Around the NHL: Is it time to fix the standings?

In 1999, Gary Bettman and the Board of Governors instituted the “loser point” in the NHL, forever changing the dynamic of the league standings. With teams now earning a point for an overtime loss, the value of a single game was suddenly a variable thing. On any given night, for example, a tilt on the east coast could produce two points while one on the west coast could result in three. Never again would each game be worth the same fixed amount.

With now four possible outcomes to account for, the standings became terribly messy. Instead of a tidy arrangement of wins, losses and ties, the categorization degenerated into wins, losses, ties, and overtime losses. That the NHL began losing fan support around the same time they produced their own dialect is not a coincidence. Where casual fans could turn to the NFL, MLB and NBA standings and understand the language, the NHL turned them away with tribal-like parlance.

What’s an OTL? And, wait, how does that team have less points than this one if they have more wins? Oh, and how much is a tie worth? Never mind, this is too confusing. 

One couldn’t simply be a fan to follow the NHL. He had to be a devotee, a well-versed buff of the league. And the diehards that remained didn’t take well to what they were seeing. The charity point was slowly making a farce of the league standings, where teams were racking up 100-point seasons with fish-in-a-barrel like ease. Meanwhile, the notion of a .500 record was being twisted and skewed, its immediate impression neglecting overtime losses. Hockey prides itself on being unforgiving, unsympathetic, and the loser point seemed like a lifeline for the weak-willed. In dolling out points for losses, the league made it a whole lot easier to be good.

Wait, so, hypothetically, you could lose every game of the season and still finish with 82 points? Wouldn’t that make you a playoff contender? That’s…dumb. 

In the four seasons prior to the institution of the Bettman point (95/96-98/99), the average point total across the league was 82. Just “three-and-a-half” teams per season were reaching that glorified 100-point mark, which made it an exciting down-the-stretch storyline year in and year out. Meanwhile, an average of just thirteen teams finished above .500 each year, creating a league hierarchy that was clearly defined. In the four seasons immediately following the rule change (99/00-03/04), teams started “winning” a lot more. Average point totals jumped to 85.64 per season, as nearly seven teams every year were touching – or blowing right past – the 100-point capstone. (Yes, there were more teams in the league at this point, but expansion clubs were not the ones driving these averages up.) As the elite expanded so too did the middle-class, as more than 18 teams per season purported to be above .500 thanks to that unobserved OTL category. There were not nearly as many good teams as the standings suggested, and thus the NHL point system was suffering from inflation.

Is that team legendary, or are they a beneficiary of the age? Is this team truly a front-runner, or merely a fraud?

 It was hard to tell. In just four seasons, the NHL’s regular season gold standard had been dulled and dented, while its line of distinction had blurred then washed away. For teams weren’t actually winning at a higher rate, of course, but racking up points that didn’t used to exist. If anything, in fact, teams were winning less than they used to, for the OTL point was incentive to push a game into overtime rather than gun for the win in regulation. Instead of playing to win, teams were better off playing not to lose, taking much of the excitement out of that hallmark “third period, tie game” scenario. The 1998-99 season saw 223 overtime games, just a tick more than the 216 played in 1997-98. With the introduction of the OTL point in 1999-00, the number of overtime games jumped to 261. It only grew from there. Teams – and coaches – began to realize the foolishness in risking something guaranteed for something uninsured, and by the 2003-04 season there were 315 games played in overtime, nearly 100 more than seven years prior. Well more than half of these games resulted in ties, meaning that, yes, despite considerably higher point totals teams were actually winning less than before.

That doesn’t make any sense.

But the league muddled things further after the 2003-04 lockout. Beginning in the 2005-06 season, ties were eliminated from the game altogether, with a shootout instituted to decide the winner after a scoreless overtime. It was supposed to add value to fan entertainment – a veiled way of describing a gimmick – and remove hockey’s stigma as the only sport that allows ties. (The NFL doesn’t really count.)

Gary Bettman has made the NHL standings quite the mess.

The stigma that mattered, though, was hockey’s strange obsession with rewarding a team for losing, and the shootout introduced yet another way for a team to earn a point without winning a game. (Chicago’s record point streak last season was undeniably tainted by the fact that they lost three times over that 24-game stretch. To fans of other sports, it looked phony – which, c’mon, it was.) The shootout also put more points on the table, and with more wins out there for the taking point totals swelled even higher. Just about every team in the league appeared to be above .500, creating an illusion of parity that justified the newly imposed salary cap. The standings, by turn, failed to paint an accurate picture of where teams actually stood, although this was only a problem for those willing to wade through the esoteric mess of it all.

