The NHL’s general managers recently agreed that they would recommend the NHL switch to a 3-on-3 overtime format, similar to the one used by the AHL this year, for the 2015-16 season. The NHL has been trying to figure out how to prevent games from ending in three round shootouts for years. Since the rules were changed for the 2005-06 season, overtime games have gone to a shootout around 60% of the time, a number that coaches, critics and fans have found to be too high.
Thankfully, relief may be just around the corner. At the request of the NHL, the AHL has been experimenting with a new overtime format this season. That format decides tie games with a seven-minute overtime period that goes from 4-on-4 to 3-on-3 during the first stoppage in play after three minutes have been played. For those of you who haven’t been religiously following the AHL this year, let me tell you, the results have been spectacular.
Let’s dive into the raw data (which the AHL does a good job of presenting this on their website). Through 925 games of the 2014-15 AHL season (by March 17, 2015) 225 of those games have reached the end of regulation in a tie. That comes out to 24.3% of all games so far this season. That number is nearly identical to the number of games that went to overtime in the AHL last year, 24.1% (278 of 1,140 games). So, we have seen that the new format hasn’t led to an increase or a decrease in the number of overtime games, with teams neither playing for the tie more often or trying to win the game late in regulation.
Here is where we see our first difference over last year, and it is a huge one. So far in 2014-15, 171 of those 225 games have ended in overtime, which comes out to 76.0% (171 of 225) of the time. Compare that 76.0% to a figure of just 35.3% (97 of 278) from the 2013-14 season. That’s more than twice the number of games that have ended in overtime through this point of the campaign compared to last year.
Since we know that the number of games that have gone to overtime hasn’t changed from last year, you know what we’ll find next. The number of games that have gone to a shootout to decide the winner has fallen dramatically this year. It’s down to just 24.0% (54 of 225) of the time, compared to 64.7% (178 of 278) of games that went to overtime ending in shootouts in 2013-14.
It’s hard to argue with those kinds of numbers. Actually, don’t even bother. It’s a fact that the seven minute, 4-on-4 moving to 3-on-3 overtime format leads to significantly less shootouts than the NHL’s current format of five minutes of just 4-on-4 play.
The action created by the new format has been fantastic in the AHL. There are very few things as exciting in sports as sudden-death hockey, the biggest demonstration of which is the Stanley Cup playoffs. That same type of excitement can be found in these AHL overtime contests. Games are being decided on amazing goals, and the action gets that much better when the play moves to 3-on-3 in the final four minutes of overtime.
Fewer goals (only 73 compared to 98) have been scored during 3-on-3 play compared to 4-on-4 this season. However, 29 overtime goals have been scored during the seventh and final minute of overtime, the most goals of any minute of OT. That’s 29 drama filled, last second, game-winning tallies.
The amount of scoring chances created by 3-on-3 hockey is breathtaking. With most coaches using two forwards and one defenseman, the game becomes a constant stream of two-on-ones and breakaways. Usually it goes like this. One team forces a turnover in the neutral zone and comes into the zone with an odd-man rush or a breakaway. They get a shot off and the goalie saves it, the puck comes out to one of the back-checking players who in turn goes the other way for an odd-man rush or a breakaway. Then the pattern repeats itself until somebody scores. Just take a look at some of the examples from AHL games this season.
Some hockey purists would argue that this kind of hockey isn’t much better than a shootout in terms of being a good way to decide a team sport, but they’d be wrong. A shootout completely turns the game from a team sport into an individual competition. It becomes just a shooter and the goaltender. The 3-on-3 overtime format still leads to a lot more offense than you’d normally see, but there is still the possibility of a great defensive play deciding the outcome of the game, especially when it often leads to an immediate scoring chance on the other side of the ice.
I also like how even the breakaways created by 3-on-3 overtime are closer to realistic hockey game play than the breakaways you see in shootouts. During a shootout, the player generally takes his time and skates in slowly against the goaltender, maximizing the amount of time he has to either deke or pick the spot where he wants to shoot. Also, the longer he waits, the more likely it is that the goalie will move first and provide an opening.
The breakaways created during overtime are played at full speed because there is a defenseman chasing the shooter down to try and break up the play. The shooter usually has time for one deke before he has to pull the trigger and try to score. To me, that’s a much more enjoyable situation. Fast is the only speed hockey was meant to be played at.
So why not just bring the discussion to a close and make the change for next year right now? Allow me to play devil’s advocate, not just for the exercise in debate but because I actually believe that the shootout can be fixed without having to tinker with overtime.
I spent the 2013-14 season calling games in the ECHL. The “AA” level of hockey uses a five-round shootout to decide winners rather than the three-round shootout used by the AHL and, more importantly, the NHL. The three-round shootout has always seemed to me like a way to speed up the end of the game. Get the shootout over and done with, decide a winner and send the fans home. I’ve always found it extremely unsatisfying.
Three rounds takes just a few minutes to finish, and often times leads to one goal being scored out of the six total shots. The shootout is far from a perfect way of deciding a game, but only giving three attempts per team cheats the shootout of its potential. Some of my favorite memories from hockey games involve the shootout, specifically in the Olympics where it is five rounds long.
In the 1994 Olympic Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway, the gold medal game came down to a shootout between Sweden and Canada. Sweden won the game on an amazing goal by a 20-year-old Peter Forsberg, using a deke that would later be named after him, “the Forsberg.” In the most recent games in Russia last winter, T.J. Oshie captured the country’s attention with an amazing individual performance in a shootout against Russia.
Those games, like shootouts in the ECHL, were two rounds longer than NHL shootouts, and in each of those cases went to sudden-death rounds as well. Those two extra attempts are enough to turn something that the NHL uses as a quick way to figure out who gets the extra point in the standings, into an event entirely unto itself. A five-round shootout has ebbs and flows and strategy. Much like a penalty kick shootout in soccer, a team can miss its first attempt, trail the entire shootout, and dramatically tie it in the final round. If the NHL wants to use the shootout to decide games then they should use the shootout to its maximum potential.
Breaking in the soccer comparison might not be the best argument since soccer fans and journalists have railed against its use for years, but I’d point to this blog post by Brian Phillips, one of my favorite sports writers, as to why the shootout can be enjoyable.
The issue isn’t entirely cut and dry for the NHL-NHLPA Competition Committee, the NHLPA Executive Board and the NHL Board of Governors to decide in June when they vote on whether or not to make rule changes for the 2015-16 season. My best-case scenario would be for the NHL to adopt the AHL’s overtime format and increase the shootout to five rounds, and while I don’t believe that will actually happen, I think hockey is going to be a better sport when the NHL takes to the ice next year.