Former Minnesota North Stars GM Lou Nanne was in the press box at the Air Canada Centre this past week and was talking about the state of the game. He said he recently went golfing with Bob Pulford and Harry Sinden and recalled the conversation was dominated by how many less-than-exciting NHL games there have been this season.
And Nanne’s not the only one. An authority no less than Wayne Gretzky recently chimed in on the subject and said that hockey at all levels, “lacks creativity and imagination.” Not sure that’s true. There’s lots of creativity and imagination in the game. Just go to your local arena and watch a minor hockey game and see some of the special things these kids can do. The creativity and imagination is there, but it’s being sucked out by astute and well-meaning coaches. The Toronto Maple Leafs are a good example of that. They used to be bad and exciting. Now they’re bad and boring. But they’ll get better and the only way they’ll get better is to play that way. And no amount of shrinking goaltending gear is going to change that.
“All in all, it’s sort of a grinding game now,” Gretzky recently told the New York Times. “You’re taught from Day 1 that your role and responsibility is to keep the puck out of your net.”
One area, though, where things have become far more exciting and productive in the NHL this season is in overtime. Simply put, 3-on-3 overtime for five minutes has been a huge success. And it goes beyond the numbers, which are a testament to its effectiveness on their own. Going into the last weekend of the season, there have been 271 games that have gone beyond 60 minutes and 166 of those have been decided in overtime. It’s the first time since the shootout was established in 2005-06 that there have been more games decided in a game situation than in a skills contest. Overall, 61.3 percent of games that ended in regulation ties have been decided in overtime, compared to just 45.5 percent last year. Overall, since the shootout was introduced, only 43.2 percent of games have been decided in overtime prior to this season. Overall, fewer than nine percent of all games end up going to a shootout.
The architect of the plan is pleased with what he sees. “Personally, I think it’s been a total home run,” said Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland. “I don’t think we could have asked for anything more when we made the decision.”
Pretty difficult to argue with Holland when you see goals such as the one scored Thursday night by Vladimir Tarasenko of the St. Louis Blues:
The advent of 3-on-3 overtime is the most exciting wrinkle the NHL has developed since the obstruction crackdown after the lockout in 2004-05. More than a decade later, obstruction has found its way back to prominence and the rodeo is in full swing. It remains to be seen whether or not coaches will find a way to stifle 3-on-3 play, but they were largely unable to do so in the first season. Holland said the ideal percentage of games going to overtime would be somewhere in the 65-percent range. The league is not quite there yet and may never get that high, but the games that go to 3-on-3 are choc full of the kinds of plays that make the game so exciting. Sometimes the extra five minutes is the only redeeming part of the game.
“There have been more goals, but even in those games where there hasn’t been a goal, most nights there are scoring chances,” Holland said. “The games that I’ve seen, even the ones that weren’t decided, have been more entertaining. There are scoring chances, there are breakdowns, there are 2-on-1s, breakaways, stretch passes. If you’re not entertained by 3-on-3, I don’t know how much more we can do.”
It’s probably more a coincidence than anything, but it’s all but certain more games will be decided in regulation this season. In the past five full seasons, the league has had 300 or more games go to overtime – with the exception being 2010-11 when 297 went beyond 60 minutes. With just 276 going to overtime so far this year, even if all 18 games from Friday through Sunday go to overtime, it will still set a low-water mark in that category.