Three Point Games and the Dawn of the New Average in the NHL

The shootout has made stars out of players like Loui Eriksson, but has also significantly altered NHL standings. (Tom Turk/THW)

Dating back to the beginning of the National Hockey League, wins and losses have mattered a great deal to all the teams and their fans. Until 1998-99, the NHL had ties and each game had a maximum of 2 points available – no more, no less. In keeping with this, the total number of points given out in any season was stable and entirely dependent on the number of games and the number of teams.

In short, if you won half of the time (“going .500″), your team was average. A team that went 41-41-0 (or 40-40-2, 39-39-4, and so on…) would earn 82 points and be a statistically average hockey club. Looking at the five seasons prior to the elimination of ties, it becomes evident that a statistically average hockey team actually did quite well.

  • 1994-95: 8th seed in the West had 42 points, 8th seed in the East had 46 points; three sub-.500 teams made the playoffs
  • 1995-96: 8th seed in the West had 78 points, 8th seed in the East had 88 points; five sub-.500 teams made the playoffs
  • 1996-97: 8th seed in the West had 81 points, 8th seed in the East had 77 points; four sub-.500 teams made the playoffs
  • 1997-98: 8th seed in the West had 78 points, 8th seed in the East had 83 points; two sub-.500 teams made the playoffs
  • 1998-99: 8th seed in the West had 78 points, 8th seed in the East had 90 points; two sub-.500 teams made the playoffs

A team earning half of the points available to them (82) ends up in the playoffs or, at most, 8 points outside of the playoffs, depending on which conference the team plays in.

The 1999-2000 season introduced the three-point game to the National Hockey League. Rather than have teams that lost in overtime get no points at all, the loser would receive a single point for keeping the game dead-locked for the regulation 60 minutes. The experiment distorted NHL standings, although not to an exceptional degree.

  • 1999-2000: 113 three-point games (9.8%), average game is worth 2.10 points, average team earns 86 points (8th in West is 87 points, 8th in East is 85 points)
  • 2000-01: 122 three-point games (9.9%), average game is worth 2.10 points, average team earns 86.1 points (8th in West is 90 points, 8th in East is 88 points)
  • 2001-02: 101 three-point games (8.2%), average game is worth 2.08 points, average team earns 85.4 points (8th in West is 94 points, 8th in East is 87 points)
  • 2002-03: 155 three-point games (12.6%), average game is worth 2.13 points, average team earns 87.2 points (8th in West is 92 points, 8th in East is 83 points)
  • 2003-04: 145 three-point games (11.8%), average game is worth 2.12 points, average team earns 86.8 points (8th in West and in East is 91 points)

On the whole, the Overtime Loss period produced fairly stable results over five seasons. The average game was worth just over two points and, while there was a significant jump in the proportion of three-point games closer to the end of the period, the figures remained comparably low. Notably, the “average” team doesn’t usually qualify for the playoffs (2002-03 in the East being the notable exception), but it doesn’t take much more than an average season to get there much of the time. The average team in the Overtime Loss period earns approximately 86 points – equating with a record four games over the .500 mark (43-39-0, or 42-38-2, and so on). A team earning half of the points available to them (82) ends up between 1 and 12 points outside of the playoffs.

Following the 2004-05 lockout, the 2005-06 NHL season eliminated ties altogether and introduced the shootout to the NHL. For the first time since the 1920-21 season, every NHL game would end with a definitive winner and loser. As one would expect, this had a pretty big impact on the league standings.

  • 2005-06: 281 three-point games (22.8%), average game is worth 2.23 points, average team earns 91.4 points (8th in West is 95 points, 8th in East is 92 points)
  • 2006-07: 280 three-point games (22.7%), average game is worth 2.23 points, average team earns 91.3 points (8th in West is 96 points, 8th in East is 92 points)
  • 2007-08: 272 three-point games (22.1%), average game is worth 2.22 points, average team earns 91.1 points (8th in West is 91 points, 8th in East is 94 points)
  • 2008-09: 282 three-point games (22.9%), average game is worth 2.23 points, average team earns 91.4 points (8th in West is 91 points, 8th in East is 93 points)
  • 2009-10: 301 three-point games (24.4%), average game is worth 2.24 points, average team earns 92.0 points (8th in West is 95 points, 8th in East is 88 points)
  • 2010-11: 296 three-point games (24.0%), average game is worth 2.24 points, average team earns 91.9 points (8th in West is 97 points, 8th in East is 93 points)

As is immediately evident, there are a LOT of three-point games in the National Hockey League, approximately doubling the previous rate of three-pointers. Peculiarly, much like the jump in three-point games following three years of Overtime Losses, there is a significant jump in three-point games after four seasons of shootouts.  Roughly one-in-four NHL games now ends in extra time, giving the average NHL club ten more points than they earned back when ties were around. As a result, the standings are very different. The average NHL club, more often than not, misses the playoffs.  The average team will earn 92 points and post a record ten games over the .500 mark (46-36-0, or 45-35-2, and so on). A team earning half of the points available to them (82) ends up between 6 and 15 points outside of the playoffs.

Back when NHL games only had two points up for grabs, a team winning as many games as it lost earned 82 points, was an average team and had a pretty decent shot at the playoffs. The introduction of the overtime loss point pushed a team winning as many as it lost (in regulation) slightly below the average mark. Now, with roughly a quarter of all NHL games resulting in three points being given out, a team losing as many games (in regulation) as it wins is a team that is significantly below average. The .500 label is a misnomer: three-point games have created a new “average” mark, and that mark is ten games over .500. The new average is significantly above average.

Ryan Pike
A native of the Stampede City, Ryan Pike has covered the Calgary Flames extensively since 2010 as a Senior Writer for The Hockey Writers and as Managing Editor of FlamesNation.ca.
Ryan Pike

3 Comments

  1. Alternatively, they could ditch the points and go with win/loss alone. You know, like other sports.

  2. This backs up statistically something I’ve been thinking for a while: It is time for regulation victories to be worth three points. Creating this third point out of whole cloth just doesn’t sit well, and feeds the whole “play for a tie in regulation” idea, rather than playing for victory.

    • Of course you’re right, but this makes so much sense that you know they’ll never institute it. I’ve tried to figure out a reason why those in charge seem so averse to this obvious solution, and I can’t come up with any practical reasons why. It will effectively end the usually boring trap-dominated 3rd periods between tied teams, and probably instigate a greater sense of urgency in the 4 on 4 overtime to try to avoid the now significantly “measlier” single point that a shootout loss provides. Oh well, wishful thinking…

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