The shootout has been a hotly contested topic among fans of the National Hockey League (NHL) since its inclusion into the sport after the 05-06 lockout. On the one hand, it provides a winner and a loser to any game, eliminating the oft-hated ties that were numerous before the lockout. On the other hand, the shootout removes any aspect of team play from the sport, turning a game that relied on 20 players for 65 minutes into a skills competition that only a percentage of the team participates in. The debate has finally reached the ears of NHL general managers, as it is one of the many topics being discussed at the annual GM meetings that start today.
The pro-shootout side has an easy argument. Ties were absolutely despised by the general public when they were a regular part of NHL games, and the shootout provides a way to end the game that eliminates any possible chance of a tie. There is a winner and a loser in every game and fans can leave any game with a sense of resolution rather than the empty feeling that the ties provided. In addition, shootouts are considered to be one of the more exciting aspects of the game. It is hockey in its simplest form, a shooter and a goalie, one-on-one. The pro-shootout side argues that since penalty shots have been, and continue to be, part of the NHL rulebook, the shootout is no different mechanically and therefore, does not harm any of the “traditionalist” value arguments that come from the anti-shootout side.
Another benefit to the shootout, the pro-shootout side argues, is that games are ended promptly. In addition to benefitting the fans at the arena and the media outlets covering the game, a prompt end to a game benefits the players as well. A recent championship match in the Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA) state hockey final went through seven overtime periods, the equivalent of two additional games, before school and OHSAA officials stepped in. The players on both sides were physically and mentally exhausted, and it was determined to be too risky for the safety of the players to continue the match. Much to the displeasure of the players and the fans, the game ended in a tie, with both teams sharing the state title, because OHSAA rules prevented the use of a shootout in championship games.
The anti-shootout side faces a much more difficult task. Not only do they have to argue against why the shootout does not work, but they are also usually tasked with finding an alternative solution. Their argument against the shootout is solid. For a team sport to end in such a way that involves no team play, it defies logic. If two teams are tied after 65 minutes of play, it is only because all 20 players on each team contributed to that score in their own way. The shootout determines the result of the game based off the play of four players on each team, three shooters and a goalie in a best-of-three matchup. This leaves the vast majority of each team sitting on the benches, their only contribution to the resolution of the game being how hard they can cheer. One alternative proposed that eliminates the shootout, still provides a prompt solution to the game and incorporates team play is a similar overtime format used in football. Both sides would be provided alternating powerplay opportunities until one side scores and the other does not. To ensure the ending is prompt, each failed attempt will allow a bigger advantage in the next one. First 5-on-4, then 4-on-3, 5-on-3, etc.
Another issue about the shootout that both sides agree needs to be addressed is the amount of points awarded in a shootout win. Though the NHL does differentiate between shootout wins and regulation/overtime wins (ROW) in the standings, this is only used as a tiebreaker at the end of the season. If two or more teams are tied in points at the end of the year, whichever team has more ROW will be placed ahead of the other. Unfortunately, a shootout win awards the same amount of points as a ROW, thereby having the same effect on the first and most important determination of a team’s place in the standings: their point totals. Thus, a team that has more wins in regulation or overtime may actually be placed lower in the standings than a team that has had great success in the shootout. There have been dozens of alternate proposals that deal with the point system, including using the International Ice Hockey Federation standard, which awards three points for a regulation win, two for a shootout win, one for an overtime or shootout loss and zero for a regulation loss.
As of today, 14 percent of all NHL games played this season have gone into a shootout. 60 percent of all games that have reached overtime go to a shootout. Both the fans and the general managers agree that these numbers are too high. The topic being discussed at the annual GM meetings is simply expanding overtime from five minutes to ten, but it should not be long before the heart of the issue, the shootout, becomes the raging debate among NHL general managers.
This article is one in a daily series, providing coverage, analysis and predictions to NHL fans.
Commentary by Jonathan Gardner
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