My Take on the NHL’s Flawed Point System

Many people have expressed their opinions about the point system the NHL currently follows, and there have been a few that have taken a look at how it has effected teams and the league as a whole (see William Loewen’s post on Hockey Prospectus as the most recent). What I am going to do is look at a couple of point systems of my own and compare them to what we are seeing in the league right now.

First, the reasoning behind why I think the current system is flawed. Well, have you ever heard of being rewarded when you lose? Specifically in sports? Well, the NHL basically hands out free points to teams that can end regulation time in a tie. By rewarding the same 2 points to a winner in overtime as the 2 points in regulation, you are holding the value of a win the same. However, by giving a point for a loss after regulation time (overtime or a shootout), you are increasing the total point returns by 50% and therefore teams have the incentive to force the game into overtime.

When the game is close in the latter stages, teams will be provoked to play more defensively because of this “loser’s point.” The team’s train of thought goes like this:

“Well, if we go to overtime we are guaranteed to get at least 1 point. And even if we win there we are going to get the same amount of points as we do if we win after the third period. Now, let’s not take any risks so we guarantee that single point with the chance to get another.” 

By increasing the returns of a game when it goes to overtime, teams are looking to make the decision that will be best for them. By weighing an overtime win the same as a regulation win, the incentive is to go into overtime rather than end the game in regulation.

The NHL is the only league out of the “Big 4” that uses a point system, and is the only one that recognizes a loss, in any sense, as a positive event as they reward points to overtime losses. What I am going to look at is two alternative point systems that are seen enacted in professional sport today that will help the nature of the game. For both approaches, the standings I am using are all games up to and including the games played on February 18, 2015.

The “Games Behind” Approach

This approach is widely known in the NBA and the MLB, and is often referred to as the number of “Games Behind” or the number of “Games Back.” This approach is good for a league that had a large amount of games (NBA with 82 and MLB with 162) as it puts into perspective how many games a team needs to win in order to catch teams above them. With teams often times have played different number of total games at any time throughout the season (which does not really happen in the NFL), this method is very useful because it allocates half games.  The number of games behind is the number of games the trailing team has to win and the number of games the leading team has to lose for them to be equal.

For example, if Los Angeles is 4 GB of Nashville, it indicates that if the Kings win their next 4 games and the Predators lose their next 4 games, they will be tied. It also represents how many more games the Kings need to win throughout the rest of the year in order to end up tied with the Predators at season-end.

We have to assume that the NHL will use the same playoff format in this alternative. For wins, I simply took all wins a team has for the entire season thus far. For losses, I combined all losses (regulation losses and overtime/shootout losses) to make a single “Loss” number. From here, I then used the “Games Behind” approach to look at the standings.

Eastern Conference




Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 8.17.22 PM

Western Conference




Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 8.17.40 PM

I included the old rank (under the current standings) for each division as well to give some perspective about how the standings change. What this approach does is that it takes only wins. It weighs all losses equal, no matter if it was in overtime or not. The MLB or NBA doesn’t matter if you lost in 17 innings or in triple-overtime; a loss is a loss.

Looking at the NHL and team’s records as of now, the new method doesn’t have much effect on the divisional standings. In the East, only the Metro is effected (5th and 6th switch), while in the West, the Central remains unchanged but the Pacific sees some movement. Calgary drops to 3rd, while Los Angeles falls to 5th, and both the Canucks and Sharks are beneficiaries.

The changes in this method are more seen in the Wild Card race. While I do not have the current Wild Card positions right there, the order and rank of Wild Card positions under the current format is seen in the images for the next method (below). What you see when it comes to changes is that Columbus jumps to one spot out of the Wild Card, compared to being 4 spots out currently. In the West, Minnesota leapfrogs both Los Angeles and San Jose to take over the final playoff spot.

