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The New York Rangers Are Exciting. That’s Hurting Their Playoff Chances.

The New York Rangers have been on some kind of a roller-coaster ride this season. Coming off a pair of rebuilding years and picked to finish in the lower half of the league again this time around, the Blueshirts nonetheless featured a bevy of exciting players, such as high-scoring winger Artemi Panarin. But they started ice cold and spent most of the season’s first half just trying to break even. Recently, though, New York had been ascendant; perhaps as a result, the team even declined to sell off prized trade-chip Chris Kreider at last Monday’s NHL trade deadline. Krieder, of course, suffered a long-term injury almost immediately thereafter, and a pair of losses in a weekend home-and-home against the Philadelphia Flyers left the Rangers’ playoff odds hanging in the balance at 29 percent, according to Hockey-Reference.com.

The Rangers are one of the youngest teams in the league, so we might have expected this kind of up-and-down performance out of them. But there’s something else keeping them from a playoff position: New York wouldn’t be battling it out like this if not for the NHL’s bizarre standings format and the weird incentives that emerge from it.

Since 1999, the NHL has given 2 points to the winner of each game and 1 point to a team that loses in overtime. (At the time, this was done to make teams more aggressive late in overtime rather than taking a tie.) Starting in 2005, the league instituted a shootout to break ties after overtime, which also carries a 1-point consolation to the losing team. Fine. But all of this means the average regulation game in the NHL carries with it, by definition, a points percentage of .500, since a game decided before overtime gives 2 points to the winner and zero to the loser. And the average overtime (or shootout) game carries an average points percentage of .750, since the winner will always get 2 points and the loser 1 point.

Because of this fact — that an average overtime game is inherently worth more points than the average regulation game — teams with more overtime contests as a share of all their games will naturally rise in the standings. So logically, it follows that teams should play for the tie during regulation to get to overtime. And the empirical evidence bears this out, with goal-scoring rates for both teams dropping sharply in the final regulation minutes of a tied game.

Why does this matter to the Rangers? Basically, they haven’t played enough safe, boring hockey this season, in accordance with what the rules reward. As a result, not enough of their games have been tied at the end of regulation — which, in the wacky world of the NHL, ends up hurting a team in the standings.

Among NHL teams this season, only the Detroit Red Wings (eight games) have had fewer of their contests decided after regulation than New York’s nine games. And it has plainly been to the Rangers’ detriment. If they maintained their .778 point percentage in overtime and shootout games but played in a league-average number of them, their overall point percentage would rise from .569 to .592, which would cause them to go from 10th in the conference (and out of the playoffs, trailing the Carolina Hurricanes’ .586 mark to be on pace for the East’s final wild-card slot) to seventh (and ahead of Carolina’s pace and in wild-card position). So the Rangers’ lack of overtime games could very easily be the difference between making the playoffs and not.

Which teams would benefit from more OT games?

2019-20 NHL teams with the biggest gains (or losses) in points percentage in a hypothetical in which each team had a league-average share of its games* go to overtime

Biggest gains Regulation OT/Shootout Overall Points %
Team % of Gms Pts % % of Gms Pts % Actual Hypothetical Diff
Red Wings 88% .203 12% .688 .261 .316 +.054
Sharks 83 .389 17 .818 .462 .489 +.027
Rangers 86 .536 14 .778 .569 .592 +.023
Kings 80 .340 20 .769 .424 .440 +.016
Wild 83 .519 17 .682 .546 .557 +.011
Biggest losses Regulation OT/Shootout Overall Points
Team % of Gms Pts % % of Gms Pts % Actual Hypothetical Diff
Canadiens 69% .391 31% .786 .515 .483 -.032
Islanders 70 .533 30 .789 .609 .593 -.017
Blue Jackets 67 .533 33 .682 .582 .568 -.014
Senators 73 .354 27 .667 .439 .427 -.013
Stars 72 .553 28 .806 .623 .612 -.011

*The average 2019-20 NHL team has seen 23 percent of its games go to overtime or a shootout.

The hypothetical points percentage uses each team’s actual Pts % in each type of game but weights them relative to each other in proportion to the league-average share of games that went to OT, instead of using the team’s actual share of OT games.

Source: Hockey-Reference.com

Again, this would have nothing to do with the Rangers’ relative success rate in either regulation or overtime games, but rather depend solely on the share of their games that happened to fall into each category. Among teams this season, only the Red Wings and San Jose Sharks would see a bigger boost if they played past regulation at an average rate, and neither of those teams are in the playoff picture. Because of this, New York is this season’s best illustration of why it actually is better for teams to play for overtime.

Plenty of people have suggested ways to fix this perverse incentive structure. Some proposals call for regulation wins to be worth 3 points, keeping overtime/shootout wins worth 2, which would boost the reward for winning before overtime — and make it so a .500 record was average again, since all games would hand out exactly 3 total points. (This would be my favored solution.) My boss, Nate Silver, and others have argued that the indefinite sudden-death overtime format of the playoffs should just apply to the regular season as well, since most OT games are settled quickly anyway. Perhaps they could even keep playing it at 3-on-3, which is a great way to increase the odds of someone scoring.

(The league has chosen to ignore the problem entirely and instead is focusing its rule-changing power on eliminating emergency backup goaltenders, which only gave hockey one of the best sports stories of the year last month.)

As it is, New York probably has the talent to be a playoff squad — the Blueshirts have the NHL’s 12th-best adjusted goals-per-game margin, according to Hockey-Reference’s Simple Rating System. And maybe they still will make it. But the standings format has done New York no favors in that regard. You might expect the league to reward exciting play and discourage teams from playing for the tie most of a game, but the way points are currently handed out, teams automatically look better the more they let games go to overtime and shootouts. If the Rangers want to play deeper into the spring, that’s a lesson they’d be smart to heed down the season’s home stretch.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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