With the bunched up standings in both conferences in the NHL this season, talk has been about so-called "artificial parity." This is usually attributed to the frustrating overtime and shootout system that sees one point given to the loser in either post-regulation game situation, while the winner receives two.
As a sop to owners and fans and in an attempt to keep playoff races tight, the system that awards extra points for losing once the game goes beyond regulation has been ripped by many. The claims of artificiality seem plausible as well. Surely that extra point skews the standings and makes things closer than they would be otherwise.
I assumed so also. But when I re-adjusted the standings using a system that still gives the ultimate winner in overtime or the shootout two points while the loser gets nothing, there is little change in terms of how close the race is in the Eastern Conference (for the sake of brevity I limited the analysis to one conference.)
Here are the current standings in the east, followed by the rankings without a point awarded to the loser:
Current Eastern Conference Standings1. Ottawa 55
2. New Jersey 45
3. Carolina 43
4. Montreal 45
5. Pittsburgh 42
6. New York R 44
7. Philadelphia 42
8. Buffalo 40
9. New York I 40
10. Boston 40
11. Florida 39
12. Atlanta 39
13. Toronto 38
14. Washington 35
15. Tampa Bay 33
Adjusted Eastern Conference Standings: No Overtime or Shootout Points for Losing Team
1. Ottawa 50
2. New Jersey 42
3. Carolina 40
4. Pittsburgh 40
5. New York R 40
6. Philadelphia 40
7. Montreal 38
8. New York I 38
9. Florida 38
10. Atlanta 38
11. Boston 36
12. Florida 36
13. Toronto 30
14. Washington 30
15. Tampa Bay 30
Negligible difference in terms of the separation between teams within the top eight playoff positions and little effect on those struggling to get into the eligible-for-post-season spots.
The only real change is in the rank for a handful of teams who have fared poorly when games have gone beyond the normal 60 minutes of play.
It is also worth looking at how the standings would look if the NHL reverted to a set-up used a number of years ago when a tie was a tie and both teams received one point for their efforts.
Tie games: No overtime, No shootout, Each Team Receives One Point
1. Ottawa 52
2. New Jersey 41
3. Carolina 41
4. Montreal 41
5. Philadelphia 41
6. New York R 38
7. Boston 38
8. Buffalo 36
9. Toronto 36
10. Pittsburgh 36
11. Florida 36
12. New York I 35
13. Washington 33
14. Atlanta 31
15. Tampa Bay 31
Again, little difference. The division leaders still maintain their positions while there is some movement amongst the other clubs.
This example was arrived at by simply subtracting the extra points awarded to the teams that won in the 5 minute extra frame or the shootout. Obviously this re-jigging slightly penalizes those teams who, for whatever reason, are more proficient when the extra point is on the line (in the west, Edmonton would get hammered using this model.)
So it appears as though the extra point awarded to the team who actually "loses" in the two tie-breaking formats does nothing for parity. The limitation is that this only accounts for the first half of the 2007-08 campaign. The influence may be greater once the season is complete though this should be a good representation of the overall effect.
The simple conclusion is that there is no good reason to keep this rule, especially because of the feeling of most fans that it just doesn't seem right.
There's something fundamentally flawed in the notion that losing deserves some kind of consolation point. It's kind of a tacit admission by owners and management that they have their own doubts about the veracity of the whole set-up.
The most troubling aspect of the "loser gets a point"arrangement (and hence, the major shortcoming in this little experiment) is that there is no way to accurately measure how this affects the mentality of players when involved in close games and tight playoff races.
Instead of the desperation and frantic play that comes with the knowledge that a win is necessary to have a chance at the post-season, a team may let up to maintain a tie so that they are guaranteed at least one point.
Many have presented the hypothetical situation in which a team loses in overtime or the shootout in the last game of the season yet the single point is enough to get them the final playoff spot.
When you introduce variables into the basic premise of victory and defeat and advancing your own team's cause while halting your opponents momentum in the standings, there is bound to be some negative fallout.
Many fans seem to loathe the shootout though personally I have no problem with it. There is already a cliched criticism that it's "an individual skills competition in a team sport."
But there are many sports in which a player's specific skills are isolated in a way that highlights individual ability in a team competition. Often the final outcome of the game hinges on those situations. For example, free throw shots in basketball or field goal attempts in football.
Granted, those features exist throughout the entirety of the game in those sports. But so what? Simply accept that the shootout is a part of the hockey, albeit at the end of regulation and overtime. It has become an important part of the game with certain skills more important than others, just as different aspects of the game already require a shift in style and mentality.
Failure to address the importance of the shootout and giving players an out by whining about its presence are only counterproductive to a team.
There will be no return to the bland and unsatisfying tie games of the past. That doesn't mean alternative methods of overtime aren't worth investigating with the result that the shootout may ultimately end up taking place with less frequency.
However, it is a certainty that the NHL must eliminate the absurdity of a point being awarded to teams that lose, whether it is in overtime or the shootout.