Monday, December 15, 2008

NHL Standings Revised

Although I may not have enumerated it prior to this, I'm a proponent of making every game a three-point game in the NHL. Since the league began awarding a single point to a team that loses in overtime - a change that took effect in the fall of 1999 - some games have resulted in two total points being handed out while other tilts have distributed three. When the shootout was instituted for the 2005-06 season, all the games that would have resulted in ties (and a point given to each participating club) suddenly became three-pointers as well.

Naturally, this two-step evolution in the way the NHL awards standings points has led to inflated points totals over the past eight-plus seasons, thus rendering any comparisons to the pre-1999 team records irrelevant. This point was underscored in my mind anew this past weekend, when the San Jose Sharks tied the alltime record for the quickest march to 50 points from the start of an NHL season; they have reached the mark in just 29 games, matching the 1929-30 Boston Bruins.

Not to discount the Sharks' incredible start, but what makes the Bruins' accomplishment even more impressive is that they pulled it off without the benefit of any ties. The B's went 25-4-0 back in the era when even a five-minute overtime was a distant dream; if you wanted a win, you had to get it done in 60 minutes.

If you think about it, the NHL's seemingly progressive decision to give each team a point for being tied after 60 was actually a throwback to the days when the third-period buzzer meant the end of the game, no matter what the score. The score-for-the-extra-point OT effectively restored the sanctity of the three-period regular season contest, since a team could no longer skate away empty handed after playing an even game for 64 minutes and 59 seconds.

This season, the Sharks have benefited from both overtime (2-2 in OT for six points) and that newfangled tiebreaker, the shootout (2-0 for four additional points). We've already established above that the Bruins of roughly 70 years ago can boast to having accrued their 50 points all by virtue of regulation wins; however, returning to the present, what would the standing look like if every game yielded three points?

Looking at overseas leagues that have adopted a three-point standings system like the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia, we can experiment with the NHL standings through Sunday's games to reflect the KHL's format - three points for a regulation victory, two for an overtime/shootout win, one for an OT/SO loss and none, of course, for a regulation loss. The goal is to determine a truer assessment of a team's play. Since I'm a Penguins fan and it's a tight race so far, we'll apply the KHL's formula to the Atlantic Division.

RK. TEAM: W-L-OTL=Points
1. RANGERS: 20-11-2=42
2. FLYERS: 16-7-6=38
3. PENGUINS: 16-10-4=36
4. DEVILS: 16-9-2=34
5. ISLANDERS: 10-18-2=22

1. RANGERS: 11-9-2-11=53
2. FLYERS: 10-6-7-6=49
3. PENGUINS: 10-6-4-10=46
4. DEVILS: 9-7-2-9=43
5. ISLANDERS: 6-4-2-9=28

On first glance, it doesn't seem that much has changed, but upon closer examination, changing to the 3-2-1-0 point distribution actually made the division tighter. To wit, since a three-point gap can be overcome with one 60-minute win. The Flyers are three points back of the Rangers in both versions of the standings, but in the revised scenario Philadelphia is only one game back, as opposed to two games behind in actuality. Right now the difference seems insignificant, but as the season wears on, a team that relies on overtime/shootout wins would not achieve the separation in the standings that is possible under the current system.

I was secretly hoping this experiment would expose the Rangers a little more. After all, they are 9-2 in games that go beyond three periods. As the system stands currently, we might have to wait until the playoffs to see if New York's overtime and shootout successes artificially enhanced their status in the league.

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