Pros and Cons of 3-on-3 Overtime

A little while back, we talked to you about the NFL’s new rule regarding PAT attempts and how it might impact the game, not to mention how it might affect those with a penchant for handicapping the sport of football. Well, the NFL isn’t the only major American sports league with some new ideas regarding how their game might be played. The NHL has been considering a rule change for a while, and it looks like they’re finally going through with it at the start of next season. We’re talking, of course, about 3-on-3 overtime.

One of the major reasons for adopting the change to 3-on-3 overtime is the hope that it will reduce the number of shootouts. In December of 2014, one shootout between the Florida Panthers and the Washington Capitals went to twenty rounds. There are those who enjoy this sort of thing, but many would rather watch a good old-fashioned hockey game than what basically amounts to a contest of one-upmanship that really only involves one particular skill. But there’s more to the new 3-on-3 overtime rule than that. Let’s take a look at how it got approved, how it will work, and how it will affect the game.

Approval of 3-on-3 Overtime

First of all, before we get to 3-on-3 overtime, let’s address the fact that this isn’t the only change hitting the NHL next year. When the Board of Governors approved 3-on-3 overtime, they also approved a new rule regarding video replays. More specifically, they approved the ability of coaches to challenge goals scored on plays that might be subject to offside violations or goalie interference. In addition to this, defensive players must now always declare first (place their stick on the ice) when engaging in a faceoff. The responsibility to declare first was formerly held by visiting players, regardless of their proximity to their own goal. Now, this is only true if they are facing off at the center-ice dot. In addition to all of these changes, a salary cap increase of up to $71.4 million was also enacted.

These changes, along with the approval of 3-on-3 overtime, indicate that the Board of Governors was already set to approve some changes to the sport. However, that does not mean that the change came easy. During the Stanley Cup Finals, before the Cup was given to the Chicago Blackhawks to do who-knows-what with it, many of the above changes were discussed by the NHL Competition Committee. For the most part, they approved all of the changes that were listed. With one exception.

They weren’t quite certain that they wanted to approve the change in format to 3-on-3 overtime. They discussed the issue at considerable length, but they could not reach anything approaching a unanimous decision, or even a decision by majority. They more or less tabled the issue after initial discussions, and elected to discuss the matter further as the time approached for the Board of Governors to make a ruling on it. As previously stated, the primary draw for many general managers was that 3-on-3 overtime could help to limit the number of shootouts. But that alone was not enough to ensure that everyone on the Committee would be keen on the idea.

In the end, however, the decision was approved. And in many ways, this wasn’t too surprising. Some members of the Washington Capitals, who lost the twenty-round shootout we mentioned above, voiced their opinions on the matter back in May. Defenseman Nate Schmidt had one of the most well-reasoned opinions on the subject: “One team could dominate in overtime, then just make it to a shootout. Whereas now you have to make sure you’re playing well. If 3-on-3 comes and you’re not playing well, then it’s going to be over real quick.”

That may sound like nothing but sour grapes stemming from the Capitals’ loss to the Panthers a few months beforehand, but they probably aren’t the only players who feel that way. Today’s Slapshot points out that the Los Angeles Kings might have made it to the playoffs this year if not for the eight shootouts they lost. Some may feel that shootouts are simply a part of the game and that the players should grin and bear it, but the point still stands that the players, the managers, and apparently the Board of Governors were all ready to see a change. And that’s exactly what they got.

How 3-on-3 Overtime Works

Under most circumstances, it’s best to leave the goalie at his post instead of pulling him. (REUTERS/Blair Gable)

Under most circumstances, it’s best to leave the goalie at his post instead of pulling him. (REUTERS/Blair Gable)

Many believe that the NHL was inspired by the AHL when they decided to start examining the possibility of 3-on-3 overtime. But the two formats are not the same. When the AHL adopted 3-on-3 overtime for the 2014-2015 season, they had some pretty specific regulations. After a game resulted in a tie, the surface of the ice would receive a dry scrape and the teams would switch ends of the rink upon their return. They would then go into a sudden death period of 4-on-4 for three minutes. After three minutes was up, a whistle would blow and they would switch to a 3-on-3 overtime format for the last four minutes of their seven-minute overtime period. If things were still tied up by the end of seven minutes, they’d enter into a three-player shootout.

