Ben Chessor
The Navigator

For the last couple years, there has been no shortage of complaining about shootouts in the NHL. It seems no one is in support of the shootout. The goalies complain, and so do the coaches and general managers, so it should come as no surprise that the league announced they would continue using shootouts to decide games that aren’t settled after the five minute overtime period. 

The league’s general managers met in Boca Raton, Florida, midway through March for the annual GM meeting. A reformatting of overtime was apparently one of the hot topics during the meetings. The league considered a number of different alterations to its current overtime format of five minutes of four-on-four overtime followed directly by a shootout. Some suggested that the four-on-four period be lengthened to ten minutes, while others suggested adding a five minute period of three-on-three before the shootout. But, in the end, the league decided on only one recommendation of change regarding its overtime. The recommended change was that teams will change ends in overtime, meaning that each team’s goalie will be at the end of the ice furthest from their respective benches during overtime, just like the second period. While this small change could lead to more scoring chances, as it makes it more difficult for tired players to change in overtime, it’s hard to believe that this will make much difference in the amount of shootouts seen in the NHL these days.

The shootout was brought into the game following the 2004-‘05 NHL lockout, when the league decided to use a shootout to decide games that were settled in overtime instead of just letting the games end as ties. This was a good idea because it helped sell the game to fans. Most people don’t like investing money and hours of their time to watch a sporting event where nobody wins. The first NHL game I ever watched live ended in a tie, a result which left a younger me feeling confused and unsatisfied. Vancouver was a long way to travel to watch a game that nobody won. The shootout was instituted because everyone agreed that having the winner be declared via shootout was better than having no winner at all.

I really thought heading into these GM meetings that the league would finally take a long look at the concept of three-on-three overtime, but reports have surfaced that the idea gained little to no traction in the meetings, some GMs even saying that three-on-three overtime is to “gimmicky” of a way to decide games, which is a nonsensical argument. The British Columbia Hockey League has been using three-on-three overtime to decide games for years, and while it isn’t exactly a dream for defensive-minded teams, with tons of open space and numerous odd man rushes, it’s certainly less gimmicky than deciding games with a breakaway contest.

While the shootout is better for hockey than just having the games end in a tie, it still bothers me that a team’s playoff fate can be decided by the skills of three or four of their players in an individual skills contest. Hockey is a team game, and it takes everyone contributing to be successful. So why is the league okay with having teams battle away for 65 minutes only to have the game be decided by each team’s most talented pick handlers. That’s like having basketball games be decided by slam dunk contests or settling baseball games with a homerun derby.

The shootout isn’t at all reflective of good team play. It’s even fair to say that a team’s success or lack thereof in shootouts shows no bearing on the talent of a hockey team. In fact, at time of print, the five worst teams in the NHL all had over .500 records in the shootout. Meanwhile, Boston and Anaheim, two of the league’s three best teams, have under .500 records. Anaheim only won two of the eight games they’ve played this season. So if there is any correlation between a team’s skill level and success in a shootout it would be a negative one. Yet the points that unsuccessful teams lose in the shootout could have a huge effect on their season.

The New Jersey Devils are a great example of the effect that a poor shootout record can have on an otherwise solid team. At time of print, the Devils sat 11 in the Eastern Conference with a record of 29-25-13, just two points back of the final playoff spot. Yet the Devils are a miserable 0-8 in the shootout. New Jersey is likely going to miss the playoffs this season, despite the fact that they have more ROW (regulation and overtime wins) than three of the teams ahead of them in the conference. The Devils currently sit three points back of Columbus for the final playoff spot. Columbus has a record of 4-2 in shootouts this year, which accounts for their lead in the standings. My argument here isn’t that New Jersey is a better team than Columbus, but that the shootout seems like a poor way to settle the argument.

I still have faith that one day the NHL will find a way to settle ties that is a little closer to the spirit of the game. My ultimate hope is that the league will take some time to review and test three-on-three overtime and realize that it really is a better way to finish games off. Even if the league continued to use the shootout for games still deadlocked after three-on-three overtime, it would go a long way in reducing the amount of shootouts teams place over the course of the season. It would also be nice to see what the world’s best players could do with all the extra space that three-on-three would bring. But, for the time being, the NHL will continue to allow crucial points and playoff positioning to be determined with the shootout. At least fans enjoy watching them.