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Frequency of shootouts in NHL needs to bring change

By Chris Peters | Hockey Writer

Shootouts have decided 14 percent of NHL games this season. (USATSI)
Shootouts have decided 14 percent of NHL games this season. (USATSI)

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The NHL has a problem. It's a weird one for a professional sports organization to have, but it is a problem they've chosen. The NHL feels the need to have a winner and a loser in every game. What a concept.

The league did away with ties for good starting with the 2005-06 season and instituted the shootout. In the eight years of the shootout, the reviews have been mixed. It is rather odd that a sport so steeped in a tradition of "team first" would end a game with such an individualistic practice.

And that's why the NHL has a problem. While team executives and many die-hard fans would just as soon do away with the shootout due to their drastic implications in the standings and playoff races, there is a much larger group of consumers that have no appetite for ties. I would be one of them.

Competition is entertaining enough, but there's an element of drama to every sporting event. In theater or film, every premise has to include some kind of conflict and every conflict has to be resolved. There has to be a winner and there has to be a loser, otherwise what was the point?

That's why the shootout probably isn't going anywhere. No matter what, there has to be a winner and a loser in every game. That's the way it should be. How can it be better, though? That's what the NHL has to discuss now.

The best drama for even the most casual of fans often comes in the actual game, as opposed to the shootout. That's especially true during the five-minute overtime period, where the more wide-open four-on-four set up offers some of the best action of the entire night. The only problem is, it ends after five minutes and only 60 percent of the time leads to a resolution.

That means the shootout is happening a lot, probably too much even.

From NHL.com, the numbers for this season:

Through Saturday, 14 percent of games played this season (135 of 963) ended in a shootout, and 40 percent of games that went to overtime reached a shootout. Shootouts were up slightly from last season (13.46 percent in 720 games played), but down from 2011-12 (14.72 percent), the last full NHL season. Since 2005-06, when the shootout was implemented, 13.3 percent of the 10,293 games played ended in a shootout.

That's a pretty big number. So since the shootout isn't going anywhere more than likely, it's up to the league to figure out some way to make the shootouts a little less frequent and allow teams to decide the outcomes instead of individuals.

The NHL general managers are meeting today in Boca Raton, Fla., and overtime is on the agenda. Most general managers seem to want to find a way to deemphasize the shootout by making changes to overtime in order to increase offense and lead to more resolutions before the shootout is necessary.

The proposals extend from the extreme of making overtime three-on-three instead of four-on-four, to the rather simple idea of making the goalies switch ends before overtime starts to force teams to make the long line change like they do in the second period.

While all of the general managers can agree that changes need to be made, it doesn't seem like there is a lot of consensus as to how things should be changed. That could mean by the time the general managers break, there could be no change at all and we're back to square one.

Here's a quick look at the ideas, though:

Three-on-Three Overtime

The idea of playing three men a side for overtime comes from Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland. Unfortunately for Holland, this is a move that does not look like it will come close to being considered by enough general managers.

The idea, in theory, isn't a bad one. It's perhaps a tad extreme, but one could argue it's better than the shootout.

With only six skaters on the ice, there's a lot of ground to cover and coming at the end of the long game, it could lead to some really sloppy hockey. Even taking that one player away from either side creates a lot of extra ground to cover. It's more shinny than actual hockey, but watching the world's best play shinny could be fun.

Either way, this almost definitely won't happen based on comments from GMs coming out of Monday's session in Florida.

Switch Ends

This is the most likely change the GMs will make if any at all. Switching ends in overtime creates the long line change like there is in the second period, which just so happens to be the period that includes the most goals, on average, in an NHL game.

This is how overtime is handled in international hockey like at the Olympics and the United States Hockey League, the top junior circuit in the U.S., also recently went to this format. According to TSN's Bob McKenzie, the USHL saw 10 percent more games decided in overtime with this change.

The long change makes any line change tougher. That could lead to tired players getting caught on the ice too long, mistakes in changing on the fly with more drastic consequences and also could give forwards an advantage in sneaking behind the D after a quick change. There are a lot of benefits without making drastic changes.

The other scenario that could be considered along with this one is giving the ice a quick dry scrape with the ice resurfacers like they do for the shootout to clear off the snow. It's a little quicker than doing a full on resurfacing so it won't make the game a ton longer than it is for a shootout game anyway.

With cleaner ice and a longer change, the odds are, goals will increase.

Extending Overtime

One area that should be explored, but comes with more complications is making overtime longer. A 60-minute NHL game can be grueling. Tacking on overtime makes it tougher, but adding even three minutes to the final frame could really deemphasize the shootout and allow the drama of overtime to marinate a little longer.

Holland even suggested making OT longer by playing the first part at four-on-four and the second half at three-on-three as a way of combining ideas. I think that might be the only way three-on-three would ever get through, but it doesn't sound like this has much chance either.

The problem with extending overtime is the concern of increased risk of injury and the fact that there might not be much appetite among the players to have the games become longer.

A Proposal

Even if the NHL makes overtime more offense friendly, teams that win in regulation aren't getting rewarded adequately. If the NHL wants to make shootouts less frequent, that's great, but if they fail in that goal, there could be another way to make them less impactful.

One way to do that would be to adopt the three-point system currently used in international hockey, where each game in the preliminary round starts with three points on the table.

At the Olympics, a regulation win counted for all three points, an overtime or shootout win counted for two points, an overtime loss would be one point and a regulation loss would be zero. That system works extremely well, but could it work over the course of an 82 game season? Well, why not?

There's an interesting site, hockeystandings.info, that hosts live NHL standings using various alternative point systems, including the three-point system. Looking at them now, this system wouldn't create standings chaos, but it would make some slight changes to what they look like today.

Teams that win more in regulation, end up with a better spot in the standings. For instance, the Toronto Maple Leafs are one point better than the Montreal Canadiens in the Atlantic Division standings, which is the difference between home ice advantage in a divisional playoff series at this point. The Canadiens, however, have three more regulation wins than Toronto and have had fewer games overall decided outside of regulation. In a three-point system, Montreal is two points better in the standings than Toronto.

The Maple Leafs are 9-4 in shootouts this year and that's why they're ahead of the Habs in a two-point system, who have won three more games in regulation. Sound fair?

As the two-point system works now, there's a lot of value in just getting to overtime and making sure you get at least one point. With only one extra point to play for in overtime, it really can go either way.

Rewarding teams more for regulation wins should make the ends of close games more exciting, in theory. Knowing that going to overtime means the risk of losing two points instead of just one should create a little more urgency in late-game situations.

The optics of a three-point system and the challenges that would come in explaining the points system makes it a little less appetizing for NHL teams. The point spread between the top and the bottom looks more dramatic this way, which would be a concern, but it allows the NHL to keep the shootout, so that they can have their winners and losers for that one game, without it having as large an impact on the postseason race.

This is something that the NHL doesn't sound like it's ready for, but if it must have winners and losers for every game, it should find ways to make those 14 percent of games that end in a shootout a little less important down the stretch.

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