The Case for ... Three-on-Three Overtime

October 05, 2015

THE NHL has seen four-on-four overtime and decided to take it up a notch—or down a notch, depending on one's point of view. After playing 10 seasons with a five-minute, eight-skater sudden-death overtime period (followed by a shootout if the game remained tied), the league has yanked one skater per side. Overtime will now be a three-on-three free-for-all.

The goal is more goals, and therefore fewer regular-season games decided by the shootout. Last season 55.5% (170 of 306) of games that went to OT ended up in an exchange of manufactured breakaways, numbers that roughly align with the league average since 2005. According to commissioner Gary Bettman, market research shows that fans love the shootout, and many probably do. But is it really a good idea to have a meaningful game decided by an All-Star Game Skills Competition event?

Imagine if the NBA decided that after one overtime period teams should have a free throw contest. Or if Major League Baseball went to a home run derby after 12 innings. Shootouts are entertaining to watch, but aren't necessarily indicative of which team deserves to win a game.

With this in mind, the NHL's Board of Governors voted in June to make a change that will open the ice and leave vast spaces where players can operate. The AHL, the NHL's top-level minor league, proved that the concept works last season when it tried a variation of the format: Teams began a seven-minute overtime at four-on-four and went to three-on-three at the first whistle after the three-minute mark. At the end of the season, 201 of 268, or 75.0%, of OT games had been decided during the extra period—more than double the percentage from the previous season, when only 35.3% games ended before a shootout.

The impact could be even greater in the NHL, which boasts faster, more highly skilled players who will have the opportunity to be more creative offensively. Some teams will no doubt choose to play it safe with a forward and two defensemen, but most will likely opt for a more conventional two forwards and one defenseman—imagine the Kings rolling a line of Drew Doughty, Marian Gaborik and Anze Kopitar. Some coaches may even go all out and put three forwards on the ice together—the Blues and the Bruins have already indicated that they'll give it a try. (In the event of a penalty, teams will skate four-on-three, so that teams will never have fewer than three position players on the ice.) Strategic choices will multiply, and line matching may become impossible. Line changes will be even more deliberate because one sloppy exchange could end the game.

Goalies may be the most affected by the new format, as they face the possibility of five minutes of end-to-end rushes. Having a netminder who stays focused will be important, but having one who stickhandles effectively will be even better, since one good breakout pass can turn a nice save at one end into a breakaway in the other direction.

In the four-on-four era teams seemed content to escape overtime, already having earned a point simply for making it there. The so-called "loser point" was supposed to be an incentive for teams to go for it in OT, but instead, teams played it safe in order to reach the shootout. Three-point games inflated the totals in the standings, muddying the waters of the playoff race (see the 2013--14 Stanley Cup champion Kings missing the playoffs last season by two points after going 2--8 in shootouts). The "numerous" fans that love the shootout may be disappointed at the outset, but after watching the quick pace and end-to-end action of three-on-three hockey, they will no doubt grow to like the alternative even better.

Imagine if the NBA concluded that teams should have a free throw contest to figure out who gets the W. Or if MLB went to a home run derby.

PHOTOVICTOR DECOLONGON/GETTY IMAGES (GABORIK);Marian Gaborik PHOTOJUAN OCAMPO/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (KOPITAR)Anze Kopitar PHOTOANDREW D. BERNSTEIN/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (DOUGHTY)Drew Doughty

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)