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At a Loss

The NHL still insists on giving out points for losing. Here’s why, and how we can fix it.

Let’s cut right to the chase: The loser point is dumb, I hate it, and so should you.

Chances are, you already do. I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone who actually likes the loser point. Some people can grudgingly live with it. Some actively dislike it. And most seem to hold it in utter contempt and want it out of the league — media, fans, and players alike.

And rightly so, because the loser point was a bad idea and has morphed into something even worse. It’s a source of shame for any decent hockey fan, and it’s tempting to just pretend it doesn’t exist.

But ignoring a problem won’t make it go away, and keeping your feelings all bottled up inside isn’t healthy. So instead, grit your teeth and vent along with me as we present the definitive guide to the NHL’s awful, stupid, very bad loser point.

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So what exactly is the loser point?

The loser point1 is pretty much what it sounds like: a single point in the standings that’s awarded to the losing team in any game that goes beyond regulation.

It appears in the standings as the column right after wins and losses, usually labeled either “OT” or “OTL.” It was introduced for the 1999-2000 season.

And why would we need such a thing?

In the late ’90s, the NHL felt like it had a problem: Too many games were ending in ties. Hockey had always been the only major North American sport to prominently feature ties,2 and they’d become slightly more common as overall scoring dropped during the dead puck era. While some fans were perfectly fine with occasional ties, others hated them, and many at least wanted to see them happen less often.

Adding to the problem was the perception that teams were playing too defensively during sudden-death overtime. Nobody wants to play 64 hard-fought minutes and then go home with nothing, the thinking went, so teams were sitting back in overtime, preferring to accept a tie rather than take the chance of getting stung with a loss. What should have been the most exciting five minutes of the game had instead become a tedious trudge of conservative, risk-free hockey.3

So in 1999, the NHL came up with a creative idea: Let’s change the risk/reward equation by guaranteeing each team a single point after regulation, and then awarding an additional point for winning the game. With nothing to lose in overtime, teams could open up and go for the win, resulting in more entertaining hockey.4 While some mocked the idea, others applauded the league for thinking outside the box.

And it worked … sort of. Overtime became a more wide-open affair, and the number of ties dropped slightly.5

So that’s why we have the loser point: to discourage teams from playing for ties.

Wait, does the NHL even have ties anymore?

No, it does not. Not since 2005, when the shootout was introduced and ties were eliminated from the standings.

But if the problem it was meant to solve no longer exists, why do we still have the bonus point?

Nobody’s quite sure. The NHL gets asked about this occasionally and has generally resisted the idea of changing the system, often pointing to its belief that the loser point helps ensure parity and keeps the playoff races more interesting.

So the loser point does those things?

Not really, no.

That might come as a surprise to some fans, who’ve heard about those mythical loser-point-driven playoff races so often throughout the years that they assume it must be true. But it’s not, or at least not as much as we’ve been led to believe, and a little bit of common-sense thinking shows why.

Playoff races are all about the chase. It’s the teams on the outside desperately trying to gain ground on the top eight, who are trying to gain ground on the teams with home ice, who are trying to gain ground on the teams in first place. Everyone is trying to climb the standings while looking over their shoulder at those in pursuit.

Does the loser point help keep those races closer? Well, it would, if they were more likely to be awarded to teams that were lower in the standings. If we had a system in which good teams rarely got extra points and bad teams often did, that would help bunch up the standings and make all the races closer. And you might expect that to happen, since, after all, this is a point for losing. Bad teams lose more games than good teams, right?

But then you look at the standings for any given year, and you see that there’s little or no discernible pattern as far as who gets the extra points. Some teams get more than others, of course, but it’s largely a matter of luck. The loser-point fairy shows up, sprinkles extra points all over the standings, and flies off. Sometimes it makes the races better; other times, it makes them worse.6 It’s largely random.

But what the loser point undoubtedly does accomplish is something almost as important: It gives the illusion of closer races, at least among fans who aren’t really paying attention. That’s because it makes it more likely that any given team will earn points on any given night. So if you’re a fan of a team that’s in the hunt, you see that their point total keeps going up (even when they’re not playing well), and that makes you feel like your team must be gaining ground. But they’re probably not, because everyone else’s point total is going up, too.

If anything, the loser point may even hurt the teams on the outside of the race, or at least the ones trying to gain ground on several opponents at once. It used to be that a team stuck in, say, 12th place could still hope for a late-season win streak that would leapfrog it back into the race. But when everyone ahead of you keeps getting points just for showing up? Forget it. As the CBC’s Elliotte Friedman has argued, the loser point has actually made it harder to gain ground, even for teams that fall behind in the season’s first month.

So if the loser point doesn’t even do what it’s supposed to do, why doesn’t the NHL just get rid of it?

Here’s my theory: I think they like the increased leaguewide point totals that the loser point creates.

And by “they,” I mean everyone who gets a say in this kind of thing. The owners, the team presidents, the GMs … all of them live in a world where their fans and their bosses judge them largely based on their records. If you were in their shoes, wouldn’t you want to keep a system that gave your point total an artificial boost?

