So, once approved by the Board of Governors, the NHL will change its overtime format next season. Instead of five minutes of 4-on-4 and then a shootout, giving the winning team an extra point by virtue of winning a skill competition coin flip which has very little relation to the actual meat of the game, they will go to five minutes of 3-on-3, theoretically reducing said skill competition coin flip. They will still award the extra point, though.
So why avoid the shootout? Fans couldn’t love the shootout any more unless it was a fight! Well, you see, as ways to decide a game go, it’s not so much better than two guys punching each other. Sorry.
And the problem with the shootout is there were a lot of shootouts, for a few reasons. One, scoring’s really hard, and that creates a league where about half the games are one-goal games. And second, once you have the incentive of getting a point by going to overtime, it becomes easy to play conservatively in, say, the last 10 minutes of regulation of a tie game, when it should be exciting. And then, between 50 per cent and 61 per cent of OT games have gone to shootouts since the first lockout, 4-on-4 be damned.
So, conservative hockey is not what the NHL wants, right? Well, one problem. The Stanley Cup final featured Steven Stamkos, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, the triplet line of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov, Marian Hossa, Brandon Saad, Alex Killorn, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith, Victor Hedman, on and on, and . . . the scores were 2-1, 4-3, 3-2, 2-1, 2-1 and 2-0. Instead of thrills, it left a lot of people cold. It shouldn’t have. But it did.
Hockey strangles itself, even as it strangles the other guys. It’s how you win. As Dan Boyle, the wise old Ranger who is third in defenceman scoring over the last 15 years, said: “I like watching creative players make creative plays, I think we all do. As fans, I’m sure they do as well. Our job is to shut them down, of course, but it’s refreshing to see.”
So hockey leans conservative, and is rigged to create a playoff system where teams are so close, and defences so fast, and goaltenders so big and athletic and protected and good — we’ll get to that — that playoff goals that get scored are usually either tips, deflections, rebounds, seeing-eye shots. They’re not usually the goals that only 10, or 15, or 20 guys in the league can score: they’re the goals that maybe half the league could score. Bounces. Puck luck. Hockey gods. Hockey.
And in the regular season, the last four years have been the lowest-scoring seasons since the pre-lockout era — 1997 to 2004, or so — and before that stretch, the lowest since 1957. Save percentages were at their highest level ever recorded (.915 was the average last year. Patrick Roy’s career save percentage was .910. Of the 50 best save percentage seasons of all time, 41 have been recorded since 2000. Five of the other nine were Dominik Hasek. None came before 1993-94.)
By contrast: In the last two season, the NFL scored the most points since 1965. The NBA just had its two highest-scoring back-to-back seasons since 1995. Oh, and last season, baseball scored the fewest runs since 1981. Oops.
So of course they should make the nets bigger. Make ’em four inches taller and change the shape of the posts to direct pucks in, and you force even a Ben Bishop to rise up to stop pucks, which theoretically opens the bottom part of the net and helps negate the butterfly. There are prototypes being looked at already. The idea exists.
However, this probably means more high shots, and more chances that guys like Mats Zuccarello take a puck to the head and can’t speak for four days. Hockey is a game of unintended consequences, almost none of which lead to more scoring.
And that’s the problem. The NHL can’t wean itself off the mathematical incoherence of the three-point game, because it makes the standings seem close. The NHL can’t create higher-event, higher-scoring, less-predictable hockey, because for bad teams and good teams alike it’s easier to destroy than to create. Plus the goalies.
So, 3-on-3 overtime, to replace the worst gimmick with a better gimmick. The NHL’s general managers are trying to fix the stuff that isn’t really hockey, because the stuff that’s really hockey is so hard to fix.