New York Rangers coach David Quinn called Sunday’s game against the Columbus Blue Jackets perhaps their biggest of the season, as his team trailed the Blue Jackets by eight points for one of the Eastern Conference’s two wild-card playoff spots.
After Oliver Bjorkstrand‘s tiebreaking goal with 26.5 seconds left in regulation, that gap is now 10 points. “We got what we deserved,” said Quinn. “We didn’t have a lot of energy for that third period.”
About that energy: What would happen to it if there was a larger carrot dangling in front of the Rangers? What if a regulation victory meant three points for New York, cutting Columbus’ lead in the standings to five points?
The 3-2-1 points system — three points for a regulation win, two points for a win and one point for a loss in the shootout or overtime — is the methodology championed by standings reformers. Advocates claim it would reward teams that perform best in those 60 minutes of “actual hockey” before the extra-time gimmickry of 3-on-3 and the shootout.
Detractors claim it would create too wide a gulf between the haves and have-nots in a league that’s quite comfortable with parity. “You will have teams mathematically eliminated from the playoffs by Christmas. I really think so,” former NHL GM Brian Burke told ESPN some years ago. “I have zero interest in that. None. I’d rather put a sharp stick in my eye.”
Would it make a difference in the standings this season? Like, for example, a completely wacky Pacific Division, where one point separates the first-place team (Vancouver Canucks, at 58 points) from the fifth-place team (Arizona Coyotes), mainly because the fifth-place team is tied with the second-, third- and fourth-place teams at 57 points?
We had the good folks at ESPN Stats & Information run some numbers through Sunday night’s games not only for a 3-2-1 format, but for other suggested points systems in the standings. First, here are the current standings in the NHL. Gaze upon the Pacific Division in all its twisted glory. In this format, our playoff teams for the East are the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers, Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders, with the Columbus Blue Jackets and Carolina Hurricanes getting the wild cards. In the West, it’s the St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, Vancouver Canucks, Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames, with the Vegas Golden Knights and Arizona Coyotes as the wild cards.
So how would things change in the alternative formats?
The 3-2-1 format
Here’s how things would line up in this alternative reality for this season:
Playoff teams: Bruins, Lightning, Panthers; Capitals, Penguins, Blue Jackets; Islanders, Hurricanes as wild cards.
Playoff teams: Blues, Avalanche, Stars; Canucks, Oilers, Golden Knights; Coyotes, Flames as wild cards.
First, an important caveat: The lack of a carrot. These 3-2-1 standings exist in a vacuum, without the inherent motivation for teams to win as many games in regulation as possible to maximize those extra points. The Boston Bruins, for example, have had 15 of their 50 games go beyond regulation; how much more aggressive might they have been to close out a few of those in regulation with three points on the line?
From a seeding standpoint, Columbus and the Islanders would flip-flop spots in this format, giving the Jackets the Penguins in the first round (if the playoffs started today). In the West, the main deviation would be Calgary going from third in the Pacific to the final wild card. But other than that, not much has changed.
But the 3-2-1 format does create some gulfs that don’t exist in the current format. The Blues currently hold a 10-point lead on the Stars; here it would be 14 points. Calgary is one point behind Vancouver; here it would be five points. Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh would have a little more daylight, too. Meanwhile, the mountain looks considerably higher to climb for teams like the Sabres, Canadiens and Rangers.
No points for overtime losses
An essential part of the NHL’s parity parade — or as commissioner Gary Bettman calls it, “competitive balance” — is the charity point for an overtime loss.
What if we awarded teams two points for a regulation win, one point for a win in overtime or the shootout, and nothing for an overtime loss?
Playoff teams: Bruins, Lightning, Panthers; Capitals, Penguins, Hurricanes; Blue Jackets, Islanders as wild cards.
Playoff teams: Blues, Avalanche, Stars; Oilers, Canucks, Coyotes; Golden Knights, Jets as wild cards.
Now we’re talking. The Hurricanes leap into the third seed, with the Islanders dropping to the last wild card, barely ahead of the Maple Leafs. This format does little good for two of the East’s most frequent extra-time teams: The Bruins’ cushion in the Atlantic is erased, and the Flyers end up knotted with the Rangers.
In the West, the biggest difference is in the wild card, as the Jets — with the benefit of a tiebreaker — nudge past the Flames into the last playoff spot. But the Oilers would also get a boost here, sitting atop the division through a tiebreaker.
Just wins, no ‘loser points’
What if we did away with points altogether, something for which Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello has advocated in the past.
“I’m not one who personally is in favor of three-point games, but I’m also not in favor of getting a point if you don’t win,” Lamoriello said in 2017. “I’d rather see the game just be two and zero, or end up in a tie one and one. I’d rather see it that way than you just extend the number of points.”
Here’s what the season looks like in a ‘just wins, no loser points’ format.
Playoff teams: Lightning, Bruins, Panthers; Capitals, Penguins, Hurricanes; Islanders, Blue Jackets as wild cards.
Playoff teams: Blues, Avalanche, Stars; Canucks, Oilers, Coyotes; Flames, Golden Knights as wild cards.
The Lightning would leap over the Bruins into first place in the Atlantic. Carolina would go from the last wild card to third in the Metro. Columbus and Philadelphia are knotted in wins, but the Blue Jackets have more of them in regulation. The Flames again get the wild card, but it’s Vegas that’s the last team in.
But the biggest change in this format is aesthetic. The NHL’s standards are, frankly, the most needlessly overcomplicated thing in sports — yes, even worse than goalie interference penalties. As of 2019-20, there are no fewer than eight different categories to which one must pay attention in the standings: games, wins, losses, overtime losses, points, regulation wins, regulation and overtime wins and goal differential, which is the sixth of seven (!) tiebreakers in the current points system format. Going with just wins and losses, you have to pay attention to … mainly wins and losses. Perhaps regulation wins, maybe overtime wins.
Looking ahead: Changes on the horizon?
Here’s the thing about parity in today’s NHL: It’s all about inspiring hope, even if it’s false. But do you know what inspired even more hope? Simplification. Let’s say you’re a San Jose Sharks fan. (Condolences, this season.) The current standings have them 11 points out of the final Western wild card. The “wins/losses” version of the standings has them four wins out. They’re closer mathematically, and much closer rhetorically. See?
Different points system formats offer a few variations on the current standings. But outside of the Jets sneaking in through one alternative, we’re not seeing any major swings in the 16 teams that hold down playoff spots compared to the current points system. This isn’t what those who’d like to see a change in that format want to see, but is probably music to the ears of advocates for the status quo like Predators GM David Poile — “I think this falls into the category of: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. … The system works.” — and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who has said, “The point system is working extraordinarily well.”