NHL’s Central Division Was a Study in ‘Loser Points’

The NHL’s 2020-21 regular season consisted entirely of intra-divisional play – each team played only teams within its own division. Every standings point earned put a team that much closer to the playoffs, and every point lost put the opposition closer. Of the four divisions, games decided after regulation time had the greatest impact on the Central Division.

The NHL's Central Division 2020-21 standings were determined in part by "Loser Points."

The unique (hopefully) schedule for the 2020-21 season pitted teams only against rivals within their own division. In effect, that meant each game was a ‘four-point game.” Every win, moved your team up two points, while the losing team stayed behind, until the loser point is added, producing a post-regulation win that advanced the winning team only one point ahead of the loser. As I like to say, “Earning a single point for a loss was one goal, one save, one blocked shot from earning two points.”

A Brief History of the Loser Point

The so-called “loser point” is the one point in the standings awarded to a team for failure to win in overtime (OT) or a shootout (SO). The winner of those games gets two standings points. There has been much criticism of the loser point since it was first introduced for the 1999-00 season (The shootout was added prior to the 2005-06 season. We don’t need to get into the debate about how that has hurt the game of hockey right now).

Related: NHL Should Eliminate the Shootout & Finish Games With 3-on-3 Overtime

Before the loser point, a game that ended in a tie gave each team one point in the standings. Every game produced two standings points: Two for a win, zero for a loss, one for each team in a tie. Since the addition of the loser point, some games produce two standings points and some produce three.

Some might say that earning a point for a loss in overtime or a shootout rewards a valiant effort that fell just short of a victory. Off the top of my head, though, I can’t think of a single person who espouses that point of view. I can, however, direct you to a long list of stories and columns written by my colleagues at The Hockey Writers who deplore the loser point and call for a change.

Looking for Loser Points in the Standings

When looking at the basic NHL standings, you’ll see W (wins), L, losses) and OT (overtime and shootout losses). Respectively, they are worth two, zero and one point in the standings. But you also need to look to columns farther to the right in the standings chart to truly see the impact of the loser point. The RW column counts wins in regulation time (two points for the winner, zero for the loser). The ROW includes both regulation wins and OT and SO wins. Subtract RW from ROW to find the number of games each team won in OT or SO (handing the losing team a standings point). Details of shootout wins are found in the S/O column, which shows both SO wins and losses.

Related: The History of Overtime in the Chase for the Stanley Cup

So, to find the full impact of loser points you need to look at the OT column, subtract RW from ROW, and consider the two- and one-point games in the S/O column (Statistically speaking, life was far easier when there were only three columns: wins, losses, and ties).

The 2020-21 Divisional Standings

In the Central Division, the final playoff spot race between the Nashville Predators and the Dallas Stars (won by Nashville) can be attributed to the Predators’ ability to close games in regulation time. My colleague Kristy Flannery has all the details. But, unlike the other three divisions, regulation wins and loser points came into play from top to bottom in the Central. At the top, the first, second, and third playoff seeds can be framed in terms of post-regulation performance:

  • First seed: Carolina Hurricanes The Hurricanes had one fewer total win than the second-place Florida Panthers and the same number as the third-place Tampa Bay Lightning. But Carolina had more standings points with eight OT wins and a 4–2 SO record for 26 of their 80 points.
  • Second seed: Florida Panthers With one more win but one fewer point, the Panthers came up just short of the divisional crown. A whopping 10 OT wins (ROW minus RW) and a 1–2 record in the SO produced 24 points.
  • Third seed: Tampa Bay Lightning The Lightning had more regulation wins (29) than either the Hurricanes (27) or the Panthers (26). But they also had fewer games go past regulation time and, therefore, the opportunity to earn loser points. Tampa Bay lost 17 games in regulation time, while Carolina (12 regulation losses) and Florida (14) went on to overtime or all the way to the shootout more often, and therefore had more opportunities to gain loser points.

