Breaking down how the NHL’s loser point affected 2021 league parity

In professional sports, winning is everything. Well, in most professional sports. In the NBA, MLB, and NFL, teams are not rewarded for losing. But in the NHL, the final of the “big four” North American sports leagues, winning is not everything. Instead, hockey teams are rewarded for wins, but also for losses, as long as they occur in extra time. When a team loses in extra time, they are awarded the infamous loser point.

Why? To increase parity, a characteristic the league hopes sets it apart from its competitors. The loser point is intended to keep struggling teams who keep scores close in the playoff race, making the final stretch of the regular season more exciting as more teams are still in the hunt for a spot. But it’s not all good and well with the loser point. By making overtime losses half as valuable as a win, the behaviour of teams change as close games come to an end.

Teams who cannot compete by way of talent can instead compete by focusing on defense and limiting chances against, and hopefully scoring just enough to force extra time, where accumulating loser points is still a very real strategy for playoff contention. This strategy works as it does keep teams in the playoff hunt, but may not actually be benefitting the league overall.

Parity impacts of the loser point

So, what good is the loser point? If you are of the mind that attracting fans to the sport includes making it more important to play games that are meaningful than to play games that are exciting, then parity is key. This season, the average point difference between the top and bottom teams in a division is 35 points (All standings information is from Sportsnet). After removing the loser point and adjusting the standings, the gap expands to 38 points.

It doesn’t seem like much of a difference considering just how much the loser point is talked about and how important it is for teams in the playoff hunt. It’s not all about the top to bottom spread though, the relative closeness of the playoff races themselves is also important. With today’s current standings, the average team is 5.1 points back of the team ahead of them in the standings. Adjusted to remove the loser point, the new standings would have a slightly larger gap of 5.9 points back.

This isn’t a perfect measure, considering the teams who lose more often pick up more loser points and benefit more from the parity gain than the ‘average’ team. But, they still illustrate that the goal of the loser point, to increase parity, is accomplished. Whether or not its accomplished to a worthwhile degree is another question. With a distinct lack of exciting playoff races at the end of this season, it’s a tough sell right now.

The overall hockey product is affected too

In contrast to its positive impact, the loser point also has a few negative implications. Most notably, the impact it has on play style. In a league rightly concerned about growing the game, what good is it for the league to encourage low scoring tie games? The excitement of hockey is in the pace, the action, and the goals. Hockey is one of the fastest team sports in the world and enticing new fans with the promise of lockdown defense is no way to grow the game, yet this is what the loser point encourages.

Teams recognize that in the loser point system, the cost of taking risks to push for wins is high. As a result, they play cautiously, choosing to assure a single point over pushing for two in regulation. So while the loser point might be making late-season games more meaningful for teams on the playoff bubble, there is no guarantee the quality of those games is high. In fact, because teams are motivated to tie throughout the season, it’s likely the quality of play is being driven down from the spectator’s perspective, as coaches preach defense over offense in games that are tied late.

Not to mention, again, that the point of professional sports is to win. Yet teams in the NHL this season have gotten up to a full 25% of their points from games they didn’t win! This table shows which teams earn the highest percentage of their points in losses.

TeamRecordLoser Point Percentage

It’s pretty clear from the table that some teams are propped up by their ability to push games into overtime. While it’s hardly an issue if teams like Detroit or Columbus pick up points this way, when teams that are in the hunt are pushed past their competitors in the standings not because they won more, but because of how they lost, problems begin to arise.

The loser point stings most for teams like Calgary

The Flames are an example of a team suffering due to the league’s insistence on parity. Ironically, the playoff race in the North Division would be far tighter, and more equitable, without the loser point.

The Flames are eight points behind Montreal in the standings. Both teams have twenty wins in regulation. Even including extra time wins, Montreal has 25 and Calgary is just slightly behind at 23. Yet the gap in the standings is a whopping eight points, because Montreal lost many times in manners that the league rewards.

It’s not that one team has been getting blown out regularly in comparison to the other, either. Montreal has a -11 goal differential versus Calgary’s -14. The parity created in cases like this shows the downside of the loser point, where fans end up feeling cheated at the end of the season, often rightfully so.

There’s always a few teams that get the short end of the loser point stick. This year, the Flames are one of them. To have nearly the same number of wins as an opponent with games in hand, and see yourself still so far removed from the playoffs is the perfect illustration of the injustice of the loser point. If the goal is for teams to try and win as many games as possible, it makes no sense to award points this way. And, with such small parity gains because of the loser point, it’s hard to see the costs being worth the benefits (although fans in Montreal will certainly disagree). The Flames aren’t the only team affected, but it stings nonetheless in this year’s weaker North Division.

At the end of the day, it’s a subjective decision made by the league. Is it preferable to have slightly more parity and less fairness? Is it worth taking away from the excitement of close games by encouraging cautious play? It’s up to the league to decide, but with the loser point being a part of the league for 15 seasons now, it might be time to revisit how the standings are determined in the NHL.

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