It is time for the NHL to move away from a point-based system, and towards a simple win-or-lose model. For as long as I can remember, the league and its pundits have searched exhaustively for ways to improve the game. Some of these means have been more radical than others, whereas some were simply slight adjustments to existing systems. Whatever those ideas have ended up being, they have all had the same end-state – an attempt to improve the NHL.
From the early 1990s up until the 2003-2004 season, the NHL found itself mired in a period of time known as the dead puck era. This period of time was punctuated by a drop in scoring around the league. Defensive strategies took hold and were bolstered by loosening standards on interference related infractions. A number of conditions combined to create the talent vacuum that the NHL found itself in during these years. Skyrocketing salaries created a massive talent disparity between the have and the have-not teams. The league also added eight new teams during the decade which further dispersed the talent pool.
After the free-for-all that was the 1980s, NHL coaches moved towards a more defensive style of hockey. This allowed them to combat any talent issues that may be present, and drastically brought down scoring league wide. The neutral zone trap gained notoriety during this period of time. Defensively, it allowed teams to clog up the neutral zone and force opponents to dump the puck into the offensive zone. It helped neutralize the ability of skilled players to have a drastic impact on the game.
In 2005, the NHL reinvented itself following a lockout that cancelled the entire previous season. As the first professional North American sports league to lose an entire season because of a labor dispute, the NHL had a lot to atone for.
The NHL returns
The NHL came out of the lockout with a number of rule changes, but I will avoid touching on them all right now. The overall intent was to eliminate how effective the neutral zone trap was, to increase scoring, and to eliminate ties by introducing shootouts. For the purpose of this article, we will discuss the latter part of those changes, and bring it back around to support my central point.
I do not believe the NHL truly thought out the impact that shootouts would have on the league. It is an effective, but highly flawed, way to decide a winner. Ties were frustrating as a fan, and I am still in favor of removing them. Even if I do hate shootouts, I like getting a tangible outcome from a game. Both teams getting a participation point at the end of a tied game is mundane, but at least it is not as backwards as being awarded a point for losing the game.
Keep it simple, stupid
I have seen people suggest that the league update its point system by changing to a three-point system. Briefly: Three points are available every game, but only a team that wins in regulation receives all three points. If the game goes to overtime then the current model’s loser point is still awarded, but the winner only takes home two points. By being awarded more points for winning in regulation, you would encourage teams to avoid overtime. I like this model a lot more than I like the current model, but I think it needlessly complicates things for the casual fan, and it sidesteps the sensible solution.
I believe that the league should simply use a win-or-lose model. You either win the game or you lose the game. What you would see in sports like basketball and baseball.
Standings right now are not very likely to show us how things would change under a new system because teams play differently depending on the way things are recorded. With that in mind, it can still be interesting to look at.
Here is how the Eastern Conference would look as of February 17th:
I have left teams’ current point totals as a reference, and this table does not account for differences in games played, so the information we could gleam from that is not available. I do not think this is predictive of how things would look in seasons actually using this system, but I use this information only as anecdotal evidence that playoff races would remain tight among the less accomplished teams.
Teams would no longer play out the third period comfortable with settling for the loser point. We would see less games go to overtime, and by extension more games would be battled out in regulation. People who despise shootouts would see less of them, and people who are sick of garbage teams benefiting from losing would no longer have to deal with it. The parity in the league would continue to exist, but well built teams would stand out even more. Games within the division and conference would still remain the most important due to tie-breakers, but every win would have a tangible impact within the standings. You would no longer be frustrated by seeing your favorite team win in regulation only to have rival teams stay close because they lost in overtime.
If nothing else, the win-loss model is something to consider, and until the NHL decides to make a change in the current system, it is only conjecture as to how beneficial it might be to the league and its fans. I do hope that the NHL decides to make a change, and if that decision is made, I hope it is a move towards this win/loss system.