Let’s also consider the head-to-head series among the three teams. Each series consisted of eight games, so with a regulation-time winner and loser in every game, each series would produce 16 points in the standings. That, however, was not the case – loser points played a part in all three series:

  • Carolina vs. Florida: The Hurricanes earned 14 points in games against the Panthers. The Panthers earned six points against the Hurricanes. Series total: 20 points.
  • Carolina vs. Tampa Bay: The Hurricanes earned nine points in games against the Lightning. The Lightning earned nine points in games against Carolina. Series total: 18 points.
  • Florida vs. Tampa Bay: The Panthers earned 11 points in games against the Lightning. The Lightning earned six points in games against the Panthers. Series total: 17 points.

At the bottom of the Central Division standings, the Detroit Red Wings and the Columbus Blue Jackets finished with the same number of points in the standings (48). However, because Detroit won more games in regulation time, the Red Wings finished seventh and the Blue Jackets eighth. Did I hear someone say “So what?” This is “what” – Columbus will have a better chance of winning the draft lottery because they had more loser points than did Detroit.

In this crazy season, loser points were the rule rather than the exception. The Central Division saw more points awarded to teams in the OT column (60 points total, for an average of 7.5 per team) than did the other divisions (about 6.25 per team). In the other two U.S.-based divisions, the East and West, the head-to-head series among the top four teams (a total of 12 eight-game series) produced only one series that ended with exactly 16 points: the Colorado Avalanche and the St. Louis Blues. The other series produced between 17 and 20 points in eight games (The all-Canadian North division had seven teams rather than eight and didn’t play the same balanced intra-divisional series).

Colorado Avalanche Andre Burakovsky St. Louis Blues Alexander Steen
Colorado and St. Louis had an eight-game series without a single “loser point” in 2020-21. (AP Photo/Scott Kane)

One other quirky bit of trivia: On May 11, the Avalanche had played 54 games and sat in second place in the West division. With two games remaining, they had the possibilities of both taking over first place (from the Vegas Golden Knights) with a couple of wins, or falling to third place (behind the Minnesota Wild) with a couple of losses (the results, of course, also depended on the performance of the other two teams, with or without loser points).

The Win-Loss-Tie Scenario

What if there was no overtime and no shootouts? What if games were decided at the end of 60 minutes? The team with more goals wins two points in the standings, the team with fewer goals earns no points, and if they have the two teams have the same number of goals – what old-timers refer to as a “tie” – each team earns one point. Rather than complicating things, let’s use this formula:

56 games – (regulation wins + regulation losses) = tied games

Pretty simple, isn’t it? (What’s that, nay-sayers and purists? I haven’t figured in the old-time overtime rules? Quite right, I didn’t!) Here’s what the 2020-21 Central Division standings would look like with the simplified win-loss-tie scoring:

  1. Carolina Hurricanes: 27–12–17 = 71 pts
  2. Tampa Bay Lightning: 29–17–10 = 68 pts
  3. Florida Panthers: 26–14–16 = 68 pts
  4. Nashville Predators: 21–23–12 = 56 pts
  5. Dallas Stars: 17–19–20 = 54 pts
  6. Chicago Blackhawks: 15–25–16 = 46 pts
  7. Detroit Red Wings: 16–27–13 = 45 pts
  8. Columbus Blue Jackets: 12–26–18 = 42 pts

The only change that would result is home-ice advantage in the first playoff round flipping from the Panthers to the Lightning due to the tie-breaker of more wins. The gap between the Predators and Stars is a couple points tighter and the gap between the Stars and the Blackhawks becomes substantially larger. (Oh, and Columbus’ record looks even worse.) But using a basic win-loss-tie system and eliminating the loser point would have virtually no impact on the Central Division this season. But the loser point was used this season for overtime and shootout losses and, as discussed above, it did have an impact on the standings in the Central Division this season.
Statistics and records courtesy of Hockey-Reference.com.

Sign up for our 'DAILY BEST Newsletter' for the latest & greatest hockey news & analysis.