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December 20, 2017

The Loser Point

The Case Against the NHL’s Regular Season Overtime Loss Point

Regardless of the sport, it’s natural to want to declare a winner and a loser every time two teams square off. Every major sports league has a system for deciding regular season games that are tied at the end of regulation. Hockey fans can take pride in knowing that the NHL’s overtime rules are better and more exciting than the NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball. So, why does the league insist on still awarding a point to teams that lose in the extra session?

History of Regular Season Overtime: Prior to World War II, the NHL employed a ten minute regular season overtime to decide tie games. The overtime session was not sudden death, meaning that the full ten minutes were always played. The league abandoned regular season overtime in 1942 to avoid delays in train schedules and to respect wartime curfews. Forty-one years later, the NHL reintroduced regular season overtime prior to the 1983-84 season. This time, it was sudden death.

The first modern regular season overtime game took place on October 8, 1983. The Washington Capitals opened their home schedule against the four-time defending Stanley Cup champion Islanders. At one point, the Caps led 5-1. The players and their fans were excited to exact some small measure of revenge against the Isles for eliminating Washington from the previous spring’s playoffs. But on this night, it wasn’t to be. The Islanders chipped away at the lead, and Bob Nystrom tied the score at 7 with just under a minute to go. In overtime, Bob Bourne of the Islanders scored the first regular season overtime goal in modern NHL history, with Washington’s Bengt Gustafsson in the penalty box. It was a truly disappointing loss for the Capitals and their fans. And the Capitals didn’t get a bonus point for keeping it close. The Islanders won the game that night. The Capitals lost. Everybody moved on.Over the next 16 seasons, regular season overtime provided many great highlights and memorable moments. Most overtime games, though, were still ending in a tie. Most coaches are conservative by nature, and they did not want to push too hard in the name of offence and risk losing their hard earned point.

The Genesis of the Overtime Loss Point and Four-on-Four Play: To encourage offence in overtime, the NHL decided prior to the 1999-2000 season that a team that lost in the extra session would still gain one point. Theoretically, teams had nothing to lose by going for the win in overtime. In addition, the league introduced 4-on-4 overtime that year, thus opening up the ice and allowing skilled players to shine. The percentage of overtime games that resulted in a game-winning goal increased in the following years. There were more highlights, and more fans went home happy. A team that lost in overtime still kept its point. Although it was obviously disappointing to lose in overtime, most fans would shrug their shoulders and think “At least we got a point”.

This philosophy made some sense in a pre-shootout world. Most fans wanted to see goals, but most coaches weren’t too inclined to open up the game in overtime and risk losing their hard earned point. But by guaranteeing that one of the two teams would walk away as the winner, the league loosened the shackles somewhat. The possibility of a third point being awarded encouraged both teams to go for it.

The Shootout: The league introduced the shootout prior to the 2005-06 season. For the first time, a winner and a loser would be declared in every single game. This was a golden opportunity to remove two columns from the standings, and become just a league of wins and losses like the NBA, MLB, and NFL (granted, there are tie games in the NFL, but they are extremely rare). But the league decided to keep awarding the third point. These third points were called overtime loss points, and were awarded whether a team lost in overtime or a shootout.

Three-on-Three: The last major change to the NHL’s overtime rules was the introduction of 3-on-3 overtime prior to the 2015-16 season. The change has been revolutionary. The amount of back and forth excitement in one five-minute overtime period sometimes exceeds the total excitement from the previous 60 minutes combined. The next time that you are at a sports bar or restaurant and an NHL game goes into overtime on one of the screens, pay attention to the patrons. They’re all watching. Three on three overtime is mesmerizing. But the overtime loss point is unnecessary.