Some of those same rules will still apply to the NHL’s new 3-on-3 overtime format. For instance, the shootout has not been eradicated altogether; if a tied game results from overtime, a shootout of three rounds will occur. The ice will also be shoveled both prior to overtime and prior to any possible shootout. Also in keeping with the AHL regulations mentioned above, goalies will change ends prior to overtime, as well as prior to any shootout that may occur.

Broad Street Hockey provides a pretty decent breakdown of the whole thing. There you can see what some of the major changes to the new 3-on-3 format will be. First of all, while the AHL only had partial 3-on-3 overtime (four minutes following three minutes of 4-on-4 play), the NHL will not be doing this. Their overtime period will last for just five minutes, and the teams will be playing 3-on-3 the whole time.

There are some exceptions to this. While it is stated very explicitly in the new rules that no team will ever have less than three players, they still might have more. For instance, penalties will result in one team taking a power play. This will give them an advantage, as they will then be playing 4-on-3, or 5-on-3 if a second power play is given. They might even start the 3-on-3 overtime period with an extra player if the other team has taken a penalty during the regulation period that carries over into the sudden death period. This was already the case before the 3-on-3 overtime format, the difference being that players are now added rather than players from the penalized team simply being sent to the penalty box.

The other possible exception to 3-on-3 overtime results if one team decides to pull their goaltender in order to put an extra man on the ice. This means that a team could potentially take a 6-on-3 advantage if they already have two power plays. However, pulling the goalie under any circumstances is something of a risk. Not only is there the general risk of leaving the goal untended, but teams also risk forfeiting the point they earned for the tie if the other team manages to score on their empty net.

Benefits of 3-on-3 Overtime

It is hoped that 3-on-3 overtime will help to cut back on shootouts, such as the 20-round marathon between the Florida Panthers and the Washington Capitals. (Robert Mayer/USA TODAY Sports)

It is hoped that 3-on-3 overtime will help to cut back on shootouts, such as the 20-round marathon between the Florida Panthers and the Washington Capitals. (Robert Mayer/USA TODAY Sports)

We’ve already mentioned that one of the primary reasons for the adoption of 3-on-3 overtime is the desire to cut down on the number of games decided by a shootout. But just how often does this happen? Well, quite a bit. Yahoo Sports blog Puck Daddy crunched the numbers, and they’re pretty staggering. While only 23-24% of games have gone into overtime since 2005, over half of those games have been decided by a shootout. They place the actual number of games to be somewhere around 160 per year.

While there’s no way to be certain, they think that this can be reduced to about 74 games per year once 3-on-3 overtime has become the norm. This is less than half as many shootouts as before, and comes out to a rough average of about 2.5 shootouts per team. Given that the article we linked earlier on the Los Angeles Kings stated that they had only missed the playoffs by three or four games after losing eight shootouts, it seems that their problem would be more or less resolved by these numbers. Many teams may still not like the shootouts when they occur, but at least they’ll know that their success as they vie for a spot in the postseason will be largely determined by the skills of the team rather than what many refer to as a basic skills competition.

Another possible pro of 3-on-3 overtime is similar to one of the major things we discussed in our article regarding the NFL’s new PAT rule. This is, of course, the fact that new rules often result in new strategy. In fact, this could be said of a couple of the new NHL rules being enacted next season.

For instance, the new rule regarding the coach’s challenge indicates that a timeout must be available. The fact that it was stated that it must be “available” rather than that it must be “used” implies that teams will likely keep their timeout if their challenge is upheld, but lose their timeout if their challenge is disregarded. This will add a little bit of strategic thinking, as coaches will have to be absolutely sure that their challenge is worth making or else risk losing a timeout that may have proven valuable later on.

But 3-on-3 overtime is where the true breadth of potential new strategies will lie. After all, when you’ve only got three players to work with, who do you put on the ice? There are a few different ways to configure a three-player team, and coaches will likely have to play around with various members of their roster to figure out through trial and error what works best for their team. And even once they’ve figured out their best overtime players, those players still have to strategize how they intend to work together to both score and defend when they’re up against a relatively evenly-matched team with a lot of ice to work with. An article detailing the exact same changes as they are being made in the ECHL points out that this new rule is likely to thrill the absolute pants off of hockey fans.

