December 21, 2009
As of earlier this month, the NHL was on a record pace for games ending in a shootout, potentially breaking 200 for the 2009-10 season. As Gus Katsaros pointed out on Fadoo, the compressed schedule for the Olympics could be a factor; but whatever it is, the increase in shootouts has led to an alarming decrease in quality offensive hockey late in games, according to the numbers.
Stats wiz Gabriel Desjardins of Behind The Net had a piece for the Wall Street Journal that showed a startling drop in scoring for the last three minutes of regulation and all of the 5-minute OT:
Initially, NHL teams didn't take advantage of this extra point: in 2005-06, the first year of the shootout, the percentage of tie games after overtime hit a 12-year low. But 40% of the way through this season, the rate is at an all-time high, along with the percentage of games going into overtime.
This year, teams have stopped taking chances late in tie games so they can guarantee themselves the point in extra time. Even though league-wide scoring is essentially unchanged relative to the previous four seasons, the scoring rate has dropped 17% in overtime and-indicative of team strategies-44% in the last three minutes of regulation in tied games.
If that isn't an indictment of the NHL's current points and overtime formats, we're not sure what is.
According to Desjardins, 27.9 percent of games are going to overtime this season, way up from 22.9 percent last season. Scoring in the last three minutes of regulation stands at 2.05 goals per 60 minutes, down big from 3.43 last season. Overtime scoring is also down well over a goal per 60 minutes, with an average of 5.44 this season to 6.59 in 2008-09.
And you thought "playing for the tie" ended when the shootout was adopted ...
If you read this blog, you know our feelings on both the shootout (yuck) and the current points format (double yuck). The stats are fodder for the critics, even if taken in context they're a bit of anomaly historically.
Everyone and their mother has a way to "fix" these systems, but lately the focus has been on motivation. Gus Katsaros on Fadoo explains in a number-crunching piece on tie games:
Aside from minor differences, the point system doesn't really matter. It's not about points and systems.
It's about motivation.
Detroit Red Wings general manager, Ken Holland, proposed a change to the end-of-season tie-breaking measure from wins to regulation wins. It targeted motivation to win, not point systems.
Motivation is something Desjardins mentioned in passing on the WSJ site, because the gamble on the shootout is a safer bet than a gamble at the end of regulation or during overtime:
Teams seem to have figured out that dragging 10 games to the shootout is as good as winning five more games in regulation and can vault a team into the playoffs. Therefore, the weaker team on any given night has an incentive to first get the game to overtime, where it is guaranteed at least a point.
With the begrudging realization that the skills competition isn't going anywhere soon, the only way to reverse these unfortunate trends is by placing more value on regulation hockey and OT. We've often talked about the "three-point win" for a team ahead after 60 minutes; perhaps that needs to be extended to the 4-on-4 OT as well?
It'll be interesting to see where the trends go after the Olympic year. If we're still talking about downgraded offensive numbers for Minutes 57-60 and the overtime next season, then the NHL needs to seriously look at revising its standings format.
One more bit of ties vs. shootouts reading. MacLean's had a piece back in April that dealt with the psychological benefits of tie games, and it's worth a read; as Professor Daniel Weinstock and essayist Adam Gopnik have argued that forcing winners and losers is a bad life lesson:
If you agree with the Weinstock-Gopnik thesis, as I do, it raises two concerns about the demise of the tie game in hockey. First, there is the problem of the reduced moral ontology of the sport itself. When there is always a winner, we lose the possibility of a "moral victory", where a team that should have lost rises above its natural talent, and ekes out a tie. As anyone who has every played soccer or hockey knows, the idea of a tie that is as good as a win, or even a tie that feels as good as a loss, is an essential part of the sport's character-building dynamic.
A second, more speculative question: If these musings are accurate, what does it say about the moral standing of the playoffs, where every game has to have a winner, right up until the last game of the last series, where there remains a single team standing, the sole victor?
Who knew kissing your sister could be so academic?