Even before anyone had seen it in action, there were those with high hopes for three-on-three overtime. Skill players, in particular, seemed to salivate over its impending arrival.
Islanders star John Tavares figured it would bring back memories of his childhood days, playing “next goal wins” in the backyard. Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom figured it would be “fun hockey.” And certainly on some nights, the NHL’s new overtime format can be an enjoyable spectacle to behold.
But nearly four months into the season, the trend suggests it is becoming less and less a free-form showcase for star players to express themselves and more and more another specialty area over which coaches exert deft control. What St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock predicted before the season would be “absolute chaos” is gradually coming under the rigid purview of the NHL’s whiteboard-scribbling, video-scouring bench bosses. If it looked like shinny in the pre-season, when the Maple Leafs’ Jake Gardiner scored 16 seconds into a September game in Montreal, it’s shinny no longer.
“There’s a lot of strategy that’s going into it now,” said Joffrey Lupul, the veteran Maple Leaf. “At first it was just kind of crazy. It’d be over in a minute or two. But now the pace has certainly slowed down. It’s a little bit more of a chess match.”
Certainly there are numbers that back up that point. According to statistics compiled by the Toronto Star’s Andrew Bailey, the month of October saw 70% of overtime games concluded in the extra frame — a huge jump over the 44% settled with four-on-four overtime last season. In that sense, it was mission accomplished for the NHL, since a primary goal of the reduction of on-ice manpower was to ensure fewer games went to a shootout.
Still, October’s 70 per cent success rate has been on the decline every month since. In November, 67 per cent of overtime games ended before the shootout. In December, 60 per cent. And in January, heading into Monday’s games, that number was down to 59 per cent. And as for the slower, chess-like pace: It’s certainly taking teams longer to score in the fourth period. In October and November combined, a typical NHL overtime lasted about 2:20. So far in January, the extra periods have lasted an average of 2:59.
“I think at the beginning of the year it was a little more free and a little more exciting,” Toronto forward Nazem Kadri said. “But now that we’ve played a little more, it becomes more of a strategy.”
In some NHL markets, three-on-three overtime is being seen as a big hit. In Chicago, for example, where the Blackhawks had won a league-high eight overtime games heading into Monday’s action, there’ve been raves for the format. The idea that Jonathan Toews was leading the league in overtime goals with four — well, what’s to complain about? Looking at Toews’ success in the extra frame, one can make an argument that three-on-three action is doing exactly what the NHL wanted it to do — putting the spotlight on star players while giving them room to operate.
Others, though, haven’t been as enthused. A few weeks into the season Winnipeg’s Dustin Byfuglien was calling the format “a terrible part of hockey.”
“It feels more like a bag skate for players like me,” Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson, a two-time Norris Trophy winner, told reporters less than a month into the campaign. “It’s not really hockey. It’s whoever holds on to the puck longest . . . I don’t see why we would keep it.”
The league, which mulled the change for years before finally committing to it this season, will almost certainly keep it for the foreseeable future.
Before the season began there were concerns that, along with tiring out the league’s best players, it would be hellish for goaltenders. Former netminder turned broadcaster Darren Pang expressed his opinion that asking goaltenders to stop odd-man rushes on ice of questionable quality could be a recipe for injury.
“It is definitely harder on your body,” said James Reimer, the Toronto goaltender. “There’s just more work. And there’s more scrambly play. But you’re scrambling a ton in practice, too. Think about it in terms of Grade A scoring chances. In four-on-four there was maybe one. Now there’s two or three. Two more extra (saves) is probably not going to make a difference.”
If Reimer has seen more scoring chances, he also noted the increasing tendency for teams to cycle the puck in overtime. More than one player suggested it’s a tactic being encouraged by coaches to wear down the opposing team. Thanks to the long change — in overtime a team’s bench is on the opposite side of centre from its defensive zone — pinning an opponent’s players in their own end can make it nearly impossible for them to get off the ice in favour of reinforcements.
“I’ve been out there, one time, for what felt like a couple of minutes,” said Kadri, whose team is one of two franchises that have yet to score in overtime this season. “It felt terrible. It just takes everything you have to get back to the bench.”
Lupul considered the scenario of worn-out defenders gasping for breath.
“Is that good hockey? Guys making plays against guys who’ve been out there for two minutes?” he said. “They’ve said it’s more game-like than the shootout. But is it? I don’t know. It’s tough to tell. You see guys skate the puck into the opposing zone and then turn around and skate it back into their own zone . . . I don’t much care for watching it. But everybody has an opinion.”
Whether it’s good hockey or not, a derivation of it will be featured this weekend, when the NHL’s all-star festivities debut a three-on-three tournament between representatives from the league’s four divisions. Tournament games tied after the regulation 20 minutes won’t be followed up by, say, a two-on-two overtime: They’ll be decided by a shootout.