Drawbacks of 3-on-3 Overtime

NHLPA executive Mathieu Schneider isn’t 100% confident that 3-on-3 overtime will accomplish the goals they’ve set for it. (YouTube/NHLPA)

NHLPA executive Mathieu Schneider isn’t 100% confident that 3-on-3 overtime will accomplish the goals they’ve set for it. (YouTube/NHLPA)

While there aren’t necessarily a whole lot of cons associated with the new 3-on-3 overtime rule, it would be somewhat dishonest to say that there are not at all. In fact, there are only a few major drawbacks that we (or anyone else we’ve looked at) can seem to identify. The first concerns the purity of the sport, while the second concerns the same depth of strategy that we just listed as a benefit. There are also a couple of others, which will be addressed last.

The first drawback is relatively cut and dry. There are those who do not like to see changes made to a sport, no matter what the reason. Many hockey fans have been watching and enjoying the same sport for years on end, and there’s a bit of nostalgia wrapped up in the way things are done. So changing a rule of any kind won’t sit right with some of them, because they’ll feel as if they’re watching something completely different. Many people despise the shootouts, but there are probably a fair number of purists who enjoy them quite a bit. They also probably enjoy the standard overtime format, and don’t want to see the number of players on the ice lessened once 3-on-3 overtime takes over.

Todd Nelson, recent head coach of the Edmonton Oilers and current coach of the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins, has mimicked this sentiment in calling the switch to 3-on-3 overtime “a bit gimmicky,” stating that he prefers tradition. Luckily for Nelson and other purists, the new 3-on-3 overtime rule will only affect the regular season. The playoffs for the Stanley Cup will follow the exact same format that they have always had.

The second major drawback pertains to the sheer amount of open ice that players will have to work around. Right winger Colin McDonald of the New York Islanders worries that this might actually slow some games down a bit. Players will be too afraid to risk losing possession due to the high stakes involved, and so they won’t be as inclined to take a shot when they have the opportunity. It’s hard to say whether or not this is going to be particularly huge issue, but it’s certainly something to think about for the fans who think that 3-on-3 overtime is going to deliver fast-paced and exciting action by helping to cut down on shootouts.

Mathieu Schneider, former NHL defenseman and current executive for the NHL Players’ Association, points out one more problem. Namely, we don’t even know if 3-on-3 overtime will work. It’s meant to cut down on shootouts, but so far all we know is that a different version of partial 3-on-3 overtime helped to accomplish this in the AHL. According to Schneider, rule changes based on other leagues “don’t always have the intended effect when we bring them to the NHL because the players are more consistent and more talented.” He also worries that 3-on-3 overtime might be overly taxing for the players on the ice, a sentiment he shares with Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty, who finds 3-on-3 to be tiring but supports the move due to his team’s current performance in the shootout.


Hopefully, 3-on-3 overtime will leave some space on the ice for a few decent 1-on-1 match-ups between key players. (Bill Wipper/NHL)

Hopefully, 3-on-3 overtime will leave some space on the ice for a few decent 1-on-1 match-ups between key players. (Bill Wipper/NHL)

The truth is that we really won’t know what kind of impact 3-on-3 overtime will have on the NHL until we start seeing it in action. It may be taxing on the players, but they might also spend less time in overtime, which would even things out. Players might be hesitant to work with so much more ice than usual, or they might take the opportunity to utilize new strategies. It might cut down on shootouts, or it might not change much at all. Fans might love it, or they might think it’s just the worst thing ever.

There’s a lot of “ifs” involved in this new rule, so we don’t want to come down too hard on one side or the other. Either way, to all of our sports bettors out there who like to bet on hockey, be prepared to alter the way you handicap your games. Because there’s no telling what new strategies may lie in wait once the new season starts on October 7 of this year. Teams will have some time to practice possible overtime lineups by then, so hopefully we’ll see some new and improved strategies early in the season.