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.