Wednesday, March 11, 2020

The loser point is broken. I can fix it. You're going to hate it.

I'm not a big fan of the NHL's loser point.

You may already know that, if you've read my work or seen my recent twitter rant or ever spoken to me for more than 30 seconds about literally any topic. I've been beating this drum for years. The loser point rewards failure, breaks the standings, and makes games worse by encouraging conservative play late in regulation. The loser point sucks.

Many of you agree. But whenever I bring this up, there's one counterargument I can count on hearing: We need the loser point, because it makes the playoff races closer.

That's been the league's go-to explanation for years, with everyone from Gary Bettman to Brian Burke and David Poile using it to defend the status quo against proposals like 3-2-1-0 or a win percentage system. The races are so close, they tell us, why would we mess with what's working? And yeah, it makes a certain kind of sense. If your favorite team is chasing a playoff spot, they need to bank points to make up ground. The best way to get those points is to win. But if they can also earn points for a loss, well, that helps too. You don't want to see one bad week torpedo your team's chances, and a few loser points can help keep them in the race when the bounces don't go their way.

(I'll pause here to acknowledge that there are other arguments in favor of the loser point, including that 3-on-3 overtime and the shootout are so gimmicky that it's unfair to punish a team for losing that way, so we should treat those as regulation ties and think of three-point games as awarding a bonus to the winner rather than the loser. That's a better case, at least, but it's not the one the NHL itself likes to make – after all, the extra point column on the standings page says "OT/shootout loss", not "regulation tie" or "gimmick contest win". So for our purposes today we'll take the league at its word that this is about keeping those playoff races nice and close.)

More teams in the hunt makes for more excitement, and if we have to award a few extra points to make that happen, it's worth it. That sounds reasonable, right?

Maybe. But only if you don't actually look at the standings. Because the loser point isn't doing what we're told it does, at least not consistently. And it never has.

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