, overtime in the regular season should be longer than 5 minutes. Ten minutes sounds good to me. It should be 5-on-5 as well.

    I’ve never liked the loser point, but I understand the need for it.

    Based on all of that, a 3-2-1 system sounds like a great idea.

    Good post.

  • http://ashotfromthepoint.blogspot.com Jeff Little

    Lots of good comments on this, as I expected. A few observations.

    In my view, for a points system to work equitably, a game must have a constant value of points, known going into the game, and not capable of voluntary manipulation.

    Secondly, I have come full circle on the “points for a loss” issue. While I originally opposed it, I now am in favor of it. Two basic reasons: 1) It is necessary in order to keep all games having the same point total. 2) We took the tie away, and are now forcing the determination of a winner. Yet, the inherent quality of the effort for the losing team is better than that of a comparable team that loses in regulation. There should be some compensation for that.

    Finally, I don’t buy the distinction between the shootout and OT. Sure the SO is contrived, but so is OT — 5 minutes of 4 vs. 4?? If you had a full period of 5-on-5 hockey, then the shootout, I would buy the distinction, but not in the current state. Both are contrived, just one appears closer to the real game.

    I enjoyed contributing this article. If I am not run out of town on a rail, maybe Rick will ask me to do another one sometime this year. Fire Away!

  • John

    Personally, I like this verson:

    3 points for a regulation win
    2 points for an overtime win
    1 point for a shootout win
    ZERO for losing

    Very simple: I call it “3-2-1-or NONE” system. Even the “casual” fan Gary Bettman covets can understand this system in about 20 seconds (30 seconds if you’re from Nashville).

    While I can accept ties, getting nothing for losing is far more equitable. And giving the same point value for overtime wins and shootouts doesn’t seem fair to me either. Why give the “glorified skills competition” the same same weight as the overtime?? 3-2-1 or None is just easier, more equitable, and just makes more sense.

  • Foss

    I have no problem with the English FA model (soccer) 3 points for a win, 1 point for a tie. This penalizes BOTH teams that don’t or can’t play to win, and boo-hoo, whiners that can’t accept ties will just have to blame their team. No safety net…teams that don’t try to win will fall far behind teams that play hard all regulation.

  • http://sotsohockey.blogspot.com Justin

    I agree that ties were fine, the fundamental problem with NHL overtime is that it’s never been long enough. One 5 minute period is a drop in the bucket compared to 60 minutes of regulation. The Minnesota HS league uses 8 minute OT in the regular season (which is about half of a regulation 17 minute regulation period). More games would be settled in OT if the NHL went to an 8, 10, or 12 minute OT period.

    If the NHL ever dropped the points system in favor of a W-L deal comparable to other sports, I would hope they would expand regular season OT first in the hopes of keeping shootouts rare (maybe to an average of 3 or 4 per team per season).

  • Chris TMC

    Honestly Id rather just go back to ties. Ties were fine.

    If not, Id make it:
    2 pts for a reg win
    2 pts for an OT win
    1 pt for a SO win
    0 pts for losing- at any time.

  • http://floridapantherstalk.blogspot.com Karl Selvig

    An interesting article. I have to say I do like the 3-2-1 system better then what’s currently in place.

    The more I think about it, I’d almost be more in favor of going to a record-only system that the other 3 major leagues use. No ties, no “good try” points. You win, you get a point, so to speak. You lose, you don’t. There would be no “trying to salvage a point” mentality at the end of games. Just a thought, anyway…

  • http://MVN.com/hockeyspy Christopher Ralph

    Great read, Jeff and an interesting take on the subject!

  • http://yvesonhabs.blogspot.com Yves

    Great article!

    I have to say that the European system of 3 points for a regulation win, 2 points for the OT/Shootout win and 1 point for an OT loss makes more sense.

    I think the current point system is a bit backwards…. just as you mention beating a team in 60 minutes that team has achieved a strong victory then beating them in OT or a shoot out.