Commentary

Time to revisit three-point system

Updated: December 2, 2009, 2:20 PM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

We take you back to this past Saturday night and the three early games we were watching on "Hockey Night In Canada": Washington at Montreal, Calgary at Columbus and Ottawa at Boston.

Within a 10-minute span close to 10 p.m. ET, all three games ended in a shootout, and you think to yourself, "How strange is this?"

Turns out, not so odd at all.

If the 2009-10 NHL season is indeed the Year of the Injury, the Year of the Shootout is giving it a very good run for its money. Through Sunday night, or 381 games so far this season, there were 70 games (18 percent) decided by a shootout, up from 56 through the same number of games last season and 36 during the first season after the lockout.

Is this parity at play? Through Sunday night, 106 games (28 percent) needed extra time (overtime or shootout). On one hand, you can see why the NHL would be thrilled to have such competitive balance. One glance at the NHL standings right now, and it's as if 28 teams are tied (Toronto and Carolina are a little behind the pack).

OK, 28 teams tied, that's stretching it a bit, but there isn't that big a gap between teams. Does that really reflect the talent levels of all 28 teams? Maybe it's just us, but maybe, just maybe, the current points system is not fairly rewarding the better teams.

We say it's time to revisit the idea of three points for a 60-minute victory. In our humble estimation, it would more fairly reward the top teams in this league.

"We should reward excellence, teams going for it and trying to win," one NHL executive, who requested anonymity, told ESPN.com this week. "We shouldn't reward teams doing the rope-and-dope and waiting for overtime to get at least a point."

It has worked for European soccer, hasn't it? So why not hockey?

Let's take you back to February 2004 in Henderson, Nev. The NHL's 30 GMs brainstormed during two days of meetings, with participation from the NHL Players' Association, in what ended up being a historical gathering. This reporter just happened to be among the few media hacks on hand for it. We won't soon forget Colin Campbell, the NHL's senior vice president and director of hockey operations, emerging from the meetings and producing a long list of possible rule changes the league and players would seriously examine: allowing two-line passes (no red line), limiting goalies' ability to play the puck, cracking down on obstruction and implementation of the shootout, among others. It was basically the genesis of the post-lockout rule-change package that helped dramatically change the game we have today.

But there was another item on the Henderson list Campbell distributed: three points for a regulation-time victory.

"I remember it got discussed," veteran GM David Poile of the Nashville Predators told ESPN.com. "It certainly wasn't just a two-minute conversation."

But somehow, by the time the NHL resurfaced after a canceled season and a new package of rules, the three-point win was no longer in the cards. It seemingly died during meetings of the newly created competition committee in 2005, a group of players and GMs that now implements rule changes.

"During the competition committee meetings about the whole rules-change package, this [three-point wins] was certainly a consideration to make the game more exciting and to put more bite into a team's win," Campbell told ESPN.com this week. "We debated it quite a bit, while also taking into consideration blending in the shootout. In the end, this is how we felt the points should align. It certainly has kept a lot more teams competitive and vying for a playoff spot. Yet, it also invites the question, maybe there should be emphasis on the 60-minute game?

"But, at the end of the day, I don't think the three-point game will be opened up again for a while because the competitive balance has certainly been achieved."

It actually came back to the table in February 2007 at the GMs' meeting in Naples, Fla., where it appeared once and for all the idea was canned for the long term.

"I think it's a poor idea," Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke told ESPN.com this week. "I read a detailed study of a soccer league, and they felt it did not make a difference. You would have some teams eliminated from playoff competition by Christmas.

"There is no shame in battling back for a tie," Burke added. "The final minute of regulation, with the target out, is a breathless, agonizing, heart-stopping minute filled with tension and drama; overtime is a continuation of the same, and the shootout is agony and ecstasy for the fans. I see no reason to change. I felt this way when my teams were in first place; I feel the same way now."

At that same GMs meeting in 2007, the league produced a set of standings from one season that showed the difference if three points were awarded for a 60-minute win. Turns out, the standings were not dramatically different. That was enough for Burke, other GMs and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to decide the idea didn't merit further discussion.

But hold on for a second.

"We looked at how the standings would have been with it, and there was actually hardly any change," Poile said. "But how do you really know? Meaning, if there was a three-point system, would the last five minutes of regulation be different than how the game is played now?"

Exactly our point. Doesn't anyone think that if three points were at stake for a 60-minute win, the hockey would be a little different in a tie game late in the third period? Looking at past standings doesn't give you the entire picture.

Still, let's look at this season. Should the Montreal Canadiens really be within just five points of the Atlanta Thrashers? Is that an accurate depiction of how the season has gone for both teams? We don't think so. The Habs have needed extra time in eight of their 12 wins, while the Thrashers have wrapped up business in regulation in 13 of their 14 wins. If you changed the points system, Atlanta would be another nine points ahead of the Canadiens. And deservedly so.

But Poile laughed when we told him about having 28 teams essentially tied in the standings right now.

"Well, what's wrong with that?" he said. "From a manager's standpoint, I'm not so sure I want less parity. Maybe that's selfish, but I don't know, the games seem pretty exciting to me."

The games are exciting; we're not debating that. We're just wondering whether teams are being rewarded fairly.

Poile likes it the way it is but acknowledges our point.

"Maybe this is something we should have in the [American Hockey League] to see whether the game is played differently," Poile said. "If you make a change like that, you want to make sure you know for a fact it'll make the game better. I think when it comes down to it, I don't think the managers feel it makes the game any better."

We've gone this far without addressing the other alternative, simply two points for a win and no points for a loss, no matter whether it was in overtime or a shootout. But that's a total no-go. The shootout would have never seen the light of day in 2005 without the losing point in standings.

"No question, no question," Poile said. "That was a volatile thing. The shootout was a total nontraditional thing for us."

"I don't like the shootouts -- we never do well in them, so maybe that's why -- but I think it's a tough way to decide games," Ottawa Senators GM Bryan Murray. "I think the five-minute overtime suffices. I don't like all the three-point games because of the shootout. I know it's entertaining for the fans, but from the competition point of view, you feel so dejected after losing in a shootout when I think you deserved a better fate for the way you played in the previous 65 minutes.

"But I don't think we need to change the point structure. We've got competitive balance."

That's the question anyone who cares passionately about the game and the league has to ask themselves: Do they care more about parity or fairness?

It says here that if the San Jose Sharks or Chicago Blackhawks or New Jersey Devils are that much better than other teams, the standings should better reflect it. But that's just us.

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.