With the NFL all wrapped up, it’s time for Hockey Night in America! A few weeks ago, I watched the extremely exciting Edmonton Oilers play my Detroit Red Wings. The Red Wings nearly got the win in regulation, but the Oilers scored with 39 seconds remaining (highlights here). Four on four overtime favored the fast skating Oilers, and Detroit needed two open net saves from defensemen to stay alive. The Wings are an excellent shootout team, but they lost this one.
The Wings are 7-2 in shootouts this year, which has earned them some extra points in the standings (shootouts fueled their record home winning streak as well). Back in December, I questioned whether these extra points are deserved. Shootouts reward individual skill that may not be related to game performance. In the interest of crowning the best team champion, maybe we’d be better off giving the Oilers and Red Wings one point each and going home at the end of overtime (the dreaded tie . . . ). But do teams that get into the playoffs with many shootout victories actually perform worse once they get there?
I started by calculating shootout-free points totals for every team since shootouts began in 2005-06 (through 2010). In other words, I counted all the shootout games as ties for both teams (one point each, under the old rules). In the spirit of my work on football, I’ll call this “True Wins.” True Wins are meant to measure team quality more accurately than actual wins by correcting for luck and other factors in close games. Shootout wins probably don’t say anything about team quality, so True Wins gives teams no credit for them (it also doesn’t penalize the losing team).
In the playoffs, the team with more points wins 54.6% of all games and 56.7% of all series since ’05-06. The team with more True Wins (i.e., points under the old system) wins 56.6% of games and 61.3% of series during the same period. The team with more points has home ice in most series — True Wins would predict even better if it were used to decide home ice.
Do I think the NHL should do away with shootouts? Yes! However, bringing back ties is not realistic. Instead, they could go to three on three overtime, then two on two, etc. This would limit wear and tear, since you could keep skating time low for every individual, and it would be incredibly exciting. But there’s no guarantee that the better five on five team would win these games either. In fact, if I change all OT and shootout wins/losses to ties, the team with more points wins 63.2% of playoff series. It seems like four on four is already different enough to reward the “wrong” team (the sudden death aspect might have an effect as well).
So, the best strategy for the NHL (in terms of rewarding the better five on five team in each game) is to call a tie after three periods, or possibly play five on five overtime in the regular season. These aren’t feasible options. Why get rid of the shootout then? The shootout is just plain boring, and players don’t like it. Since the optimal policies aren’t feasible, let’s make it really exciting and play some three on three hockey!
Part two of Hockey Night in America! will be coming right up.