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NHL's Extra Credit Breeds System of Inequity

08/30/2010 at 7:17pm EDT

The concept of academic extra credit has forever puzzled me. Despite the occasional motivation to exploit it, the notion of offering additional points as a means of atonement for under-performance has always felt fundamentally wrong to me.

Academic instructors typically distribute a syllabus at the beginning of each semester which, among other things, outlines the course’s key dates and includes a grading plan which specifies a value by which a student’s performance is ultimately evaluated. The National Hockey League has such an outline which contains similar criteria; although the NHL refers to theirs as a season schedule.

Like the aforementioned syllabus, the NHL’s season schedule consists of key dates otherwise known as games in which the league’s students—referred to as teams—are tested with points awarded dependent upon performance in those “exams”. While the number of tests each team receives is equal, the tests’ cumulative value is not.

How can this be you ask? Extra credit, of course.

For decades the NHL calculated season standings and playoff positioning based on a points system (two points for a win, one for a tie, and none for a loss) rather than the straight win/loss record method employed by Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association. My guess is that this was born of necessity due to the number of games which ended in ties especially prior to—and to an only slightly lesser extent after—the introduction of the five minute overtime period beginning with the 1983-84 season.

Prior to the 1999-00 season, however, the NHL, in its infinite wisdom, instituted a policy of not only granting two points to a team winning in overtime, but also allowing the losing team to earn a point for merely advancing past regulation. Essentially, the league made the conscious decision to reward its teams for underperforming (i.e.-losing) with, yes, extra credit.

Although the tie was rendered obsolete by the 2005-06 post-lockout advent of the shootout, the three-point system for non-regulation games has since remained in effect. Yet games completed in 60 minutes are still only worth two points? How preposterous is it that the outcome of two NHL games played on the same night can have disparate values?

Imagine turning to someone in the top of the 10th inning of an MLB game and saying, “Well, at least they got their half-win. Hopefully they can get another run and pick up the full win.” Ridiculous, right? That line would sound just as ludicrous if uttered at the opening tip of overtime in an NBA game. But a paraphrased version of that statement is repeated hundreds of times in NHL arenas each season by coaches, players, and fans who are, “just glad to get out of here with at least one point”; a point which, in essence, constitutes a half-win.

NHL GM’s have made it clear on numerous occasions that the additional point is here to stay but have, so far, avoided rectifying an absurd situation with the simple solution of awarding three points for a regulation win. That tiny tweak would place equal value on each of the 1,230 NHL regular season games played each season and finally rid the league of an unfair calculation method.

What would result from such a change? I decided to put the systems to the test and studied the 2009-10 season to find out. Should I have broadened my sampling? Absolutely but, let’s face it, I work for a living and this is what I had time to throw together.

I’ve labeled the calculation method currently used as the Asinine Standings System or ASS for short and branded the alternative as the Equal Value System or EVS.

I’ll begin with the Western Conference where the results only differ slightly:

Legend: DIV=Division; GP=Games Played; W=Wins; L=Losses; OT= Overtime Losses; PTS=Total Points Earned; RW=Regulation Wins; OTW=Overtime Wins

What is evident is that the ASS and EVS standings remain nearly identical with the exception of Vancouver and Chicago flip-flopping positions and trading first-round playoff opponents. A look at the regular season head-to-head data for each scenario reveals no drastic advantage was gained or lost.

The only other variation sees Calgary leaping over St. Louis for the ninth spot based upon five more regulation wins in the EVS.

On the other hand, the impact of an equal value system would have been far greater in the Eastern Conference:

Based upon the above comparison one might reasonably conclude that Montreal fans would strongly favor ASS while an endorsement of EVS by Rangers faithful is quite likely. The Canadiens’ magical run to the conference finals would have been over before it began and the sixth seed would have been on the line—rather than elimination—in the infamous season-ending meeting between the Flyers and Rangers.

Simply winning in overtime or a shootout may not have been enough for the Rangers to move up to sixth depending upon tie-breakers. But a regulation win in that instance ensures New York a sixth seed ahead of Philadelphia.

Although the top five seeds remain intact, the evenly-weighted schedule offers the Caps, Devils, and Sabres vastly different and, arguably, far more appealing playoff opponents for three teams stunned by early exits last spring. The following is an example of what could have, and I believe should have, been for fans in Washington, New Jersey, and Buffalo respectively.

The disparity of success in each situation is dramatic. Although watching Scott Hartnell, Jaroslav Halak, and Milan Lucic was enjoyable, I’m not going too far out on a limb to say Alex Ovechkin, Zach Parise, and Thomas Vanek may have occupied more of my attention as the Minnesota spring progressed. EVS may have provided that opportunity.

I even compared data between the two systems to determine how many regulation wins would be required at each point level for each non-playoff team to surpass the eighth seed. I figured this would be where I’d trip myself up but I found that the ASS influence on the playoff race to be negligible. For every team benefiting from ASS in that regard, there was one other creeping closer to a playoff berth with EVS.

Detractors of a three-point system such as GM’s Brian Burke of Toronto and David Poile of Nashville will argue that the current system creates “competitive balance” producing exciting playoff races. To that I respond simply: So what? It is polyester parity forged by a system of inequity which provides incentive for teams to sit on ties, settle for the one point, and take their chances on skating off with the bonus point.

Poile and Burke, however, do not have a problem with that according to what each told ESPN.com’s Pierre LeBrun in December 2009.

“From a manager’s standpoint, I’m not so sure I want less parity,” said Poile. “Maybe that’s selfish, but I don’t know, the games seem pretty exciting to me.”

“I think it’s a poor idea,” said Burke. “There is no shame in battling back for a tie.” Burke rambled on to say, “The final minute of regulation, with the [goaltender] out, is a breathless, agonizing, heart-stopping minute filled with tension and drama; overtime is a continuation of the same, and the shootout is agony and ecstasy for the fans. I see no reason to change. I felt this way when my teams were in first place; I feel the same way now.”

Apparently that’s the best Mr. Burke, could come up with off the top of his ever-whitening head but I find myself unmoved by his line of reasoning. Wouldn’t the final minutes of a one-goal or tie game at any point—but especially late—in the season be similarly angst-filled and thrilling with a three point all-or-nothing at stake?

Burke is correct; there is no shame in battling back for a tie.

But there is in settling for one. Imagine three teams vying for the final two playoff spots on the season’s last day. One team (let’s call them something like the Maple Leafs) finishes its season with a regulation win earning two points to gain a one-point lead over its rivals (a couple of random teams like the Sabres and Canadiens), over neither of which it holds a tie-breaker advantage.

The Sabres and Canadiens conclude the season playing each other. Tied at two after the second period, they head into the season’s final 20 minutes with the knowledge that an overtime or shootout loss qualifies both for the playoffs but a regulation loser will be eliminated.

How “entertaining” would that third period be watching dump after dump without any chase? How irate would Toronto fans be knowing that a) the Leafs were eliminated from the playoffs once again and b) a point system that their very influential GM opposed could have clinched a playoff berth for them?

I’m not advocating something radical like three points for a goal scored from outside the blue line (and you thought you’d seen a neutral zone trap) or goal judges suspended by bungee cords above each net. I’m merely suggesting that each and every NHL regular season game be an equal test of skill, will, risk, and reward.

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