NHL Conference Standings as of January 3 (Click here to enlarge)
One of the most persistent complaints among hockey fans since the lockout has been the points system adopted which makes some NHL games worth two points in the standings while others are worth three. The League took a step toward rectifying a problem in that this season by adopting a new tiebreaker system which rewarded teams winning without the benefit of the shootout before going to other tiebreaker scenarios, but countless articles and comments from people have asked for changes to the way standings points are earned. In this article, we’ll use HockeyCSSI.com’s new Advanced Standings charts to look at several of these ideas, their benefits and drawbacks, and most importantly how they would change the standings.
What’s Wrong with the Current System?
Presently, the NHL standings are decided by points earned in playing games. A team earns 2 points for winning a game (no matter the means) and one point for forcing a game to overtime before ultimately losing. The problem many fans see with this system, aside from the mere existence of a shootout which is viewed as a pox on our fair game, is that it unfairly turns some games into three-point games while others are worth only two. A team which is exceedingly good at creating tied hockey games can not only directly benefit from a system which creates this, but also work to make other teams suffer from their division rivals earning more points than they otherwise would have. This system showed this fault in the 2007-08 season when the Boston Bruins made their way to the playoffs as an 8-seed despite having won two fewer games than the Carolina Hurricanes. The difference which gave Boston their playoff berth was that they took twice as many losses to overtime as the Hurricanes did. One could make a very good argument that the Hurricanes deserved to be the first-round opponent for the Montreal Canadiens that season.
Of course, that’s just the most extreme example. In the past four playoffs, there have been eight examples of teams with fewer wins seeding higher than others that weren’t caused by the division-leader preference system they use (where winning your division automatically grants you a top three seed). With that in mind, let’s take a look back and see what some alternate scenarios would look like. I’ll first throw one huge caveat onto this entire thought experiment: We kind of have to ignore what a different system would do to different coaching styles when we take this look. I can say that points standings aren’t the only thing that would have changed about the last few years if the NHL had a different way of building their standings, but all we can do here is play around with what we know.
Current NHL Standings with ties factored in (Click here to enlarge)
Option 1: Bring Back the Old System
This one is the favorite of the people who hate the shootout, but also love not having to explain to future generations that the 132 points put up by the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens was an absolutely beastly record at a time where they only played 80 games and there were still ties. This one is simple. Teams play for no more than 65 minutes. If it’s not decided by then, everybody goes home with one point and the taste of a sister-kiss in their mouth from a tie game.
The Benefit: Every NHL game is worth the same amount of points. You either earn both, you split them, or you get nothing, you lose, GOOD DAY SIR! The good thing about this system is that if you’re watching two of your rivals battling in a game, you don’t have to curse at your TV when one of them gets more credit for not losing for 65 minutes than the other.
The Drawback: The old system all but guaranteed that minutes 50-65 in a tie hockey game were about as fun to watch as the zambonis cleaning the ice between periods. Teams that couldn’t hack it would go into complete defensive shell mode to at least salvage one point out of a charlie foxtrot of a game.
The Standings Effects:
2010-11: The Vancouver Canucks still win the Presidents’ trophy with 109 points, but the Dallas Stars make the playoffs as the 8-seed while the Los Angeles Kings find themseves out of the playoffs. San Jose deals with Nashville in the first round while the Hawks and the Ducks battle.
2009-10: Out east, the Rangers make the playoffs instead of the Canadiens and meet the Devils in the first round. In the West, Calgary replaces Colorado as the 8-seed while Nashville and Los Angeles flop positions
2008-09: This time, the Rangers miss the playoffs in favor of the Florida Panthers, who would have gotten to take on their division rival Washington Capitals (with whom they split the season series that year). In the West, Detroit and Vancouver trade sweep victims but there are no other changes.
2007-08: Carolina not only makes the playoffs in this scenario, but does so as a division-winning #3 seed. The Rangers drop from a 5-seed to a golf outing and the Penguins and Capitals meet in the first round. Out west, some minor position flips sees a Detroit/Colorado first round matchup which probably ends with Dominik Hasek still in net.
Overall: So does this create a better system? Ultimately, I don’t think it does. Despite changing around some matchups, it ultimately does not feel like this system did the NHL any more justice than the new system did. In fact, if you look at goal differentials of all the playoff teams, the old system would have had worse total differentials in three of the last four seasons. Aside from that, there’s the ever-lingering argument about how to make teams actually play to win points rather than play to avoid losing them.
Current NHL Standings without the “Loser Point” (Click here to enlarge)
Option 2: OT Done Thunderdome Style
I’ve seen the argument that a win is a win and a loss is a loss and points for losing is the participation trophy of the NHL,which makes everybody feel special at the expense of people who are actually winners. This points system keeps OT and the shootout, but it awards 2 points for winning any way you can and it sends the loser home with a goose egg in the standings, no matter how long they put off their own defeat.
The Benefit: Again, all games are worth the same number of points, so you eliminate that little oddity from the standings. It also should eliminate the problem of teams playing not to lose, especially on squads where a coach isn’t confident enough that his team has the talent to win a skills competition.
The Drawback: If you think fans get furious about their teams losing one point to an end-of-game gimmick, just wait until they’re forced to go home completely empty-handed after losing a skills competition following 65 minutes of grueling hockey. One could also argue that overmatched teams would much rather take as many games to the coin-flip shootout as possible than take their chances actually playing hockey.
