How to fix the NHL’s 3-on-3 overtime problem

Sports

Hearing someone say that the NHL’s 3-on-3 overtime has gotten boring is like hearing someone say, “Hey, remember when pizza was good?”

It’s pizza. Even when it’s bad, it’s good.

I’ve chanted the same mantra about the 3-on-3 overtime format, which the NHL implemented in 2015 to end games before they reached the shootout. All it takes is one errant shot and a rush the other way before the game detonates in mayhem. At its best, the 3-on-3 overtime encapsulates all the pinnacle of offensive hockey: Kinetic energy, nonstop action, star players making transcendent plays, unpredictable outcomes and goaltenders cursing its very existence.

At its worst … well, it looks like what we’ve seen in overtime this season.

I regret to inform you that they’ve changed the recipe, and the pizza is now inedible.

Through 431 games this season, 94 games have gone past regulation and 60.6% of those games have ended in the 3-on-3 overtime (57 games).

As you can see, this is a significant drop from the previous six seasons:

The last season in which less than 65% of overtime games ended before the shootout was in 2015-16, the first season of the 3-on-3 format (61.1%). The problem that season was that teams were almost too active in trying to generate offense. The average shot attempts per 60 minutes in overtime was 129.8, which remains the highest average in the 3-on-3 era, but only 168 of 275 games were decided before the shootout.

Overtime in 2015-16 could be summed up thusly: all action, no plan.

Gradually, teams found a bit more structure in overtime, and we started to see fewer games reach the shootout as a result. The high-water mark was in 2018-19 when 68% of games that extended past regulation were settled with an overtime goal.

But the confines of structure were antithetical to offensive chaos. The 2018-19 campaign was the third straight season in which shot attempts per 60 minutes of overtime play declined:

Both shot attempts (122.5) and shots on goal (78.8) had a slight rebound in 2019-20. But 3-on-3 overtime basically stepped into quicksand for the past two seasons, producing the two lowest averages for shot attempts and shots on goal per 60 minutes since the gimmick started.

The nadir of the 3-on-3 overtime was the 2020-21 season, when the shots dropped by nearly seven and the shot attempts plummeted by over 12 (!) per 60 minutes. Why did that happen? Say, was there anything unusual about last season? Like a condensed pandemic intradivisional schedule that could have produced unprecedented results in myriad ways?

Unfortunately, it wasn’t an anomaly. Through 431 games in the 2021-22 season — playing a “normal” 82-game schedule with interconference play — shot attempts have increased by only 1.4 per 60 minutes while the shots on goal have flatlined.

Something has changed tactically in the past two seasons, and the critics are right: It’s sucking the fun out of one of the most exciting innovations in the modern NHL.

It’s been clear for years that success in overtime boils down to puck possession, as Alison Lukan recently outlined in a great piece on the Seattle Kraken and winning the opening overtime faceoff. What’s changed is that teams are doing less with the puck when they possess it.

There are 11 teams this season that average under 30 shots per 60 minutes during 3-on-3 play. In 2018-19, there were only four. The Anaheim Ducks possess the puck more than any team in overtime, per Stathletes, and produce the eighth-fewest shots per 60 minutes (22.25). The Minnesota Wild have the fourth-highest puck possession time and the sixth-fewest shots on average (25.84).

All of this is frustrating, but not surprising. In a sense, the demise of 3-on-3 overtime was like watching Tom Wambsgans grab the brass ring on “Succession:” The show literally told us how it was going to play out, and we were all too distracted by Kendall Roy’s “all bangers all the time” birthday playlist to notice.

The self-described “washed-up hockey insider turned booze mogul” Bob McKenzie wrote a prophetic piece on the 3-on-3 overtime in 2015. One general manager told him: “Don’t kid yourself, the coaches will have this dummied down in no time.” One head coach told him: “Give us some time, and we’ll make three-on-three as boring as four-on-four had become.”

But it was this line from another anonymous coach that really foreshadowed the overtime malaise we have today: “[Three-on-three] is a game of keep-away. That’s what it is. And the longer you can keep it away from the other team, the more likely they’ll break down. So, I say let’s slow it down and hold onto that puck for as long as we can.”

Watch any overtime now, and you see that caution. The first shot attempt between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday night was 1:34 into the extra session. The first shot attempt of regulation was 23 seconds into the first period. That’s just to cite a recent example, but how many OTs have featured teams ragging the puck, cycling around their own end of the ice, refusing to take a shot that misses the net and opens the door to offensive anarchy?

Plenty, and there’s evidence to that fact in the average length of overtimes:

Outside of the inaugural one, there hadn’t been a season in which 3-on-3 overtimes averaged more than 2 minutes and 20 seconds before a goal was scored to end the game … until last season (2:25), whose extended duration has carried over into this season (2:23).

Something must change here, lest a truly special bit of regular-season hockey gets transformed into the kind of predictable snooze that the shootout’s been for the past two decades.

So here are a couple of hopes and dreams for the revitalization of the 3-on-3 OT:

Install a play clock

This was an idea floated by Brian Burke back in 2019 — such a sweet, innocent time before both the pandemic and the realization that overtime was boring. “The coaches have ruined it,” he said.

So why not apply a shot clock like in basketball that mandates teams take an offensive chance within a certain period of time?

That’s one notion. But I think at this point, we’d settle for something more akin to the eight-second rule in the NBA, where the player must cross half court in eight seconds after their team inbounds the ball. Get rid of the looping around the defensive zone as the skaters change and teams wait for the perfect rush attempt, and artificially increase the tempo of the action. This could work.

Pray for ingenuity

We’ve all wondered what the brilliant offensive players of the past would have done in the 3-on-3 overtime. Could you imagine Sergei Fedorov with that kind of open ice and the ingenuity he could bring?

It turns out that ingenuity extends to head coach Sergei Fedorov as well. He’s in his first season behind the bench of CSKA Moscow of the Kontinental Hockey League. On Dec. 2 against Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, Fedorov’s team had possession of the puck in the 3-on-3 overtime. He decided it was time to make it 4-on-3 — pulling his goalie with about two minutes remaining in the extra session.

It’s something that he had previously tried in a game back in November, only to lose in a shootout. This time, the Hockey Gods rewarded him with an OT victory, so he did it again four days later against Dynamo Moscow … and won another overtime game. The KHL has the same standings format as the NHL, with two points for any victory and one point for an overtime or shootout loss. Fedorov has said that he loathes the shootout so much that he’d rather pull his goalie and go for the overtime win, which is absolutely baller of him.

Which NHL coach would be bold enough to pull their goalie if they felt the time was right to go all-in on that two-point win? Like, shouldn’t the Islanders be doing that in every overtime at this point instead of, you know, “not trying?”

And there’s one final possible solution…

Dump the 3-on-3

Maybe it’s time. Maybe the Fun Police have finally won, if teams are simply not going to play our overtime reindeer games anymore.

So here’s a thought: Take the lead from Mr. Fedorov and adopt an idea I’ve had for a while, which is dueling power plays in overtime. Except you do it like this: The home team gets one minute of 3-on-2 hockey to score a goal. If it succeeds, the game is over. If it fails, the road team gets two minutes of 3-on-2 hockey to score a goal and win the game — we want to give a home-ice advantage here, but not a carrot to turn the last five minutes of the game into tedium as the home team plays for overtime. Maybe you let the home team “kick or receive” to make it interesting. Who knows?

There are probably other ideas about how to make the pizza taste better, and that should be the main objective here: Saving the 3-on-3 overtime format and returning it to its kinetic glory.

OK, maybe not the “main” main objective. That would be the eliminating the need for a mind-numbing skills competition, conducted without a defenseman playing his position or a pass being attempted, to help determine which teams make or miss the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Which was the whole point of the existence of 3-on-3 overtime in the first place.

Three things about the NHL, COVID-19 and the Olympics

1. I appreciate you giving this column about in-game issues your attention, at a time when we’re not sure whether there are going to be games at all.

We’ve learned in the past year and a half how fast a virus moves, and this week seemed to move even faster. There I was last week in Florida, listening to the NHL tell its board of governors how much revenue was back on track … and less than a week later Ontario was capping arena capacity again due to COVID-19. Here we were, thinking about playoff races and trade deadlines … and now we’re talking about teams missing entire lineups to the positive tests, necessitating the postponement of nearly a dozen games and a tightening of protocols.

These newly issued standards — restrictions on indoor dining while on the road, masking and distancing while in club facilities, daily testing except on days off — will be familiar to the players. It’s what they went through last season, without the added restrictions on road hotel life. They’re what the players have dealt with this season if their teams have had outbreaks. They’ll work under these conditions until Jan. 7, when the added restrictions will be reevaluated and possibly extended.

I’ve been asked whether this will all lead to a shutdown of the season, and I don’t think that’s where it’s headed. First, because COVID-19 isn’t going to shut down too, so what’s the point of postponing swaths of games just to play them under similar (or worse) conditions? Second, because there are a lot of options yet to be explored before reaching that point, from these enhanced protocols to firing up the taxi squads again for reinforcements, albeit with some salary-cap amnesty.

(It remains unfathomable that the NHL and NHLPA haven’t found a way to get salary-cap exceptions for emergency goaltenders this season.)

Of course, all bets are off if local governments make it impossible to play, which is what led to the 2020 season shutdown.

2. I feel for the players. I really do. Most have done everything that’s been asked of them, including getting vaccinated, no matter how they felt about the jab. (With a few exceptions.)

The NHL has said that one of the primary differences between this season and last season is that the players have been vaccinated and, hence, aren’t getting severely sick. They can still get COVID-19. They can still pass along COVID-19. But when they’re vaccinated, and presumably everyone around them should be vaccinated too, then there’s a level of protection that wasn’t there last season.

This naturally has led to confusion among the players as to why the protocols remain what they are. As one player told me recently, before the new rules were put in place on Wednesday:

“We obviously understand that COVID is a serious thing. But you have players that are out and don’t have a single symptom, and you have players that are out who feel brutal. From what we talk about as players, why not treat it like the normal flu? We’re all doing what we can do. If you have symptoms and you don’t feel good, you stay home. If you feel OK, you come to the rink.”

This is something I’ve heard from other players, too. I think they know, inherently, that medical staffs aren’t going to endorse a “play through COVID” change in policy. But this is the current thinking of a good portion of the players. I don’t think you can blame them for thinking it, either. It’s fatigue. It’s frustration. And we all feel it in one way or another.

3. Regarding the Olympics, I keep hearing the same refrain from players who are in the pools for national teams: grousing about the protocols In Beijing, worrying about a quarantine that could span five weeks and that depends on a foreign nation’s medical experts clearing them to leave, but not many of them saying “I’m not going.”

At least not yet.

If there aren’t NHL players at the Beijing Olympics, it’ll be because the league has decided it needs the Olympic break for rescheduled games. And even then, I’m not sure whether that’ll actually happen, what with arena availability issues and having collectively bargained to allow the players to go.

Which is to say that, despite the protocols and the worries about quarantine — including loss of wages — I don’t think the players are going to be the ones to opt out. You’re just not going to get most of them to pass up the opportunity to represent their nations in what is tantamount to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

There will be factions: Some nationalities will be unwavering in their commitment to go to the Olympics — looking at you, “Russian Olympic Committee” — while others will be more hesitant. Some players will be worried about being away from loved ones. Some players will be thinking they can get another shot in a more normal Olympics in four years; other, veteran players knowing this is their last, and maybe only, shot.

Some players won’t go. We’ve already seen Robin Lehner opt out, and it sounded Wednesday as if Erik Karlsson will join him in staying off Team Sweden. They won’t be alone. But they will be the exceptions.

Think about how many players stayed home from the bubble playoffs. Or opted out of last season. Or didn’t get the vaccine. We’re talking single digits.

The “hockey culture” hive mind means you don’t abandon your team. It’s hard to imagine the same groupthink isn’t going to happen surrounding the Beijing Games, especially given the stakes and the domestic pressures that accompany them.


Winners and losers of the week

Winner: Ben Bishop

Shoutout to the three-time Vezina Trophy nominee, who hung up his skates this week due to a degenerative knee injury.

I love interviewing goalies because they’re so introspective about their craft. I’ve had some great conversations with Bishop through the years about everything from goalie equipment restrictions to “wins vs. goalie analytics.” Fascinating guy, great goalie. Bummer that it ended this way.

Loser: Anton Khudobin

In the span of just over a year, the Dallas Stars goalie went from playoff hero to a new three-year contract to two seasons of diminishing returns to an unclaimed trip through waivers down to the AHL. Life comes at you fast.

Winner: LeBron James

What an honor for LeBron to wear this jersey, and it cost him only his share of a $900 million price tag.

Loser: Throwing your jersey

I understand that the Canadiens and Canucks have imbued tossing a jersey on the ice with magic powers of executive expulsion. But the Edmonton Oilers are still a .593 points percentage team and still clinging to a playoff spot. Calm down.

Winner: Trevor Zegras

The Ducks rookie has pretty much appeared on, or been mentioned on, every sports television show and podcast in the past two weeks. There hasn’t been someone who became this famous based on a single pass since Doug Flutie.

Loser: Sonny Milano

And you were there too!

Winner: New voices

The Yotes haven’t had too many wins in recent months, so let’s celebrate this one: They announced a partnership with Univision Arizona to broadcast a “Coyotes Game of the Week” in Spanish. It’s a demographic the Coyotes know they need to access to succeed in the market, and this is a solid step forward.

Loser: Old money

The Sioux Falls Stampede, a junior league team, had a “Dash For Cash” where they dumped $5,000 in $1 bills on a carpet at center ice and invited 10 teachers to scoop up the money. It was quickly criticized for being something out of a dystopian nightmare, and the Stampede apologized.

“Although our intent was to provide a positive and fun experience for teachers, we can see how it appears to be degrading and insulting towards the participating teachers and the teaching profession as a whole,” said the team, in an understatement.


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