What happened to OTL? I was just starting to get that. Is OT different? And, what’s this ROW thing? What does the NHL have against the good old-fashioned W-L system?

Maybe it’s too simple. Too obvious. But standings aren’t supposed to be complicated. They are supposed to be easy to read, and – more than anything else – reliable. But all those unearned points floating around out there made that latter function impossible. By the 2011-12 season, teams were averaging 92 points a year, begging the question who’s even good anymore? That same season saw ten teams

eclipse 100 points, and twelve more finish “above .500.” In the seven full seasons since the introduction of the shootout (05/06-11/12), an average of just under nine teams per year have reached 100 points while more than 22 have played above-.500 hockey. The average point total over this span? 91.1. The NHL’s crowning regular season achievement is now a task to be checked off a list, and the league’s passing grade is basically handed out for showing up. Mediocre teams hide behind the falsehood of overtime losses and shootout losses (and, for that matter, shootout wins), flirting with contention long into the season. As a result, just about everyone thinks they’ve got a shot, which would be good if it were true. But the conference-wide races you think you see in the standings are a mirage, the separation between the upper class and middle class much wider than it appears. These days, it’s hard to know what’s real in the NHL.

Patrick Kane and the Blackhawks aren’t as good as the standings say they are.

Take a look at the Chicago Blackhawks, for example. The reigning Stanley Cup champs rank second in the NHL with 84 points, but they’re skating on thin ice. 14 of their 84 points this season have come in overtime/shootout losses, meaning their record of 35-10-14 is more accurately 35-24 – an impressive mark to be sure, but not as gaudy as that first line might suggest. The Blackhawks have four more losses than the Colorado Avalanche yet lead them by seven points in the Central Division standings, and there is something almost ethically wrong about that. Indeed, it’s a lie to say the Blackhawks have done better. Don’t be surprised if they drop a couple spots before the season’s over.

In the East, consider the case of the Washington Capitals. At 25-23-9, the Caps can claim to be above .500 thanks to the NHL’s backward point system and the hockey world’s blithe acceptance that a shootout/overtime loss is the same thing as a tie. (On any broadcast in this country, you would hear the commentators declare Washington “above .500” despite the fact that they have lost seven more games than they have won. .500 is apparently now a measurement of point percentage.) What’s most startling about the Caps though is that they sit just three points shy of the playoffs with the same number of regulation/overtime wins as the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers, the two worst teams in the Western Conference! Eight of Washington’s 25 wins this season have come via the shootout, meaning a three-round skills competition is the only thing keeping the Caps from irrelevance.

A few more historical observations: last season, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres played each other four times and both walked away with a winning record in the head-to-head matchup. No, seriously – by virtue of each team winning once in regulation and once in extra time, they can both claim to be 2-1-1 against the other, which means they can both claim to hold a .625 winning percentage against the other because, sure, that makes sense. In the 2011-12 season, the Florida Panthers won the Southeast Division (and the third seed in the playoffs) on the back of 18 overtime/shootout losses. Their record, from a straight-up wins/losses perspective, was 38-44, meaning a team six games below .500 actually won its division. One last nugget: the 2009-10 season saw a record 11 teams break the 100-point barrier, including three each from the Central and Pacific Divisions. They racked up a combined 97 points in losing efforts. Any system that allows these types of scenarios to unfold is inherently flawed.

How about a three point system? Three points for a regulation win, two for an overtime/shootout win, one for an overtime/shootout loss. That would take care of the Capitals, at least.  

Okay, that makes some sense. Each game is worth the same no matter the result, and winning a game in regulation actually carries some weight again. The truly good teams would gain some separation from the imposters, allowing for a clearer picture to take hold in the standings. But the problem with this system is three-fold. First of all, point totals would go flying through the roof – if this system were in place now, there would already be six teams past the 100-point mark less than 60 games into the season. Secondly, an overtime win would be equal to a shootout win instead of a win in regulation, despite the elements of a five minute overtime period more closely corresponding to five-on-five hockey than a 1-on-none skills competition. And lastly, teams would still be rewarded for losing, a youth-league-like practice that has to stop. The NHL, if it is going to make a change, needs to think simply.

Soooo…?

