Monday, December 24, 2007

The Loser Point: The NHL's Consolation Prize

My oh my it's been awhile hasn't it? Busy busy on this side of the world but there's some free time to burn so let's light those candles and see where the wax falls shall we?

Today's topic is much debated in hockey today. It involves what's known as the "loser point". Basically, if you make it to overtime, each team automatically gets one point in the standings. The team who manages to win in overtime or shootout if necessary, gets the second point, meaning a possible 3 points total are at stake. As a reminder, a win is worth 2 points normally and a loss in regulation is worth zero points as it should be.

So let's first look at the history of this, why are there points at all? This idea doesn't really exist in other main sports because they generally haven't had or essentially don't worry about ties. In the past before the lockout of 2004-2005, if the two teams were tied after both 60 minutes of regulation hockey AND 5 minutes of overtime, they would split the two points, each getting one for a tie. However, a trend started to develop where certain defensive minded teams would start playing FOR the tie if it got that far, just to guarantee a point. See at this time, if you lost in overtime, you got nothing, so it could be considered risky to lose that point. In order to try to influence going for the win, two changes were made; the first involved making overtime 4 on 4 hockey to open up more ice for better scoring opportunities, and the second was automatically granting the first point to each team upon reaching overtime, even if one team scored in sudden death. Now with the lockout and new CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement), the concept of ties was nixed. Should the game still be tied after overtime, you go to a shootout. Thus in today's NHL, there are only winners and losers, someone MUST win the game, an outcome that is far preferable in my mind than what ties were and far more intriguing to general sports fans.

The problem with this concept of the loser point is that it was created to encourage going for the win, but that's not needed now because one of the teams has to win no matter what. So what's occurring now is that a team is going to be rewarded for losing, so long as they made it the extra mile. In one essence it's a nice consolation to say "well at least we got a point for our hard work". But then again, why should that be acceptable? Sure the team may have fought hard to tie it up (of course they may have also given the game back to the opponent), but you didn't win the game, so why get anything? The idea should be you either win or lose, it's not a novel concept in sports but the NHL continues to bump up teams that actually have losses, thus altering the standings completely. In fact if not for this rule, points wouldn't even be needed, simply Win-Loss records like the MLB or NFL.

Of course this debate is made even tougher in the advent of shootouts. That's a debate all by itself, whether they should exist or not. Personally I think they should, they add much needed excitement and guarantee a winner. Many purists argue that winning a game in this fashion isn't the same as winning in regulation or overtime, you aren't playing real hockey just penalty shots. Then again penalty shots are the most exciting play in hockey and shootouts do not in fact happen all the time, though there is likely at least one a night. To be fair though, scoring is the hardest in hockey compared to the other 3 major sports, so overtimes are more likely in general.

It's been proposed that perhaps you get the loser point if you lost in overtime but not if you lost in the shootout. Another idea for change would be 3 points for a regulation win, 2 points for an overtime win, and 1 point for a shootout win. While this would encourage winning early, it also takes away from a game that had a hard fought battle of two good teams evenly matched. The real issue with the loser point isn't just awarding a loser, it also creates havoc in the divisional matchups and even the inter-conference ones. Winning the game is great, but giving a point to your opponent is hardly good, especially if in a neck and neck race to the playoffs, which with current parity is often likely. It's unfortunate to have won a huge game, only to realize you only gained a single point over your rival.

The solution to this problem is not simple, there are many ways around it. In general though, it seems fairly obvious that the loser point simply needs to be removed. The shootout needs to be regarded as a legitimate way to win a game, but there's simply no better way other than eternal overtimes to solve the game. As unlimited playoff overtimes can show you, it can take quite a while for that kind of game to end, but the shootout usually takes no more than 4 or 5 rounds before it's over on average. It's time to get in line with the other sports, NHL. Sure, it's not good to be forced to copy the more popular sports since hockey is so different and is a bit niche and needs to exist on its own; however, this is one area where the NHL is simply using an archaic rule that rewards survival rather than victory.

It's good to be back and I hope to write many more. Merry Christmas and see you at the red line.