The fate of the shootout, one of the most exciting and unique features of hockey, is in jeopardy.
This week, the general managers of the NHL officially submitted potential modifications to the NHL’s overtime process, and while none of the proposals call for the complete elimination of the shootout, the league wants to see fewer of them. The changes will preserve the integrity of hockey, while increasing excitement and more accurately determining the better team, and should thus be welcomed.
According to the current rules, a shootout occurs after five minutes of scoreless four-on-four overtime play. Each team then gets three penalty shots, and the team with the most goals wins and earns two points in the standings while the losing team earns one.
The biggest attack on shootouts is that they do not look like in-game hockey. Their only equivalent in another sport is penalty kicks in soccer, and even those are used selectively, as many soccer games end in draws. Wouldn’t it be strange if football games were decided by a field goal kickoff after a short overtime period rather than a tie or sudden death? Or if three-point contest?
Excitement is not the issue. Potentially seeing the Warriors’ Klay Thompson battle the Hawks’ Kyle Korver sounds amazing, but such a contest would not be reflective of which team is better at basketball. This is the main reason the NHL does not use the shootout in the playoffs — teams play until a goal is scored.
The proposal advanced by the GMs would mimic an experiment that was conducted by the American Hockey League (AHL), a minor league for the NHL. In the AHL, the overtime period was extended to seven minutes instead of the NHL’s five. Inside of three minutes, a player for each team comes off the ice, and the overtime concludes with three-on-three play.
The NHL’s proposal may not be as complicated, and coaches, players and general managers have yet to announce the specific changes, but a change is coming nonetheless.
It is one thing to theorize about rule changes having an impact, but this is one adjustment that has legitimate and indisputable evidence behind it. When shootouts were first implemented in the 2005-2006 NHL season, they decided just 11.79 percent of games. That percentage has increased steadily over the years to just over 14 percent.
In the AHL, almost 16 percent of games ended in a shootout last season, but that percentage is down to 5.7 percent this season after the new format was put in place. Though it may not occur at the magnitude of the AHL due to differences in the skill level of the players, there is still every reason to believe a similar effect would occur in the NHL.
One major reason goals would be more likely to occur in overtime with a four-on-four or three-on-three method is due to the increased spacing that would be available to players. Goals come at a premium in hockey and have been declining ever since the shootout was adapted nearly a decade ago. This season, each team averages 2.74 goals per game, down from 3.08 in 2005-06.
While shootouts have probably not caused the decline, it is reasonable to see how coaches could view them as a safety net that could allow inferior teams to take their chances in a shootout instead of being forced to score a goal in regulation hockey.
The new plan would reduce this option because it would create more individual one-on-one matchups, and even if teams resorted to a zone defense in their defensive zone, attackers would be closer to the net, giving goalkeepers less reaction time and possibly creating more opportunities for winning overtime goals.
This is certainly not the biggest possible change in hockey, nor is it an overly radical change in order to promote more offense and fewer shootouts. Compared to proposals that call for increasing the size of the net and a slight reduction of the goalie’s pads, reformatting overtime to allow for three-on-three play appears to be a proven way to achieve desired results while maintaining the integrity of the sport.
Michael Ippolito is a sophomore in the College. THE WATER COOLER appears every Friday.