Is the NHL Point System Flawed ?

INSIDE SPORTS columnist Tom Walker

We’ve all heard the expression, “It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.” That’s just fine if we’re talking about sportsmanship in general, but when it comes to the National Hockey League, how you win and how you lose is calculated according to a complex formula to potentially impact your playoff position or your vacation plans.

Open your newspaper or click on the link to your favorite sports site, and there’s no great mystery to the standings in professional baseball, basketball, or football. There are wins, losses, and the number of games each team languishes behind the division or conference leader. (The NFL technically provides for the possibility of a tie, but it’s only actually happened twice in the 21st century.) A quick glance at the standings usually tells any sports fan what he or she wants to know.

If you have closely followed the NHL standings this season, however, at some point you have probably related to Chevy Chase’s portrayal of President Gerald Ford in an old Saturday Night Live skit wherein he laments, “It was my understanding that there would be no math.”

There aren’t just wins, losses, and overtime losses in hockey anymore. There are also ROW, SOW, and SOL, which honestly have nothing to do with small boats, pigs, or really bad luck. (Okay, maybe the last one comes close if you’re on the losing side of a hard-fought game!) At playoff crunch time in today’s NHL, you need more ROW than SOW or you might be SOL. If you’re still with me, you’re clearly a fan!

The fundamental flaw in the current point tabulation system is the fact that some games are worth more than others. In a tightly contested match where the winning goal is scored with 10 seconds left in regulation, two points are awarded. In the same tight game where the winning goal is scored in the first 10 seconds of overtime, three points are awarded. Should that differential really matter? If a losing team is to be rewarded with a consolation point for having forced overtime, why shouldn’t a winning team be rewarded with three points for preventing it?

The schools of thought on rectifying the inequity are many. Some favor returning to the prior, more traditional system of wins, losses, and ties. Others have suggested a format where each game is worth three points, to be divided based on how victories are won. And yet others would prefer to adopt a straight-up win or loss format such as those used in other sports.

When asked his opinion on this subject in a recent interview, Anaheim Ducks Coach Randy Carlyle responded, “For me, I’m a traditionalist. I’d rather see 2 points available and not 3 points available.” But does that mean going back to the days of tie games? Carlyle doesn’t see the shootout going away. “It’s been entrenched in the game now, and the fans – anytime the game goes to a shootout – the fans are all standing. So we’re in the entertainment business, and they find that entertaining. That’s not coming out. I just don’t know if the scoring system is right, that there’s 3 points available for every hockey game, and does that skew how good a team you are.”

Speaking for myself, I hate ties. I find them very unsatisfying. Many years ago I attended a 22-inning baseball game, and the only stat that mattered at the conclusion of the marathon was the win. That, and the fact that we got to stand and sing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” three times, an anecdote which will be faithfully passed down to my grandchildren as a token for having survived more than seven hours of mostly scoreless baseball without a single fight or cross check. Somewhere around the 18th inning, I’m reasonably sure the handful of remaining fans would have settled for a home run hitting contest. Of course, hockey is a far more physically demanding sport than baseball, and there’s a reason the idea of indefinite 20-minute overtime periods is reserved for the post-season.

Until recently, I was a proponent of the three-point game in order to eliminate the inequities of the prevailing system. To anyone who would lend me their ear, I advocated three points for a regulation or overtime win with no points for losers, and two points for a shootout win to justify the consolation point awarded to the skills contest loser. Just one problem: It perpetuates the insanity of the NHL standings where one has to keep tabs on ROW, SOW, and SOL.

There must be a better way. And there is.

For the just-concluded 2010-2011 season, it turns out that there is absolutely no difference among the top 8 teams of each conference whether the NHL employs the current system, the aforementioned 3-point system, or a simplistic 2-point win/loss system regardless of regulation, overtime, or shootout. Even if one yearns to return to the prior traditional format, converting this season’s shootout wins and losses into ties while eliminating the overtime loss point would yield only one minor swap in playoff participants with the Dallas Stars edging out the Los Angeles Kings for the final Western Conference slot.

Is it really worth all the number crunching to wind up with essentially the same teams making the playoffs anyway? Wouldn’t it be far preferable to open up the newspaper or go online and readily grasp your team’s status from the win/loss columns? Just one of those things that I think about while waiting for the puck to drop between games of the first round of the playoffs.

For those who may be interested, following are the final standings for each conference according to the current format. In brackets immediately adjacent to the rank of each team is where they would have finished if the NHL had employed the former system with ties, a 3-point system, or a 2-point system respectively as described above.

1. [1, 1, 1] Vancouver Canucks
2. [2, 2, 2] San Jose Sharks
3. [3, 3, 3] Detroit Red Wings
4. [4, 4, 4] Anaheim Ducks
5. [7, 7, 7] Nashville Predators
6. [5, 6, 8] Phoenix Coyotes
7. [9, 8, 5] Los Angeles Kings
8. [6, 5, 6] Chicago Blackhawks
9. [8, 9, 9] Dallas Stars
10. [11, 10, 10] Calgary Flames
11. [12, 12, 12] St. Louis Blues
12. [10, 11, 11] Minnesota Wild
13. [13, 13, 13] Columbus Blue Jackets
14. [15, 14, 14] Colorado Avalanche
15. [14, 15, 15] Edmonton Oilers

1. [2, 2, 2] Washington Capitals
2. [1, 1, 4] Philadelphia Flyers
3. [3, 3, 3] Boston Bruins
4. [5, 4, 1] Pittsburgh Penguins
5. [4, 5, 5] Tampa Bay Lightning
6. [6, 6, 7] Montreal Canadiens
7. [7, 8, 8] Buffalo Sabres
8. [8, 7, 6] NY Rangers
9. [9, 9, 9] Carolina Hurricanes
10. [11, 11, 11] Toronto Maple Leafs
11. [10, 10, 10] New Jersey Devils
12. [12, 12, 12] Atlanta Thrashers
13. [13, 13, 13] Ottawa Senators
14. [15, 15, 15] NY Islanders
15. [14, 14, 14] Florida Panthers

As for the origin of the quote about whether you win or lose, it hails from a passage out of “Alumnus Football” by legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice. It might not have been written with hockey in mind, but it should have been.

“Keep coming back, and though the world may romp across your spine,
Let every game’s end find you still upon the battling line;
For when the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name,
He writes – not that you won or lost – but how you played the Game.”
(“Alumnus Football,” Grantland Rice)
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