The “OT” Debate – Let’s settle this – Just not with a Shootout!

We all still enjoy a great shootout deke don't we? Image courtesy of cbc.ca.

Image courtesy of cbc.ca.

The buzzer sounds to signal the end of another pulsating contest; sweat beading the brows of the stoic warriors on each team, titans, laying everything on the line to seal a victory that will render them forever immortalised in the minds of those watching, but wait, it’s a tie-game. Time for overtime, or as I like to call it, that barren wasteland, that limp procession during which I go make a milky 3am tea and wait for the inevitable shootout that both sides are ultimately seeking. Is there anything worse? Is there anything more in opposition to hockey’s traditional ‘give-everything’ spirit?

Well, as sure as crisp leaves falling in an Autumnal breeze, change is coming.

During the latest round of GM meetings, the way NHL games are to be settled in future seasons was a hot ticket on the agenda. The simple fact is that since the shootout was introduced in 2005 it has polarised both fans and players alike; some feeling it is a gimmicky non-entity and others enjoying its penchant for the dramatic. However, by simple virtue of its existence, OT has become the dampest squib and once more restructuring is a necessity, maybe of the entire points-system? Or perhaps just the 5-minute 4-on-4 format?

Issues with the current ‘OT’ and ‘SO’ format?

  • Whilst I have nothing but admiration for those players who are able to thread a shot through the virtual eye of a needle, bypassing a determined goalie’s pads or even deking the net-minder out of his skin with a move of sublime poise and skill, quite frankly, this reliance on one individual’s skill to settle what is arguably the most complete ‘team-sport’, is all just a bit ridiculous. That a spin-o-rama or Datsyukian dangle can mean the difference between a GM or coach keeping his job from one season to the next, especially in the micro-tight climate of this year’s NHL conference standings, feels like a betrayal of the sport’s values.
  • “You’re just being a romantic” and “the majority of games are still settled in regulation” are customary responses, and they do have plenty of merit. Perhaps I’m just being an idealist? Perhaps this form satisfies the demand for a quick result? Nevertheless, that of the first 272 games this season, 44 were decided in a shootout, unveils a worrying percentage of 16.2 which is up from the 13% of the previous eight seasons, surely warranting the attention of the NHL’s policy-makers. It simply doesn’t feel right that a team who employ cagey tactics as the third period draws to a close and throughout OT, can reach the playoffs purely on the strength of those additional points.
Image courtesy of bostinno.streetwise.com.

Image courtesy of bostinno.streetwise.com.

  • The players don’t like it! Yes, even those actually involved in playing the sport have often voiced their dislike for the current OT/SO format, and in recent months, these murmurings of dissatisfaction have become more evident. Bruins’ goaltender Tuukka Rask has been fairly outspoken and who can forget the sight of him unsuccessfully trying to break his stick following a frustrating shootout loss to the St Louis Blues; it was both hilarious and yet symptomatic of a professional having put in a driven, classy and wonderful performance, only to have the joy of winning harshly snatched away in a split-second. That being said, one could quite easily make the case that this hardship is a ‘goaltender-only’ issue, as they are always at the heart of post-regulation events. It is also worth noting that during the original vote to implement the shootout, the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks were the only NHL teams who opted against the proposal.
  • The number conundrum. Anyone who possesses the slightest mathematical inclination can work out that if a point is awarded to each team when they reach overtime, and an additional point is handed to the eventual winner, we have a situation in which OT games are in total worth more than a game won in regulation, which only yields a maximum of two. I know this has been a long-running debate but would anyone care to explain how games which are played at the exact same level, with identical rules, can continue with this odd distinction? Bottom line, this is something that in my opinion also needs to be addressed and although I include some alternatives below in the form of theoretical 2013/14 conference standings,* I think it’s fair to say the NHL will not be tampering with this particular feature for quite some time, if ever.

Proposed solutions

    Image courtesy of Doug Armstrong.

    Image courtesy of Doug Armstrong.

