Thursday, March 29, 2007
Not so fast! That three-point rule needs a real look
By Terry Frei Special to ESPN.com
When NHL general managers met last month in Naples, Fla., they treated a suggestion to award three points to the team that wins a game in regulation about as seriously as if some wacky, cold-blooded GM had suggested they hold their next in-season meeting in a city that has a winter and no golf courses open after Nov. 1.
Three-point regulation victories were rejected out of hand. Devils GM Lou Lamoriello and Ducks GM Brian Burke, among others, scoffed at it, citing the wonderful races for the playoff spots. NHL honcho Colin Campbell said, not unreasonably, perhaps the league needs to try stability and stop tinkering.
Yet with the shootout system, which guarantees that any game tied at the end of regulation is worth three points (two to the winner and one to the loser), it is becoming more clear that making all games worth three points is an idea whose time has come.
Frei believes under a three-point system, the playoff picture would look different for Jason Blake and the Islanders.
It's either that, or simply do away with the guaranteed point for an overtime or shootout loser and make all games worth two points. While that might be more simple, it also might be more unpalatable to GMs and would require tuning out the predictable outrage over making the shootout "gimmick" so important.
The way it works now, there's something wrong when teams are necessarily competing head-to-head for a playoff spot and both are twiddling thumbs and whistling through the final seven minutes of regulation, willing to accept a guaranteed point and a 50-50 shot at a second.
It also is clear, though, why GMs tend to like the current system. As the 2006-07 season winds down and those playoff races continue, only one Western team, Colorado, has a long-shot hope of jumping into the top eight, while a heated race for the final spots in the East is continuing. That's all well and good, but I think the GMs' affinity for the status quo has more to do with this:
• The standings create misleading impressions.
• Records look far better than they really are.
• The standings make it easier to alibi, to rationalize, to argue that a team -- whether bound for the postseason, on the playoff bubble, or all but certain of missing the postseason -- is doing better than it actually is.
We still hear references to ".500 hockey," as if having the same number of wins as losses in the first two columns is the only standard in measuring that. It's not. Not even close.
Case in point: In 2005-06, the Kings were 42-35-5, six points out of a playoff spot. That record didn't look bad, and could be a sign that the Kings got a raw deal. But the fact was, the 89 points were under the league average of about 91.
It used to be so simple: A point a game was .500. Now, break-even hockey is a fluctuating number.
In the Western Conference, Colorado's 39-30-7 record and 85 points through 76 games as of Thursday morning seemed to be a prima facie case for arguing that expanding the playoff field isn't a silly idea. Same with the similar records of the ninth, 10th and 11th teams in the East -- Toronto, the Islanders and Carolina, respectively.
Expanding the playoff field is a silly idea. And going along with any argument that those teams are in position to scream about a miscarriage of justice is just as silly. It's a bit tricky because not all teams had played the same number of games, but the league average on Thursday morning was 85.3 points. That's the true .500 point, and those four closest nonplayoff teams all were below it -- albeit barely.
Making every game worth three points would indeed make the standings more complicated, but many newspapers and other outlets now add a fourth column on their own. The official standings combine overtime and shootout losses into a single third column; many outlets break that down into separate columns for overtime and shootout losses. Both those columns are "worth" one point, but the breakdown does provide more information.
So while the league would have to add a fourth column, it wouldn't have to change the standings much in many places. It could get carried to ridiculous extremes if someone insists on having columns for regulation wins (3 points), overtime or shootout wins (2 points), regulation losses (0 points), overtime losses (1 point) and shootout losses (1 point).
Instead, the universal standard would again be four columns giving information about wins and losses before the total number of points.
• Regulation wins, worth 3 points apiece.
• Overtime or shootout wins, worth 2 points apiece.
• Overtime or shootout losses, worth 1 point apiece.
• Regulation losses, worth 0 -- zippo -- points.
Teams would play third periods differently, perhaps, but if everything remained the same, the 10th-place Islanders' 2006-07 record under that format would look like this: 28-8-12-28 for 112 points. The Canadiens, currently in the No. 8 spot, would be: 32-8-6-31 for 118 points. Yes, it potentially widens gaps, but what's wrong with that, as long as the gaps are created by something that heightens the entertainment and incentive on game nights?
That doesn't have to be the order of the standings, but by moving the pointless losses to the fourth column, it removes some of the tendency to create misleading impressions by trying to "match up" the number of wins and losses as some .500 standard.
Yes, it fouls up league records and makes it harder to make fair comparisons to standings of the past. But that's already the case with the frequent three-point games and additional points available, so that horse already has left the barn.
That's all on paper.
On the ice, the most important thing is awarding three points for regulation wins increases the incentive to win in regulation. It decreases the incentive to accept, subliminally or overtly, just getting the game to overtime and taking a chance at a second point.
The next step is to make every game worth three points.
But if it doesn't happen, at least it's time to adjust the mind-set when looking at the standings. True .500 hockey is roughly 91 or 92 points in a full season. And if general managers of nonplayoff teams whine and point to NBA teams who make their postseason with more losses than wins, they should be told to take that complaint back to the pool at Naples.
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."