Chris O'Reilly The Hockey Writers
A New Spin on Overtime Losses
A popular debate within the hockey community is whether or not teams deserve to accumulate points for losing in overtime. Those in favor believe that overtime is normally indicative of a competitive contest, and that the losing team does not deserve to walk away from the battle with nothing. The opposition contends that nobody deserves to be rewarded for losing, and there are even arguments that overtime losses allow for teams to complacently steer a game into bonus hockey just to guarantee they get a point.
Both arguments hold weight, although those against points for overtime losses are a little more rational. There is merit in coming out on the losing end of a hard-fought game, and teams do deserve to have that reflected in the standings in some way. But no other sport rewards losses of any kind to the extent that the NHL does. A team can literally clinch a playoff spot on the last day of the season by losing a game.
Let’s take a look at some real-life examples of teams who are being helped and hurt by overtime loss points in the 2016-17 season.
The Atlantic Division is stacked with teams whose postseason hopes are being kept alive solely by losing games after the horn sounds on regulation. Here is a quick breakdown of teams three through six in the division:
Boston Bruins – (35-26-6), (76 points)
Toronto Maple Leafs – (30-22-14), (74 points)
Tampa Bay Lightning – (31-26-9), (71 points)
Florida Panthers – (29-25-11), (69 points)
You’ll notice the Boston Bruins are the only team with more wins than overall losses, yet they hardly have a comfortable lead on the teams chasing them. Take away points for overtime losses however, and here is how those standings would look:
Boston Bruins – (35-32), (70 points)
Tampa Bay Lightning – (31-35), (62 points)
Toronto Maple Leafs – (30-36), (60 points)
Florida Panthers – (29-36), (58 points)
In a format that didn’t see rewards for overtime losses, Boston has an eight-point cushion on the next best team. In the format the NHL actually uses, however, the Bruins don’t even have an eight-point cushion on the fourth team on the list. Moreover, the Toronto Maple Leafs, by virtue of leading the entire league in overtime losses, are a very real threat to upend Boston as the third seed in the Atlantic. Without those extra 14 points, Toronto would be out of the playoff picture altogether.
This is not meant to be a condemnation of the Maple Leafs. They are a promising team with an incredibly bright future, and they would be a heck of a lot of fun to watch in the postseason this spring. But the idea that they should be just as much in the hunt for a playoff spot as a Bruins team that is playing some of the best hockey in the NHL over the last few weeks is simply flawed.
The Unlucky Rangers
The Bruins may have to fend off some below-average clubs, but the New York Rangers actually find themselves behind a pair of teams who have fewer wins than they do. The Rangers, at 43-23-2, trail Columbus and Pittsburgh, who have 42 and 41 wins, respectively. In fact, the Rangers have just one fewer win than the Washington Capitals, but sit seven points behind the Presidents’ Trophy favorites in the standings.
This example in the Metropolitan Division is a bit less severe than that in the Atlantic. All four of the Metro’s top teams have separated themselves from the rest of the conference to the extent that it would take a catastrophic meltdown in order for any of them to miss the playoffs.
Additionally, these teams are all so close to each other from a competitiveness standpoint that arguing any one of the four is significantly better than the other three would be splitting hairs.
Still, overtime losses will play a key role in deciding how the Capitals, Blue Jackets, Penguins and Rangers are seeded come playoff time. Should losing in overtime determine which two get home ice advantage?
A Crazy, Fun Solution
The most straightforward way to put an end to this problem would be to do away with the “loser point.” Another popular proposal is keeping the OTL point around, but awarding three points for a regulation victory and two for an overtime/shootout win, thus deterring teams from resting on their laurels late in the third period of a tied game.
But I came up with an alternative solution that would add a significant amount of intrigue (and controversy) to the NHL – the Overtime Loss Committee.
In short, the league office would appoint a group of people to determine the validity of an overtime loss. The committee could be one entity in charge of evaluating every one of the NHL’s overtime games on a day-to-day basis. Or, it could be broken up into several small groups who would each be assigned to a specific game on a given day.
Following the winning goal of an overtime game, the committee would then have until midnight of the home team’s local time to decide if the losing team had earned a point or not.
How Would it Work?
There would be a multitude of factors to take into account, but some of the questions would be fundamental. Did the losing team relinquish a significant lead, or did they claw their way back from a deficit just to send the game to overtime in the first place? Was the game at home or on the road? Were they a superior team who played down to their opponent, or were they an underdog who hung tough with a stronger team?
Here are a couple recent games we can look at to outline how the decision-making process might pan out:
On Mar. 4, the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 2-1 in overtime. The Flyers, a middle-of-the-road NHL team, held Washington, the top team in the league, to zero goals through two periods of play. Philadelphia out-shot Washington 31-24, but the Caps’ Vezina Trophy candidate Braden Holtby only let one go through. The game was played in Washington, where the Capitals were in the midst of a double-digit home winning streak. The Flyers earned a point in this game despite losing.
The next day, the Buffalo Sabres came out guns blazing to the tune of a 3-0 first period lead against the Pittsburgh Penguins. From the second period on, however, the Penguins absolutely dominated the game in just about every aspect. Pittsburgh tied the game with less than five minutes remaining in the third period, and netted the game-winner less than a minute later. The game did not go to overtime, but the style in which Buffalo sat back and allowed the Penguins to come back did not reflect any sense of urgency. The Sabres would not have deserved a point had they lost this game in overtime.
Pros and Cons
The most glaring down side to this proposal is that the results would be based almost entirely upon the opinions of the personnel within the committee. There would be concrete criteria to examine in each game, but no definitive checklist for the committee to go by.
Every game would have different circumstances (injuries, questionable officiating) that played a part in how the final score was reached.
The positive impact this system would have on the NHL lies in the world of debate and controversy it would create. Just take a look at Twitter next time a hockey player dishes out a questionable hit, and you’ll see thousands of people chiming in on whether he should be suspended or not. A merit-based system of determining the legitimacy of an overtime loss would have the same effect, but for a much more important reason.
This idea isn’t perfect by any means, but at the very least, it’s one possible way to keep a bad team from edging out a good one in a playoff race just because they lost a bunch of games “the right way.”
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