It is amazing to see how the “loser point” has changed the NHL game. The last season before its introduction was 1998-99. Back then, you got two points for a win, one for a tie and nothing if you lost in overtime. There was no shootout.
That year, the two worst teams in the NHL as we threw out our Halloween costumes were the Colorado Avalanche (2-6-1) and San Jose Sharks (1-6-2). They were four and five points out of the playoffs, respectively. The Avalanche were a powerhouse and recovered to finish second in the Western Conference and reach the conference final. Their first-round opponent? The Sharks.
That simply does not happen anymore. Since the shootout entered the NHL, we’ve never had a season in which two teams came from that far back to make it.
It’s undeniable that teams tend to have a tougher time coming back to make the playoffs than they once did but I’m not sure that the loser point is the reason for this. To start with, the loser point doesn’t exist, although that’s sort of a semantic distinction. The biggest issue, I would think, is that there are more teams now, which raises the cutline for the playoffs.
In the 1998-99 season that Friedman’s discussing, the Western Conference had 13 teams. One of those, the Nashville Predators, was a newborn expansion team and pretty much guaranteed not to be in the playoff discussion. They were just making up the numbers. I suspect that parity plays into this as well – the Western Conference was kind of a backwater in the late nineties. By 2006, the effects of expansion were pretty much gone. The newest teams in the NHL were entering their sixth season of hockey (fifth season of NHL hockey).
As you add more teams, the playoff cutline is going to rise. Even if the NHL hadn’t adopted the Bettman point, with an extra point for winning games in OT, it would be harder to make up an early deficit today than it was in the late 1990s because more teams makes it likely that the team finishing in eighth will have more points than it did when there were fewer teams. You don’t really need any fancy math to see this – just go back and look at the standings from a season in the 1980s, when the NHL had 21 teams. There’s the Leafs, with 52 points, making the playoffs.
I think it’s fair to say that OT/SOL points (or, more precisely, the points that the winning team gets) lessen the effect of skill in the NHL standings. I’m not convinced that they’ve made it any more difficult to make the playoffs. Colorado’s 98 points in 1998-99 would have still made it today. San Jose might not have been able to make it back but then, if the 1998-99 NHL featured 15 mature teams in each conference, it would have been much more difficult to overcome a bad start then as well.
(Let’s all just not think about whether there are any implications for the 2013-14 Edmonton Oilers here.)Email Tyler Dellow at firstname.lastname@example.org