NHL shootout isn’t going anywhere, but it could use some improvements

Correction: A previous version of this story said that many soccer leagues differentiate the points given for standings between victories won in regulation play and on penalty kicks. Penalty kicks are customarily used only in World Cup or tournament play, and no major soccer league uses a differentiated points system. This version has been corrected.


Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom skates away from Florida goalie Scott Clemmensen after scoring the winning shootout goal. Eight of Washington’s 19 victories this season have come in the shootout. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
December 24, 2013

No team in the NHL has won more games in a shootout this season than the Washington Capitals. Eight of the Caps’ 19 victories have come in what many hockey people simply refer to as “the skills competition” that comes after teams have played 60 minutes of regulation and five minutes of overtime without a resolution.

So what does Coach Adam Oates think about the shootout?

“I don’t believe in them,” he said Monday morning after the Capitals had completed their pregame skate at Kettler Iceplex ahead of their game against the Anaheim Ducks at Verizon Center. “I know the fans like it, but that’s because it has kind of a carnival effect.

“I mean, I get it. It’s in the rules, but maybe because I never played with it, I don’t really like it very much.”

Oates’s Hall of Fame career as a player ended in 2004, just before the NHL adopted the shootout in 2005 at the end of the lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season. Finding a way to avoid ties was one of several ways the league attempted to lure fans back to the game.

In a sense, the shootout has worked. Fans love it, and players today, while seeing its flaws, don’t seem to have the issues with it that hockey traditionalists do.

“It’s the way of hockey now, so you might as well embrace it,” Troy Brouwer said. “Plus, it’s fun. If someone’s watching TV and flipping around and they come to a hockey game and it’s going to shootout, they stop and watch. When you’re in one, it’s fun, too, whether you’re shooting or cheering on your teammates or your goalie. I like it.”

The shootout isn’t going away because it is fun and because fans like it. But some believe it now plays much too big a role in the game. There has been talk about extending overtime — perhaps playing five minutes of three-on-three if four-on-four for five minutes doesn’t produce a winner.

Many in hockey also believe — very quietly — the system should be changed.

In soccer, penalty kicks — soccer’s version of the shootout — are customarily only used in World Cup or tournament play. Some think hockey should go in the same direction.

“Yes,” Caps General Manager George McPhee said instantly when asked whether that idea made sense. McPhee understands how much people enjoy the shootout but believes a team should be rewarded for winning a hockey game rather than tying a hockey game and winning a shootout.

“Look, my son [who recently committed to play at Boston College] used to want to see shootout highlights in the morning before hockey highlights,” he said. “I get that. It’s entertaining, it has drama and kids love it. You look around the arena during a shootout and everyone’s standing.

“But I don’t think anyone thinks that it’s the same as winning a hockey game.”

Except the NHL. Shootout wins are not as important as regulation wins when it comes to breaking ties in the standings at the end of the regular season. But for the most part, teams that can win in shootouts with some consistency can usually jump a place or two in the standings by season’s end.

“It feels the same as any other win,” Brooks Laich said. “We’re all pretty black and white. You come back in the room after winning in a shootout, the feeling is the same as after a win in regulation. You lose one, there’s the consolation of getting a point, but you still feel like you lost.”

Laich believes the league should at least study the possibility of a 3-2-1 system. “I think it’s pretty ignorant if you aren’t at least open to looking at changes that might make the game better or fairer,” he said. “Shootouts have become very important in the standings. The [Detroit] Red Wings lost, what, 11 straight shootouts? If they win five or six of them, it makes a huge difference. We’ve certainly benefitted this season from it; there’s no doubt about that.”

Even Eric Fehr, who is 5 for 5 this season scoring in shootouts, isn’t a fan. “I don’t really like shootouts,” he said last week. “I wish we didn’t have them in the game.” Later, he added, “I think it’s too individual. Hockey’s a team game.”

The Caps are 9-14 in games that have ended in regulation this season after Monday’s 3-2 loss to the Ducks. Their overall record of 19-14-4 is buffeted by the eight shootout wins, two overtime wins and four post-regulation losses (one in overtime, three in shootouts).

While the Caps will gladly take the extra points, they are all aware there are no shootouts in the playoffs and their overall record playing actual hockey is 11-15 with the season four games shy of being half over. The fact that the shootout has benefitted his team doesn’t change how Oates feels about it.

“What’s the key to winning shootouts?” he said, smiling. “Luck. Just don’t tell the players I said that.”

The standings bear out the importance of the shootout. The Caps are 13th in the Eastern Conference in wins in regulation or overtime. And yet they are sixth in the standings. The New York Islanders, who have won seven games pre-shootout all season, trail Philadelphia and the New York Rangers for the last playoff spot by just nine points because they have four shootout wins and have picked up a point by extending a game into overtime on seven other occasions.

“It’s never been brought up,” McPhee said about the 3-2-1 system. “And I don’t think it will be anytime soon.”

So the shootout and the importance of the shootout are unlikely to change anytime soon.

“I’d hate to see us do anything that reminded anyone of soccer, anyway,” Brouwer said, laughing. “We wouldn’t want to do that.”

Limiting the amount of luck that decides who makes the playoffs or who ends up with home ice in the playoffs wouldn’t be a bad idea, though, would it? Don’t hold your breath.

For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.

John Feinstein is a sports columnist for The Washington Post and also provides commentary for the Golf Channel and National Public Radio.
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