Try this: 2 points for a regulation/overtime win, 1 point for a shootout win and zero points for a loss of any form. (And while you’re at it, extend overtime to ten minutes.) Point totals would come back down to more reasonable levels, as teams wouldn’t be rewarded for losing. There are still more ways to win than there once were, yes, but that would be at least somewhat offset by rewarding shootout victors only one point. The chase for 100 points, once one of the NHL’s great distinctions, would regain some of its integrity. With overtime doubled in length, more games would be decided in a suitable manner – and John Tortorella could probably rest easier at night. You might think this would discourage teams from trying to win in regulation, but remember, they wouldn’t be insulated against losing in extra time. And overtime, by representing the final chance to secure two points, would be a heart-pounding back-and-forth affair. The drawback, of course, is that each game isn’t necessarily worth the same, but if you want to keep ties out of hockey and avoid 200-point seasons (which you should), you have to keep the shootout.

Ultimately, this is about restoring some clarity to the league standings. Ever since the addition of the Bettman point – and later, the two-point shootout – the standings have been compromised in their ability to reflect the state of the league. Right now, teams are cheating the system and sneaking up the ranks by winning gobs of shootout games or racking up points in overtime losses. The result is a picture that betrays the truth. In getting rid of the loser point and making regulation/overtime wins more valuable than shootout wins, it will be harder – as in: impossible – for bad teams to slip through the cracks. The good teams will rise to the top and the weaker ones will sink to the bottom, making the standings once more a reliable barometer of league happenings. It will actually mean something again to be above .500 or to reach 100 points, two benchmarks that should never have been tinkered with in the first place.

Just for fun, here’s how things would look now under the proposed system. (Playoff teams are in bold.)

ATLANTIC Team                  ROW                 SOW                                  L                  PTS
1. Boston

35

1

19

71

2. Tampa Bay

26

6

24

58

3. Montreal

27

3

27

57

4. Toronto

21

9

28

51

5. Ottawa

22

3

32

47

6. Detroit

21

4

31

46

7. Florida

15

7

34

37

8. Buffalo

9

6

41

24

METRO Team                  ROW                   SOW                                  L                  PTS
1. Pittsburgh

36

4

17

76

2. NY Rangers

28

3

26

59

3. Columbus

25

4

27

54

4. Philadelphia

25

3

29

53

5. Carolina

24

1

30

49

6. New Jersey

23

0

34

46

7. Washington

17

8

32

42

8. NYIslanders

16

6

36

38

CENTRAL Team                  ROW                  SOW                                  L                 PTS
1. Colorado

33

3

20

69

2. St. Louis

31

6

18

68

3. Chicago

30

5

24

65

4. Minnesota

24

6

28

54

5. Winnipeg

23

5

30

51

6. Nashville

24

1

49

51

7. Dallas

23

3

31

49

PACIFIC Team                 ROW                  SOW                 L                 PTS
1. Anaheim

38

2

19

78

2. San Jose

27

9

22

62

3. Los Angeles

24

6

28

54

4. Vancouver

24

3

31

51

5. Phoenix

22

4

30

48

6. Calgary

17

4

35

38

7. Edmonton

17

2

39

36

And Voila! There’s Washington at seventh in the Metro, 13th in the East and pretty much out of playoff contention. There’s Chicago at third in the Central, behind the Avalanche (and Blues) as they should be. The Blackhawks lose a whopping 19 points off their current total with 65 points through 59 games – a playoff-questionable 90-point pace. (Remember what we were saying about thin ice?) The playoff picture remains basically the same, only with Philadelphia bumping Detroit for the final Wild Card spot in the East. The Wings, without the benefit of their 12 loser points, fall to sixth in the Atlantic and 12th in the East. Other noteworthy changes: the Rangers, who have the third most regulation/OT wins in the East, rise from sixth to third in the conference. (No, I didn’t just make this system to prove a point about my favorite team. Was it a motivation? Maybe.) And Winnipeg, surging of late, moves into a tie with Vancouver for the final playoff spot out west. Out of the 25 teams currently “above .500” in the NHL – 25…how ridiculous is that? – 13 have a negative goal differential. Under the point system proposed here, the number of above-.500 teams falls to 15, and only two of those teams have a negative goal differential. The standings tell the truth.

Imagine that.

  • http://isportsweb.com/author/eisen/ Alex Eisen

    I like the concept of the NHL standings, but then again I’m a soccer guy as well so I like the EPL system. I don’t see the need to overhaul the system to make it more like the NFL, NBA, or MLB, However, I will agree that it does need to be tweaked. Starting with getting rid of shootouts (they were cool at first but now it’s lost it’s intrigue), instead play 4v4 and then 3v3 until there is winner,

    Also to spread out the points more, just make it 3 points for a win and not 2 (like the EPL). But keep the point for losing in overtime because that encourages teams to get to overtime which is exciting to watch as fans. Not to mention it would still keep the standings close at the end of season.

    As much as people might hate the current system it does make the NHL playoff push interesting all the way through the season.