The horn sounds after the end of three grueling periods, both teams still locked in a tie and we are headed to overtime. Now the three-on-three begins; the most skilled players from each side taking advantage of the open ice. The action rushes back and forth, the crowd remains on the edges of their seats with each shot attempt and odd man rush. These electrifying 5 minutes are filled with goal posts, miraculous saves, and missed opportunities until the clock continues to count down again. Fans attempt to catch their breath, players huddle around the bench, and now it all comes down to…a shootout? 65 minutes of pulse-pounding action now to be decided by a miniature skills competition.
So now my question and the question of many other hockey fans: how is this still a thing?
From 1942-1983, games were forced to end in a tie after 60 minutes due to old war-time restrictions that were set in place and never adjusted. Overtime was then put into place, but the possibility for a tie was still an option until the incorporation of the shootout in 2005, thus eliminating ties from the game. This format of 4-on-4 overtime followed by a three-round shootout worked rather well, and everyone was happy that games would no longer end tied. Fast forward to the 2015-16 season, when the league decided to introduce a three-on-three overtime format. This new rule was set in place to help cut down on the amount of games ending in the shootout, and it did just that. Skilled players have more open ice to work with, and these five minutes are filled with nothing but chaos and odd-man rushes. Make a bad pass? Miss the net on a shot with your teammates deep in the zone? Break a stick? In any of these situations, you’re likely to soon after hear the blast of the goal horn and know that your team has just lost a heart-breaker.
Now back to the earlier question: how is the shootout still a thing? The mere fact that a team’s playoff hopes can live or die based on part of the game that has no effect once the actual playoffs begin seems a bit outlandish. As Devils fans, we know the pain of the shootout all too well, having so many opportunities at a win slip right through our fingers. Now don’t get me wrong, the shootout can still be very entertaining and there are plenty of fans who do enjoy it, but to have teams left out of the playoffs because of it? I will gladly take continuous 3 on 3 overtime until we have a winner. Now you might be thinking: “but the NHL doesn’t want games to last all night, why would they take away the shootout?” I hear you loud and clear, and they most certainly don’t want games carrying on into the wee hours of the night. The numbers, however, can’t be ignored. Of the 271 games that went to overtime this season, 179 (66%) of them have been ended within that five minute time frame. That means only 92 (34%) actually make it to the shootout.
With those numbers proving the shootout is being used less frequently, why get rid of it? The only logical explanation the NHL can give is to have a definitive end to each game and to save time. My question would be: Is the shootout actually saving that much time? Now I know it is impossible to actually predict how much longer those 92 games would have lasted had the shootout been removed, but let me just try to create some ballpark numbers regarding the length of the shootout and go from there. Once the horn sounds, our theoretical timer begins. In this time, players skate to the bench and discuss strategies with each other, coaches set their lineups, and goalies try to get as much last minute information on the opposing shooters as possible.
Let’s just say it takes about a minute and a half once overtime ends for the shootout to begin. Now the shooters skate out to center ice one by one, awaiting the official to signal they may begin their shot attempt. Each player is going to have their own style, some coming in with speed, others slowly gliding in attempting to out-wait and beat the goalie. Let’s just make the average length of each shot attempt from start to finish at about 15 seconds, and the time in between each shot attempt at around 30 seconds. If it goes three rounds and all six shooters make an attempt, this puts us roughly at three minutes and 45 seconds. Now add on the minute and a half between the end of overtime and start of the shootout- we’re now up over five minutes. These numbers aren’t set in stone and are rough estimations after watching many a shootout, but is that extra five-minute skills competition actually worth it?
It’s impossible to miss how frantic the pace can become in three-on-three overtime. If they were to add the five minutes shootout time and make it five more minutes of three-on-three, can anyone seriously believe these overtime games would actually go 10 minutes? In a game that’s all about teamwork and every man playing important roles, why allow it to be decided by a one-on-one skills competition? All it takes is a simple poll of the fans to know that overtime in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is one of the most exciting things in all sports, largely because of the “sudden death” aspect having you on the edge of your seat with each offensive opportunity. If you can create that similar feeling throughout the entire course of the regular season, sometimes to an even greater extent due to only having three skaters on either side, why would they not want to take advantage of this scenario? Not only do the fans enjoy the game, it also makes sure that teams who make the playoffs actually get in based on their actual play, instead of just missing out because they don’t have players who mastered the shootout.
I know the counter to this would be that the most skilled players still thrive in the shootout, but that isn’t exactly true. In fact there are plenty of the top-tier players who don’t have the percentages you would think, or simply don’t like to participate. Example number one would be one of the purest scorers currently playing the game today: Alexander Ovechkin. For how wicked his shot is and just pure talent for scoring, you would think he would be higher than 30.3% for his career. Case number two would be Jaromir Jagr- a career 20% in the shootout, who has repeatedly stated that he doesn’t want to be in the shootout and he isn’t very good at it.
(Photo courtesy of Barry Bloom from Sports on Earth)
The league will be a much better place if teams decide their fate each game by actually playing out the rest of overtime, and quite frankly three-on-three is something even non-hockey fans can enjoy. No longer will teams miss the playoffs because of the shootout, and no longer will fans have to watch two teams battle only to say “I wish overtime could have lasted longer. It’s a shame this one has to finish in a shootout.”