The NHL has a unique feature that none of the other three major North American team sports features: instead of using winning percentage to determine its standings, the NHL uses points.
Until the lockout, each NHL game had two points at stake to be divided among the competing teams. If a team won they got two points, losers received no points and if the game ended in a tie, each team got one
point added to their season totals.
After the lockout, the NHL added the shootout and vowed to eliminate ties which they said were unsatisfying to fans. They also wanted teams to “go for it” in overtime as opposed to playing for a tie, so in an effort to add excitement to the game, the league established what I call the “loser point”. Now, teams that win a game get two points, teams that lose a game in overtime or in a shootout get one point and teams that lose in regulation still walk away with no points.
No other sport features this “loser point.” In baseball, teams do not get half a win for reaching extra innings. NBA teams do not get any additional credit in the standings for losing in overtime and in baseball, an extra inning loss is treated the same way a nine inning loss is when you look at each club’s record.
The result is that in the NHL this year, out of 30 teams, only eight clubs are below .500 (if .500 is considered getting one point for each game played). But the statistic is very misleading. In every other team sport, if you add up the record of all the teams in a league, it should equal .500. In the NHL, it’s well above the break even mark.
Look at the Toronto Maple Leafs. In 76 games, they Leafs have 75 points or an official record of 33-34-9. But what does that record actually mean? It means that in 76 games, Toronto has lost 43 times, giving them 33 wins and 43 losses. However, because in nine of those losses, the Leafs lost in overtime or a shootout, they actually received a loser point in the standings for coming close. Toronto has lost 10 more games than it won, but they are only one point below .500 because of the loser point.
To be more fair, the NHL should change the point system and make three points available at each game. A win in regulation should be worth three points, a win in overtime or a shootout should be worth two points and a loss in a shootout or OT should be worth one point. A regulation loser should still receive no points in the standings.
Despite the confusion and unfairness of the “loser point”, it does have one important advantage: It keeps the standings very close. That is why it isn’t going to change its point system in the near future. Weaker teams can lose to superior teams and still earn a point in the standings for their effort. Unlike the 70s and 80s, there are practically no teams in the NHL that are so awful that their season is over by January
1st. The salary cap and the loser point help make this possible.
As of right now, with each team having five or six games remaining on their schedule, only four teams out of 30 have been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. The playoff races keep fans interested and keep them buying tickets and showing up at games. Remember, more than any other league, the NHL depends on ticket revenue to make money.
So while it isn’t fair, and it makes almost no sense, don’t expect the loser point to go away anytime soon. For the NHL, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks.