NHL: Isn’t 3-on-3 Overtime Just Another Kind of Shootout?

by Kolby Solinsky

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From one halfway house to another…

The NHL will, it’s expected, switch their overtime to some sort of 3-on-3 format by 2016. Whether that means it’ll be for the season the ends in 2016 or the season that starts in 2016, we’re not sure. Whether that means it’ll be 4-on-4 for a few minutes and then 3-on-3 for the remainder, or whether overtime will be increased to seven minutes (like it was recently in the AHL), that’s also sort of unclear.

But it’s coming, baby. And there’s one reason for it: the shootout.

Because the NHL hates the shootout. It’s spent the past couple seasons cooking up rules and itineraries to basically phase it out, to toss it in one of those Star Wars pods and eject it to Tatooine. 3-on-3 overtime would be one such tweak – hopefully, if we lengthen the extra period and then open up the ice with less guys on it, there’ll be more scoring and we’ll only have to see the shootout a few times a year. You know, like our families at Christmas and Thanksgiving. Or Doug Wilson and Joe Thornton.

Decent idea, but I’d personally be for 3-on-3 even without considering the shootout. I’d be up for five minutes of 4-on-4, followed by another five of 3-on-3. Just because it’s exciting. Then again, I suppose the shootout can be exciting, too. (Look at that Patrick Kane compilation above. Are you seriously not entertained?)

It’s just that the shootout’s novelty wore off on October 5, 2005. That was the first night the shootout was ever used to decide an NHL regular season game, and it was used in the first game nationally televised that season – the Ottawa Senators beat the Toronto Maple Leafs, 3-2. Dany Heatley scored the winning goal against Ed Belfour. A Toronto team lost, so we all had to pretend to be sad about it, and ever since then we’ve been questioning the shootout’s validity.

And it is a little silly, at least to hand out crucial playoff points that determine seedings or, of course, eliminations and clinches. Then again, the game has to end sometime, right?

And won’t 3-on-3 be just as much of a gimmick as the shootout is? Think about it: We won’t actually be getting 3-on-3 because the NHL thinks it will improve the game or its flow. We’re only getting it because the league doesn’t want to back out of its 10-year breakaway challenge experiment, and so now it’s layering new rules on top of odd rules. By the time it’s finished, we’ll have a Picasso with noses on the forehead and chins in our chest.

I’m not a traditionalist, not in this case. I don’t think shootouts ruin the saintly-ness of hockey and I don’t think 3-on-3 will bastardize overtime. Ties would be worse, after all. And it has to end somehow.

But think about it this way, too: Any team that blames its poor shootout record on the shootout should be pointing the finger at its roster, its coach, and its GM instead. They’ve had 10 years to figure this thing out, maybe even to sign players who specialize in penalty shots or to (at the bare minimum) practice it and prepare for it. And won’t 3-on-3 sort of bring with it the same ticky-tacky, cheapening issues? Daniel and Henrik Sedin are masters of the 4-on-4 overtime, but they’re screwed if they’re forced to drop a player. Wouldn’t Chicago basically just send flanks of Kane-Duncan Keith-Patrick Sharp/Jonathan Toews at you, all overtime long until you wilted? It may work out for the Maple Leafs, finally – they don’t have a legit, first-line playmaker on their entire roster. All they have to do now is tell Phil Kessel to grab the puck and not pass, and he may just win them the game.

But let’s not reward teams that haven’t been proactive enough by giving them a new overtime that just caters to their weakness. It’s their fault if they haven’t made the playoffs, if they haven’t. And if they really miss the playoffs because of a shootout loss or two, I doubt they were going to be good enough to win the Cup, anyway.

The NHL needs to consider the long-term effects all these unending alterations – if it really, truly wants 3-on-3, then it should get itself some 3-on-3. But if it’s just doing this to pander to some mutant faction of fans, who want excitement and thrills but also don’t want to feel shorted when their team loses, then it needs to check itself before it wrecks itself.

The league already made a huge mistake when it (simultaneously) removed the red line and exterminated hooking and holding, clutching or grabbing. You wanna know why so many players are getting concussions now, why they’re being taken out at top speed or why they’re missing whole seasons with head problems? Because you took out the lanes on the highway and increased the speed limits, you dummies!

Think about Back to the Future. Every time Marty McFly even sneezed on somebody, he risked erasing himself 30 years in the future.

Unfortunately for the NHL, they can’t see that far ahead. They never have.