If you grew up with the NHL during the 80-game era,7 there are certain benchmarks that have become familiar. A team that could earn a point per game was at the .500 mark, which meant they were average. Ninety points was pretty good. Anything over 100 points was excellent, the territory of the true Cup contenders.

Those benchmarks are still stuck in our collective fan brains, and they’re how many of us still rate teams. But they’re all but meaningless today. Right now, 12 out of the league’s 30 teams have more wins than losses, which — in the old days — meant you were over .500. But sprinkle in the loser point, and suddenly 23 teams are sitting at .500 or better in terms of points percentage. That’s ridiculous, and you might assume that I’m cherry-picking an unusually high number from this year, but it’s actually in line with recent history — there were exactly 23 teams at .500 or better in four of the past five years.8

Clearly, if three-quarters of your league is over .500 every year, the term has no meaning. But it’s just a subtle twist for a GM or owner to morph “over .500” into “winning record,” and suddenly you don’t feel so bad about your favorite team losing almost 50 games.

Meanwhile, 100 points doesn’t mean what it used to. In the five years before the loser point, there were never more than four teams that hit triple digits. In three of the last four seasons, there have been at least eight.9 As for 90 points, it won’t even get you into the playoffs anymore.

Call it standings inflation. The whole thing is a scam, but the league seems to love it. And they’re really hoping you won’t notice.

OK, so maybe the loser point doesn’t help anymore. But it’s not like it’s causing any actual harm, right?

Not so fast. For one thing, there’s just something wrong about awarding points for losing. But beyond that, the continued existence of the loser point damages the integrity of the league’s standings. In addition to inflating everyone’s record, it makes hockey unique among major North American sports; 10 we don’t know how much each game will be worth until it’s over. In the NBA, the NFL, and MLB, there’s one win up for grabs in every contest, period. Each matchup is a zero-sum game. In the NHL, each game is worth … well, we’ll see how it all plays out and then get back to you.

But those are more philosophical objections, and maybe you don’t care. So here’s a practical one: The loser point, which was originally intended to discourage conservative play in overtime, has led to teams shutting it down in regulation instead. After all, why take a risk to go for a win late in the third period when you can just hold on until OT and get a guaranteed point? Playing it safe in regulation is the rational move.

So that’s exactly what teams have learned to do. From 1983-84 until the 1998-99 season, 18.4 percent of games went to overtime. Since the loser point was introduced, that number has up to 23.5 percent. 11 That’s far too big a jump to be a coincidence. More likely, it’s the result of an intentional, leaguewide strategy: Whenever possible, make sure the game gets to overtime.

In fact, if history holds, this is the time of year when we’ll start to see even more three-point games. After all, the more important standings become, the more likely teams will be to try to maximize the number of points available. And sure enough, this has been the third straight season in which three-point games have increased every month.12 In each of the last three full seasons, three-point games have mysteriously peaked in March.

So, sure, overtime is fun again. We just have to endure an ultraconservative third period to get there. And deal with screwed-up standings. And make the playoff races less interesting. And again, all of that is just to solve a problem that ceased to exist more than nine years ago.

This is progress? This makes sense to anyone? Nobody else wants to throw their laptop out a window when they look at the NHL standings these days?

Has anyone ever told you that you sound disproportionately angry about all of this?

It may have come up once or twice, yeah.

OK, so the loser point sucks. How do we fix it?

That’s where the good news comes in. Unlike just about every other problem facing the NHL today, this one actually has a simple solution: Just get rid of it. Stop giving teams a point for losing. That’s all you have to do.

Two points for a win — any win. Zero points for a loss — any loss. The standings would be down to three columns again, teams would lose their incentive to sit back and play for overtime, and a hot team could actually gain ground in a playoff race again.

Maybe you think we can do even better. You might want a longer overtime period, to reduce the number of shootouts. That’s fine. Or maybe you’d prefer a three-point system,13 to encourage teams to go for the win in regulation. That’s fine, too. Those ideas have merit, and we should consider them.

But those are discussions for another day. We don’t need to do any of those things to get rid of the loser point right now.14 Let’s not get distracted by petty squabbling over what the ideal overtime points system looks like. First, kill the loser point. Then, once you’re sure it’s gone forever, worry about finding the perfect replacement.

It’s an easy fix. The bad news is, there’s no indication the NHL will bother. Based on the league’s public statements, it thinks the current system works just fine. So for the time being, we’re stuck with it.

But we don’t have to like it. We don’t have to swallow the nonsense about close playoff races or increased parity. And we don’t have to pretend that some terrible team’s .500 record is anything to be proud of.

The loser point must die. It’s an unforgivably dumb rule, and we should make sure the NHL hears us say so every chance we get.

That’s the point. And you don’t even have to be a loser to get it.

Filed Under: Sports, NHL, Hockey, loser point, sean mcindoe

mcindoe-columnist-profile

Sean McIndoe ’s work can be found at his blog, Down Goes Brown. His first book, The Best of Down Goes Brown, was released last September.

Archive @ DownGoesBrown

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