The differences you see here are a result of two things:

  1. The teams play games at a different rate, and therefore teams can be behind in points but still “on-pace” to jump ahead of leading teams. By assigning 0.5 games to an unplayed game, we are able to properly manage this difference.
  2. Teams are getting unnecessary points as a result of going into overtime and shootouts. Los Angeles, for example, has an overall W/L record of 27-30. There number of OTL’s, where they get 1 point currently, has them getting 12(!) extra points as a result. This forces them to drop and are then not rewarding for losing.

This method is one that should be considered in this time, as the league does not want to continue distributing useless points to teams that have to ability to simply sit back in tied games and force overtime, just to lose.

The “3 Point Win” System

This method is fairly prevalent in European Soccer Leagues, and can act as a way to reverse the incentive to play for a tie (or overtime). Under this system, the following point allocations are enacted:

  • Regulation Win: 3 points
  • Overtime Win: 2 points
  • Overtime Loss: 1 point
  • Regulation Loss: 0 points

We want to assume that the NHL wants stay with the overtime and shootout format they have, therefore not resulting in any tied results and every game has a winner (this is a difference from the system in European Football). Here is the results of this new proposed point system compared to the current point system:

Eastern Conference

Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 8.42.12 PM

Western Conference

Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 8.44.24 PM

RegW: Regulation Wins, RegL: Regulation Losses, OTW: Overtime/Shootout Wins, OTL: Overtime/Shootout Losses

For each chart there, the tables on the left are under the current point system (total points labeled “OldP”), and the tables on the right are under the “3 Point System” (total points labeled “NewP”). The biggest part of this system over the current is that it keeps the total point allocation equal no matter what the result of the game. If the game is ended in regulation, 3 points are given. If the game goes to overtime, still only 3 points are allocated. The returns of going to overtime are no longer increased and therefore teams that can find a way to win in overtime are rewarded.

One large differences you can see in the Western Conference standings is Calgary falling way down the ladder. Under the current point system, they are 2nd place in the Pacific Division. After adjusting for regulation and overtime wins and losses, they fall to two spots out of the playoffs and 5th in the Pacific. As a result, Los Angeles jumps into 3rd in the Pacific instead of being in the final Wild Card spot. The Central Division remains unchanged, but in general, the Wild Card race heats up and shifts quite a bit with this adjustment.

In the East, Tampa Bay is rewarded for their ability to get wins in regulation, jumping to the top of their division and the conference. Other than that, the divisional standings remain the same. The Wild Card standings here remain unchanged, surprisingly. This could possibly be because the majority of Eastern Conference teams head to overtime and shootouts around the same amount. For the top four teams in the Wild Card race, they all have between 16 and 18 games that went to overtime. This is only a swing of about 2 points, compared to Tampa Bay who has only gone to overtime or a shootout 10 times.

The main issue with this system compared to the current system is that teams will end up more dispersed in terms of point differences. I’m guessing that if the same adjustments were made for previous years, the playoff races may not have been so close because of the larger number of points earned (see that Nashville would have already been at 112 points with this approach). Another issue would be the NHL record books. Changing the point return of a game to 3 points, always, would force NHL team point records to be eliminated because of the large difference in total allocation.

It is hard to truly measure the difference that these systems would make on the NHL and its game. By changing the point system, you change the incentives for teams. However, teams are currently playing under the incentives that I discussed at the beginning of this piece. If you change the return of every game to 3 points, and have a regulation win worth 3 points, I am sure that teams would attempt to win in regulation more often and enforce more offensive tactics when it is late in the third period of a tied game. Similarly, if you adopt the “Games Behind” approach, teams would most likely attempt to win at all costs, since a loss is worth nothing no matter how it happens. Teams would no longer be content with an overtime loss because it gets them a point.

Basically, losing shouldn’t be rewarded in any sport. The NHL should actively take steps to adjust their point system to fix this flaw. My two approaches are just a couple of many different options that could fix the underlying problem.

My Take on the NHL’s Flawed Point System

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