The Issue with Hockey’s Scoring System

     For my first ever post about hockey, I’d like to tackle what I believe is a huge issue with the game.  That issue is the scoring system in hockey, meaning how teams accumulate points through playing games in an attempt to finish high enough in the standings to make the playoffs.  I  believe the current format hockey uses seems to encourage teams to play for a tie, and not a victory, which could be a horrible thing for the game.  But before we get into why that is, let’s take a look at the evolution of scoring in hockey.
     We’ll start our look into the scoring of hockey in 1942 (if you really want earlier than that look it up on your own time).  Due to wartime restrictions on train scheduling, overtime was eliminated from the game.  From the 1942-43 season to the 1983-84 season, the points system was just about as easy to understand as possible.  If one team won, they earned two points while the losers earned none.  If at the end of the third period the score was tied, the teams split the points, each taking one.
     From the 1984-85 season through the 1998-99 season, if a game was tied after regulation, a five minute golden goal overtime would be played.  An overtime winner would take the two point, and the overtime loser would again earn no points.  If the game was tied after the five minute overtime, the points were still split one apiece.  Still pretty easy to comprehend (I’d be perfectly okay with this system being used today).
     The 1999-2000 season is where things begin to get a little more difficult.  It’s also the season that began to ruin hockey.  Starting in this year, each team began to be assured one point for making it to overtime.  Basically, if a team scored a winning goal in overtime, they’d earn their second point for that game, but the losers would still receive one point just for drawing the game in regulation.  Just as before, a tie at the end of overtime results in one point for each team.
     The current system, adopted for the 2005-06 season, is even worse.  The NHL had the great (sarcasm) idea of just dropping ties altogether.  Instead, the idea of an overtime loss, instituted in the 1999-2000 season, just replaced ties entirely.  If a game ends tied after five minutes of overtime, the game now goes to a penalty shootout, instead of a tie.  The shootout itself is identical in format to a penalty shootout in soccer.  To recap, what this means is that if a team wins in regulation, they get two, while the other team gets none.  If a team wins in overtime, they get two, the other team gets one (called an overtime loss or  OTL), and if a team wins in a shootout, similar to winning in overtime, they get two points, and the other team gets an OTL for one.
     But why is this such a huge deal, you ask?  It’s simple.  The idea of an OTL alters the amount of points available to be won in a game.  In a game where a team either wins, loses, or draws, the amount of points awarded in a game is always two.  Either one team gets both points or they each take one.  However, in an OTL game, if the game goes to overtime, the points awarded in the game is increased to three.  But, still, so what?
     Here’s what.  It makes it theoretically possible for a team to make the playoffs by winning zero games in regulation, using an extremely simple strategy, that to be honest I’m surprised no one has used yet.  All a team would in theory have to do is to make an agreement with their opponent to draw every game in regulation.  If this were to occur, the chances of earning no points from a game is eliminated, guaranteeing each team to increase their overall point total in each game.  Then in overtime, the competing teams actually compete against each other for the third point to be won in the match.  One team will get the second point, but the other will also pick up a point, and probably be satisfied with that.
     In theory,  there would be no reason for any team to object to doing this.  If you earn at least one point in each game, and half the time win in overtime or the penalty shootout, you will earn an average of 1.5 points per match.  If you multiply that by the 82 games in an NHL season, you would have a point total of around 123 points.  For reference, last season the Boston Bruins were the best team in the league with 117 points.  The last team to hit the 123 mark was the Detroit Red Wings, who picked up 124 points in the 2005-06 season, the first season with no ties.  Based on pure numbers, everyone would want to try this strategy.
     But we all know that in the real world, things don’t work this way.  A much better team would probably reject an offer to tie a game intentionally, forcing overtime.  In overtime or a penalty shootout, their odds of winning are around 50%, just because a five minute overtime is so short and penalties are basically a coin toss.  If they feel they are a truly superior team, they’ll probably feel confident they can win the game over the 60 minutes of regulation, as it gives them ample time to break down their opponent.  Plus, even if they can’t win, there’s still a good chance it goes to overtime anyway.
     Additionally, teams in the same conference, and especially division may be unwilling to intentionally draw with each other, as one team may feel it unwise to allow direct competitors to gain free points.  It’s still mathematically smart, just not something people do.  A team going up against its biggest rival only has one thing on their mind prior to the game: smashing the losers on the other team.
     But, what if two teams from opposite conferences, with relatively similar skill level play each other.  Actually, they don’t even need to be that similar, as long as one isn’t at the top of their conference and the other at the bottom of theirs.  If the game is not one where people would be shocked if the worse team won, this strategy could, and should, be implemented.  Both teams get at least one point to help them in their respective conferences, and one gets a bonus.  There is a higher chance for each team to move up in their standings, which, if you only play each other once a year, is something you really aim to do whenever you play them.
     Since the 2005-06 season, the amount of points a team needs to accumulate on average to attain the final spot in the playoffs is has been around 90-95.  This makes a lot of sense.  In a season without ties, the average team would have 82 points, and the average team now has about 10 overtime losses per season.  That would be 92 points, and then there’s a range of a few points on each side.  So in a world where a team, say the worst team in the league based on skill of players, was able to make a deal with every opponent, they would need to win the overtime/penalty shootout in at least around 10 of their 82 games.  Even a high school team could probably the take the third point in a match 10 of 82 times if their only mission was to play defensive and take their chances in a penalty shootout.  For an actual NHL team, no matter how bad?  It’d be simple.  If an average team wins 41 of these overtimes/shootouts, the odds of a team winning at least 10 are probably like 99.999%, or a guaranteed playoff appearance.
     The system encourages teams to play to draws, as it allows them greater chances for long term success the more frequently they play in overtime.  In my opinion, that’s a horrible rule.
     In soccer, if one team finishes the game with more goals than the other, they take three points, and the losers get zero.  If the game is tied, each team gets one point.  You may have realized that those point totals aren’t equal.  However, since there are more points available in a game where there is an outright winner, teams are encouraged to go for the win in every match they play, and are actually penalized by drawing games in the same way a hockey team would be penalized for not playing any games in overtime. In soccer, a team with two draws finishes with two points, but a team with a win and a loss has three.  Hockey is the reverse.  In a season, if a team went 45-37, they’d have 90 points. But if a team went 40-30-12, they’d have 92.  They’ve won fewer games, but while the first team didn’t receive any points for their losses, the second team has stolen 12, which for some reason means they’re better.  In reality, they’re 40-42, but that’s simply not how we look at it in today’s game.
     What scoring method do I propose?  Well, I believe there are two distinct options the NHL could choose, both of which would be far superior to the current one.  The first is the same system implemented from the 84-85 to 98-99 seasons, where if a game is tied in regulation, the game goes to a five minute overtime, and if a team can score in that overtime they take both points from the match, and otherwise the game ends in a tie with each team earning one point.
     Alternatively, there is a method which I only learned about through research for this post.  This method, used by the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), combines the current system with the soccer system.  A team that wins in regulation receives three points, and the loser gets none.  However, a team that wins in an overtime/shootout would receive two points, and the loser of the overtime or shootout would receive one.  I would be very happy with either of these systems.
    The issue with the current system was never really its elimination of the tie and inclusion of an overtime loss, but instead that it alters the amount of points that can be won in a match, and not in a way that incentivizes victory in regulation the way soccer does, where teams “lose” a point if a game ends in a tie because one of the points available in the matches was won by neither team.
    So there you have it.  I’ve made my case for the altering of the points system used by the NHL, now it’s time for the NHL to realize the issue themselves and actually make a change.
   

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