The Standings Effects:
2010-11: The Eastern rankings get jumbled, but all the same teams make it. Pittsburgh takes the #1 seed against Buffalo while Washington and the Rangers still meet up. Out west, the same thing happens with creating some juggled seeds, but no changes to which teams make the playoffs. This system would have created a Detroit/Chicago first round matchup last year though.
2009-10: Again, there is no change to which teams make the playoffs in either conference. The seed-jumble doesn’t create anything too interesting out East, but it makes for a San Jose (2) versus Detroit (7) matchup in the first round and very likely gives Nashville their first ever playoff series victory a year earlier against Phoenix.
2008-09: Under the tiebreaker rules which were still in effect for this season, there’s no change to the teams which make it in here either (Florida and Montreal tied for points and wins that season, but the first tiebreaker was head-to-head, which the Habs won 3-1). Again, the seedings do get changed. The biggest change is that Calgary wins the Northwest and gets 6-seed Anaheim. The Canucks and Blackhawks face off in the first round this year. Meanwhile, the teams that ended up playing in the Eastern Conference Finals (PIT/CAR) play in the first round under this system.
2007-08: Again, Carolina wins the SE instead of Washington in this setup and the #5-seed Rangers fall out of the playoffs entirely. Pittsburgh plays Philadelphia in the first round. The Hurricanes squad which missed the playoffs this year start at home against the Capitals. There is absolutely zero change to the top-eight standings in the west under this system.
Overall: This is perhaps the hardest one to discuss as a what-if scenario because I feel that this change would create the biggest change in coaching philosophy. However, when looking at it, you see most seasons there are nothing more than minor changes. I think that real-world changes brought on would see more bad teams playing to get to more shootouts and a less-exciting NHL as a result.
Current NHL Standings utilizing a 3-point game system (Click here to enlarge)
Option 3: Reward Timely Winning
The idea that’s been getting a lot of traction (and was the one I personally favored going into writing this article) is one which also changes the problem of some games being worth more points than others by simply making every hockey game worth 3 points. In this system, winning in regulation would earn a team 3 points while an OT decision would be split between the winner (2 points) and the loser (1 point).
The Benefit: This system creates extra incentive for good teams to prove they’re good by winning a game during regulation. Teams which cannot keep or gain leads within 60 minutes will find themselves behind those which can. It also creates more separation between those teams who win and those who lose.
The Drawback: This is a drastic change in the way the NHL does things which would create basically a new era of recordkeeping for team points standings. 132 points in a season would become nothing more than a mark on a calendar to see which team could hit it earliest in February. It also adds a big layer of complexity as far as figuring out the standings for an inexperienced fan. Detroit’s record in 2007-08 would have been 47-7-21-7 (RW-OTW-RL-OTL). As long as you have NHL.com to tell you what the hell that means, you’re fine, but it’s damn complicated.
The Standings Effects:
2010-11: Out East, this flip-flops the standings at the top and bottom of the playoff race. Philly overtakes Washington (who drops to 3rd) and Buffalo falls behind the Rangers. PIT/TBL is the only series unaffected. In the West, Seeds 4-6 goes from ANA-NSH-PHX to NSH-PHX-ANA (meaning a Preds/Yotes first round and a Wings/Ducks meetup).
2009-10: Montreal drops out, Philadelphia rises to 6th and the Rangers become a 7-seed in front of Boston to change up the playoffs. In the West, Nashville and Los Angeles change positions, but there are no changes to which teams make the playoffs.
2008-09: Again, the Panthers make the postseason under this scenario, dropping Montreal out of contention. Calgary wins the Northwest under this system as well and Minnesota finds themselves an 8-seed instead of Anaheim. Detroit still sees Columbus in the first round, but the Chicago/Vancouver series to start play is the better story.
2007-08: The East changes significantly. Just like the other two scenarios, Carolina goes from sitting out of the playoffs to winning the SE division. Washington misses the playoffs by one point. The Rangers still manage to squeak in, but are an 8-seed here. The West sees Calgary and Colorado switch places, but no other changes.
Overall: The 132-point record which has stood for more than 30 years gets tied or beaten by 42 of 64 playoff teams in this scenario. However, the score differential of playoff teams is an aggregate 16 goals better under the 3-point system over these last four seasons. It really isn’t a large difference, but I’d welcome you to tell that to the 2007-08 Carolina Hurricanes.
It’s interesting that none of these systems create quite the drastic changes that people might expect. Of all of them, I think the move to a 3-point system is the best choice. You’re simply not going to get rid of the shootout and bring back the one-point ties. The NHL enjoys the gimmick too much (instead I’d continue pressing all of my energy into making sure they don’t ever slip the skills competition gimmick into playoff hockey). Without allowing ties back in, which would have led to a worse system than is in place now, the best bet to make sure the best teams are adequately recognized as such is to give them the points they deserve for beating teams like they should and to punish those teams which can’t find ways to win without resorting to the shootout.
All of this will be changing with the realignment next season, but it’s very interesting to look at. You can find all of the historic data on the Advanced Standings Tab of the CSSI Stats Tool. Not only can you view end-of-season stats, but you can custom-set for any date you’d like going back to the 2007-08 season.