  • Extending the 4-on-4 OT period to 7, 8 or 10 minutes. This seems the most likely to happen of the suggestions, simply because it requires the least deviation from the current system. St Louis Blues’ GM Doug Armstrong put this forward during the meeting and whilst I agree that a longer time-frame definitely increases the chances of seeing a traditional OT winner, it is more of an escape route than a real solution. There is nothing to stop teams extending their passive play for another 5 minutes, which with only four-a-side goes by in a veritable blur. The lack of offensive threat is the issue here and I believe in order to encourage a different attitude, there should be the looming thought that puck-caution could be punished by the other team at a later stage.
  • For this reason, the concept of introducing a second 3-minute OT period with 3-on-3 is my personal favourite. Red Wings’ GM Ken Holland was the creator of this idea and I think in terms of ensuring teams go hell-for-leather from the first whistle, it has the most promise. With a wide open period ahead, why would teams not try to score when they’re more in control? The sheer space during  the second OT period would also ensure plenty of excitement for the fans, albeit likely short-lived. When the format was tested during the Traverse City prospects tournament, virtually every line-change in the game between the Dallas Stars and Minnesota Wild was an odd-man rush, a situation regularly capitalised on at the elite level. This trading of chances would offer the conclusion many hockey fans want, one not found in a dull shootout.
  • Along with format changes, alteration to other factors during the extra period were suggested, which included teams switching ends so both experience the long change and scraping the ice for a better surface. The long change would certainly create more breakaway opportunities via quick outlet passes, but generally these seem like further smoke-screens to deflect from making a real decision to impact the current game.

What lies ahead?

When all is said and done, what all NHL fans are really looking for in an OT period is something that looks a little like the 60 minutes that came before it; at the moment, all we are getting is teams shutting up shop and believing they have the superior individual talent.

Though no decision will be made until Spring 2014 at the earliest, for me, the shootout has become stale, and is dragging the current OT period along in its death throes. One of the many reasons I love ice hockey is its wondrous unpredictability and a SO delivers none of this, sparks of creativity have become increasingly rare against the tedious backdrop of identical moves, any failed attempts at genius the subject of ridicule.

For some, the vision of 3-on-3 may just be the lesser of two evils, but at least it’s a step in the right direction.

*As mentioned above, a restructure of the current NHL points-system is about as unlikely as the Ducks scoring on the Power-Play this season. However, there’s no reason we can’t have some fun thinking about it. So take a quick peek at some possible variations, how different does the NHL actually look? Perhaps more of an issue the more competitive a conference is?

Here are the current standings:

Courtesy of Chris Hext.

Courtesy of Chris Hext.

Here is a hockey world in balance, where OT remains the same but a regulation win is worth 3-points:

Courtesy of Chris Hext.

Courtesy of Chris Hext.

And finally, if it was a simple matter of life or death, win or lose, zero points awarded for an OT loss:

Courtesy of Chris Hext.

Courtesy of Chris Hext.

Follow Sam on Twitter, and whilst you’re at it give @IceNationUK a follow for all the best hockey talk!

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6 comments

  • To my mind the solution is to restore ties and go to 3-2-1-0, with 3 points for a regulation win, 2 for an OT win (keeping the current 5 minutes 4 on 4 format) 1 point for a tie and 0 for any loss, whether in reg or OT. The argument that “America hates ties” is nonsense: the NHL had ties until 2005. Any soccer fan can tell you stories of thrilling ties “Won” or “Lost”. Ironically, the shootout was brought in to eliminate exactly the sort of negative play that you outline above and this season has already had some amazing games that should have just ended in a tie rather than having a pointless skills competition.
    The shootout has also devalued the Penalty Shot.. once upon a time this was an exciting moment, now it just looks like all those SO attempts that we see far too often. When two teams packed with offensive talent like the Blackhawks and Stars go 11 rounds to have the SO decided by a 4th Liner on his first full year in the NHL, you know something is wrong.
    Good article, BTW!

    • Thanks! I couldn’t agree more with both points you’ve made! I’ve heard a lot of people from the US say that ties will simply not be tolerated by the NHL fan-base and they would alienate any additional support that may be attracted to the sport. As you rightly say, this is nonsense when considering that hockey is rooted in tradition; a tradition that regularly involved games that could not be settled? Giving both teams the credit their performance warranted. Having two-points for a win has also irked me since my earliest days of watching the NHL, 3 points just seems the logical option.

      I must admit that devaluing the penalty shot was not something I had considered when writing the article, but having thought about it since reading your comment it is a valid and excellent point, the event has become a ‘meh’ moment when before it could inspire a rare atmosphere! It just feels odd that the NHL haven’t already done something about this situation, considering all of their recent changes have been geared towards offense and excitement. How do you feel about the current OT period?

      • OT can’t really be changed all that much: the TV programmers in most US markets won’t tolerate the potential disruption to their schedules caused by indefinite OT (outside of the Playoffs) and I doubt the teams of union would be that thrilled either at the prospect of 4OT the night before a back-to-back. The idea of a 2nd period of 3-on-3 OT has merit, but there’s a risk it becomes just as gimmicky as a shootout. It’s a hard nut to crack.

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