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Krupa: Time for NHL to fix shootout by abandoning it

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit — Hockey is a team sport in which group effort and strategies are so essential that all the big stars talk about how their contributions must serve the whole to win games, let alone the Stanley Cup.

The primary task is players to work in concert to score or defend.

So it seems odd that precisely when a game is most in the balance, the NHL switches to the individual skills of two players, at a time, to decide one of the hardest-fought victories in sport.

The shootout.

Man, I hate it! I loathe the inappropriateness.

Imagine a home run derby instead of extra innings, in baseball. How about a punt, pass and kick competition instead of the 15-minute overtime in the NFL?

Free throws instead of overtime in the NBA. Any takers?

How about a game of "Horse?"

Absurd? Oh, you betcha!

But we are watching the absurdity for a 10th NHL season because it was decided that one of the most exciting and rarely seen plays in the game, the penalty shot, would make more money.

OK, the euphemisms were "clear-cut outcomes" and "fan interest." But it was about the constant craving for more revenue that afflicts all sport, and clearly not about the integrity of the game.

The Red Wings were one of two NHL teams to oppose adopting the shootout. And Ken Holland's years' long campaign to expand overtime, and the offensive opportunities in the extra period, to decrease the reliance on the shootout, is a noble effort.

But at a meeting of general managers in Toronto Tuesday, it was decided to change the baby-step the NHL took toward more competitive overtimes, a dry scrape of the ice with Zambonis to improve the playing surface. Teams of skaters with shovels will be dispatched, instead.

Minor repairs

And little more consideration was given to more meaningful steps, like more minutes played in overtime, with the use of three-on-three, in addition to four-on-four.

(At the meeting, the managers did review goaltender interference for about 45 minutes, Holland said. The possibility of instituting a coach's challenge also was discussed. Both examinations will continue, and are likely topics for the March meeting.)

The fact the AHL went to longer overtimes — seven minutes, and added three-on-threebeginning with the first faceoff after the four-minute mark — with considerable success this season only proves the point.

Last season, 64.7 percent of overtime games in the AHL were decided by shootouts. This season, so far, it is only 16.7.

Holland said one third of the overtime goals are occurring in the last two minutes, in the AHL.

As for the dry scraping with Zambonis, some teams did not mind the incumbent delay, but others viewed it as too disruptive — especially because some rinks were not making the expected 4 ½ minute time limit.

"The big word everybody uses is buzz kill," David Poile, general manager of the Predators, said.

Starting Saturday, Holland said, teams will dispatch the skaters.

"And then, hopefully after something in the neighborhood a minute-and-a-half or two minutes, we'll be up and running," he said.

I suppose the hope is that the shovels are held so evenly, a task Zambonis are specifically designed to perform, they will improve the ice more than damage it.

Regardless, the shootout is far too common.

OT remedy

It regularly decides 14 percent all NHL games, and currently about 40 percent of all decided in overtime.

That number was as high as 60 percent, recently, Holland said. But mandating that teams make the long line change from their offensive zones this season has helped, if only a bit.

Meanwhile, which individual players have been lousy in the shootout?

Steven Stamkos, Joe Sakic, Marian Gaborik, Paul Kariya and Jarome Iginla — noted snipers, and perhaps all headed for the Hockey Hall of Fame in large part because of their advanced scoring prowess.

Henrik Zetterberg has scored on only 24.1 percent of the shots in his career.

Jimmy Howard, who has been brilliant throughout his career on the penalty shots, has a heck of a time in shootouts. He is not the only one, even in their best seasons, goalies like Cam Ward and Niklas Backstrom had miserable times of it.

So, precisely whose skills are in the competition? Not some of the best performers in the sport, clearly.

For years, now, Holland is advocating meaningful change.

"I understand in these games you've got to have a winner and a loser, and the shootout does that," Holland said. "I've just pushed to have more games decided in the overtime.

"The American league numbers are dramatic.

"I think when we get a bigger body of work and then get to the March meeting, we'll have a closer look at the AHL numbers and the NHL numbers."

Change is plainly in order.

From my perspective, frankly, what was wrong with a tie? It used to be such an honorable thing, in the NHL.

It even yielded one of the great axioms of the game.

"A tie on the road is as good as a win."

We will never see those days, again. But, certainly, four minutes of four-on-four and three minutes of three-on-three before the shootout, or something similar, is far more in keeping with the very spirit, and the heart and soul, of hockey.

It is a good fight.