Exploring alternatives to the NHL’s loser point system

The current NHL standings points system saw exaggerated outcomes during the shortened 2020–21 season. With 56 games being used to decide the regular season, that made each game worth relatively more in terms of the fraction contributed to overall standings points per game. As such, the loser point also had similar effects. How might a different standings point system affected the 56 game season?

Near the end of the 2020–21 season, I wrote an article on how the loser point affects league parity. In it, I talked about how playing to secure the loser point rather than playing to win was negatively impacting the quality of play in the league. When teams would rather play for a tie than a win to assure at least a single standings point, there is less incentive to score the winning goal in regulation, leading to less exciting third periods.

This problem is the cost of keeping more teams in the playoff race late into the season. Weaker teams can stay in the race further into the season because of the extra-time points they pick up, keeping fans engaged and ticket sales up. Still, the tradeoff bothers me. Ticket sales could also be driven up by an even higher quality on-ice product. In the long run, a better on-ice product can only be good for the league.

With that in mind, here are some point systems the NHL could explore to improve the game.

Alternative point systems

The 3-2-1 point system has been suggested many times before as an alternative to the current system. In this system, a regulation win is worth three points. If a game reaches extra time, the three points are split between the two teams- one for the loser, and two for the winner.

Admittedly, this would not be good for league parity. But, the differing incentives could improve the quality of play. With the risk of losing out on the full three points, teams would be more eager to push for regulation wins, creating exciting last minute pushes to win.

Another option would be to continue to award two points for a win in either regulation or extra time, and no points for a loss, regardless of whether it was in regulation or extra time. This is a glorified win-loss standings points system, with the reason for keeping it as two points for a win being to maintain familiarity in the standings compared to the loser point system. Just like the 3-2-1 system, this changes the incentive to make overtime less appealing, and should also promote offense.

Adjusting the 2021 standings

Here is what the league standings looked like in 2021, along with how each team would have done under the alternative point systems. Would-be changes in standings are indicated with numbers inside brackets.

North Division

TeamWLOTLPoints3-2-1 System2-0 System
Montreal242111597948 (-1)
Calgary26273557752 (+1)

East Division

TeamWLOTLPoints3-2-1 Points2-0 System
Philadelphia 25238587550
New Jersey19307456038

Central Division

TeamWLOTLPoints3-2-1 Points 2-0 System
Tampa Bay361737510472
Dallas231914607746 (-1)
Chicago24257557048 (+1)
Detroit 192710486438

West Division

TeamWLOTLPoints3-2-1 Points 2-0 System
Colorado391348211778 (-1)
Vegas401428211280 (+1)
St. Louis27209638254
Los Angeles21287496842
San Jose21287496442

Of course, assigning different values to an already played season doesn’t tell the whole story. It’s impossible to account for the effects this system would have on team’s strategies and how that would translate on the scoreboard. But still, in particular with the 2-0 system, we can see how the loser point affects the league, with Vegas, Chicago, and Calgary, all moving up in the standings.

The biggest drop in the standings came at Dallas’ expense, as they went from being four points behind Nashville to a whopping 16. As the team that racked up the most points for overtime losses this past season, it is not surprising to see that big a drop, but it shows how a drastically a different system could change up standings and a team’s perceived competitive abilities.

The 3-2-1 system clearly creates a much bigger gap between the top and bottom teams, as it should considering more points are being given out. But those larger gaps are easier to overcome for the same reason. This could lead to incredible playoff pushes by teams coming back from well outside the playoff picture.

Allowing bigger gaps to form between the top and bottom teams could also force teams to improve more and lead to innovation in the game. Teams like the Flames seem to be in a constant rut, not good enough to make a serious run but not bad enough to warrant a rebuild when mediocrity still fills the seats. If teams could no longer stick in the playoff picture by becoming more and more focused on slowing the game down and picking up extra-time points, they would have to become more focused on improving the roster and icing the best team possible.

Needing to constantly improve to avoid falling into the bottom group of teams could inspire more trades and transactions as well as other new ideas to improve team performance.

Other leagues using the 3-2-1 system

The 3-2-1 system is also used already in other leagues. In the SHL, one of the top leagues outside of the NHL, the 3-2-1 system is used. A quick look at their standings tables over the last several seasons shows that aside from the occasional outlier at the bottom or top of the standings, there is still a good amount of parity across the league.

Another example is the World Junior Championships. Each year from late December to early January we are treated to some of the most exciting hockey of the year. The brief tournament seems to always have at least a handful of memorable games involving comebacks or buzzer beaters (or both). Part of this can be attributed to the inexperience of the players, but not all of it.

The seeding round can have massive implications for the playoff, and teams need every point they can get. They have to push for regulation wins, and it creates intensity in the game that has lead to so many great moments over the years.

What’s best for the NHL?

While there is no objectively correct answer to the question of what’s best for the NHL, the loser point seems to always draw a bit of ire from fans and media each year—after all, it’s pretty much guaranteed that at least a couple teams will miss out on the playoffs due to a team ahead of them getting more loser points.

Moving to one of the alternative options might cost teams money in the short run if they can’t stay in the playoff race as long and lose ticket revenue, but the long run implications of becoming more competitive could help alleviate that loss.

The 3-2-1 system even allows teams to keep the loser point, in a way that continues to encourage playing hard till the final buzzer of regulation. While there is no reason to believe a change is imminent, its an interesting idea to think about for the future.

What are your thoughts on the loser point system? Let us know in the comments below or on social media!

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