A Five-Point Case Against the Overtime Loss Point

1.Doesn’t the bonus point seem childish, like something that might be introduced in a youth league? One of the reasons given in support of the bonus point is that it’s heartbreaking to play so hard and come so close yet come up empty-handed. But, it happens in the playoffs when the heartbreak is even greater. No one is suggesting changing the rules of playoff sudden death overtime to lessen the blow to losing teams. Further, No other major North American sports league gives out an extra point for some games. A baseball team that loses a 19-inning ballgame or a basketball team that loses in triple overtime don’t get points in the standings. Even in the NFL, where each game has more significance in the standings because there are less games overall, teams that lose in overtime take the loss and start preparing for the following week’s opponent. The NHL would add to the drama of overtime by declaring one winner and one loser for every game.

2.The bonus point encourages mediocrity. From 1999 to 2004, the first five seasons that the bonus point was awarded, each team played an average of 14 to 15 overtime games per season. In the last four seasons, each team has played an average of 19 to 20 overtime games per season. While there may be factors affecting these totals that are not considered in this analysis, it must at least be acknowledged that many teams push for overtime in the final minutes of a tie game to ensure their point. Of course, there are exceptions to this, but generally speaking the trend seems to be towards playing it extra safe after 50 to 55 minutes.

3.The overtime loss point is weirdly dishonest. For example, last year the Toronto Maple Leafs finished the season 40-27-15, representing 40 total wins, 27 regulation losses and 15 overtime or shootout losses. On the surface, this looks like a team that finished well above .500. But perhaps it would have been more fitting to describe their record as 40-42, with 15 bonus points. It’s to the Leafs’ credit that they got as many of the bonus points as they could, but it’s interesting that a sub-.500 team made the playoffs ahead of the Islanders and Lightning, each of whom finished at or above .500.To further illustrate this strange dishonesty in the standings, the average number of points league-wide last year was 92. Half of the league’s 30 teams finished with more points than 92, and half finished with less, as one might expect. But many fans just glance at the wins column and the losses column to see if their team is above or below .500. Based on a much simpler test, 22 of the league’s 30 teams finished above .500. Seven teams that looked to be .500 or above were actually below that mark.

4. A system that awards three points for some games is no longer necessary. As explained earlier, the overtime loss point arguably made sense in a pre-shootout world as a way to encourage offence in overtime and discourage ties. But now the NHL has the shootout, meaning that there will always be a winner. So, imagine if all of the rules surrounding overtime and the shootout were the same, except that the league operated on a simple wins and losses format, with no bonus point. Once a game got to overtime, there would be a guarantee that one team would win and one team would lose. The teams heading into this overtime would not fight any less vigorously for the win than a team guaranteed at least one point. Also, teams would probably be willing to open it up more in the third period, knowing that there was no particular advantage to getting the game into overtime because there was no longer a guaranteed point.Interestingly, soccer leagues often award three points for a win, one for a tie and zero for a loss. This system has the opposite effect of the current NHL system. Teams are penalized for playing for a tie and encouraged to go for the win. I’d be much more comfortable with a rule that really encouraged teams to gamble for a win than the current NHL system which rewards teams for playing it close at the end of regulation.

5. Abandoning the overtime loss point would allow for more late-season movement in the standings. Over the last few years, the NHL standings have taken on the shape of this article’s author, getting more congested in the middle than ever before. As the season winds down and fans keep a keen eye on the scoreboards hoping for their heroes to win and their rivals to lose, the dreaded three point game seems to occur more and more frequently. Teams understandably play even closer to the vest, hoping for at least one point each time out. While this arguably makes for exciting games, it reduces the probability of a team climbing the standings heading into the playoffs.

Conclusion: The bonus point in the NHL served a purpose when it was introduced 18 years ago. Too many games were ending in a tie, and the league needed to introduce a rule that would open it up and increase the number of games in which a winner was declared. The shootout has changed that. A winner is now declared every time out. It’s time for the league to take the next step forward and become a wins/losses league, just like all the others.

About The Author

Jim Beland is a Math Teacher and sports fantatic from Windsor, ON. A devout HABS and Blue Jays fan, Jim uses sports as a metaphor to teach his students about mathematics.

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