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In Defense of NHL Shootouts

It's not everyone's favourite, but it's better than baseball's preposterous runner-on-second-for-every-extra inning rule, and it still makes a difference for the standings. It's up for teams to use it to their advantage.
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The shootout. 

Not everybody’s cup of tea when it comes to ending NHL games. However, the alternatives – open-ended overtimes, and/or tie games – are less appealing for many reasons. The shootout is a better game-ending mechanism than Major League Baseball’s preposterous runner-on-second-base-to-start-every-sudden-death-inning rule, and the shootout clearly has an impact on the NHL’s standings. 

It guarantees an ending to games in reasonable times, and although it would be best if the league expands the number of shootout shooters to five (instead of the current three shooter limit), the shootout has become an integral part of the results teams have.

Last season, the Nashville Predators posted 64 points to claim the final playoff berth in the Central Division. Five of their points came from the shootout. They were a league-best 5-0 in shootouts. Take away those five points, and it’s the Dallas Stars (and their 60 points) who makes the playoffs, not Nashville.

Elsewhere, the New Jersey Devils were an NHL-worst 0-5 in shootouts in the 2021 campaign. Had they won all those games, New Jersey still would’ve been eight points behind the sixth-place-in-the-East-Division Philadelphia Flyers, but the Devils at least would’ve hit the 50-point plateau.

I get fan dissatisfaction with the shootout. I really do. It’s not ideal to turn a team game to individual competition, but you have to honestly and expertly try to project what would happen if the NHL allowed unlimited overtime: this hyper-coached league, in which bench bosses on every team are trying their best to instill defensive-mindedness in every player, would have games that drag on through 11 p.m., and possibly longer. Teams would sit back and wait each other out, and arenas would partially empty as fans head back home to pay off babysitters and get ready for work the next day.

The whole entertainment value of the game would be like a slowly leaking balloon; the longer the game went on, the flatter the balloon would become. You need a reasonably quick ending to overtime games, and the NHL’s current system of five minutes of 3-on-3 team play, followed by a shootout, is a reasonable setup to decide a winner quickly. I’d be happier with 10 minutes of 3-on-3, but there is every likelihood the result would be the same after 10 minutes, and you would be back leaning on the shootout to put an end to it. The shootout wouldn’t happen as often, but it would still have an impact on the standings.

And that’s the point – because the shootout will remain in the NHL, its teams have to focus on it to some degree. Teams can play it cool and refuse to openly acknowledge the shootout, but they do so at their own peril. There is a degree of luck to it, but there remains a proper way to prepare for the shootout. Your highest-skilled skaters have to practice taking creative shots they’re going to use in the 1-on-1 showdown. You need a group of snipers to trot out after the 3-on-3 segment ends with no winner. They may not be the top point-getters on the roster – some teams have players who score a lot of goals and don’t have many assists, and they’re precisely the type of players made for a shootout – but players who can thrive under massive pressure, with everyone in the arena’s eyes on them, are the ones who could be the difference between making and missing the post-season.

The shootout is like your local motor vehicle registration office: not necessarily fun all the time, but not going anywhere, either. Some people know how to better navigate it than you do, but that doesn’t mean you can’t improve at it. NHL teams should and do have coaches retained to help out their shootout shooters, but some have really fallen short in it.

Over the past 10 years, the New York Islanders and San Jose Sharks had more shootout wins (49) than any other NHL team. That may not have done much for the Sharks in recent years, but it definitely helped the Islanders grow into a bona fide Stanley Cup contender and ascend in the standings. The stronger teams tended to lead more in the regulation-or-overtime-win category – the top five in the last decade are all recent Cup-winners: Pittsburgh, Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington and St. Louis. But every point matters. And, as we’ve seen in MLB this season, the difference in making or missing the playoffs can come down to a single win.

That’s why the shootout matters so much. The league uses it for practical purposes first and foremost, but it can be crucial to a team’s on-ice success. The better a team performs in it, the more standings points they’re compiling, and that is never a bad thing, especially in the parity-riddled NHL. We should enjoy it more, as it’s likely here to stay.

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