There are numerous, fundamental reasons why the NHL’s decision to move to a 3-on-3 is a flawed and misguided one, trying to solve a problem of their own creation. While sidestepping the history lesson, the NHL turned to the shootout to entice the casual fan, but then decided that they shouldn’t matter because it’s not real hockey. As a solution 3-on-3 still isn’t actual NHL hockey, but it does have a vague team aspect to it to resolve regular season games and avoiding shootouts, because removing shootouts entirely wasn’t an option. That the initiative is exceeding that low bar is empirically clear even about 20% of the way through the regular season.
Even the purists who align themselves with a solution that somehow loses the charity point that artificially inflates standings points (with 3 on 3 now doing so for individual scoring statistics) will through gritted teeth admit that 3 on 3 is at least exciting. But just because the situation is tense doesn’t mean that it’s actually well played or even a facsimile of the up and down pond hockey the flapping heads want to label it as.
One of the aspects of the NHL version of the game that makes it the premier league in the world and the most representative of the pinnacle of what the sport can be is the confined space. As the athletes get larger and faster themselves along with lighter and stronger equipment while the playing surface remains the same, every inch of the ice comes at a premium, and acts of style and panache are that much more impressive when done in a phone booth. The neutral zone in particular will always be by its very nature the most hotly contested area of the ice, where consistent possession within it will tilt the outcome in a team’s favor over the course of a 60 minute game and a 7 game series.
Except in 3 on 3, where the strategy now seems to be concession on every coach’s part.
Because NHL coaches inherently coach scared, 3 on 3 overtimes see players without the puck rarely give so much as a fly by on a forecheck even on the most offensively aggressive teams like the Hawks. One missed pressure can lead to a favorable odd man situation going the other way, and with it the extra point. Even when in their own zone, defending teams rarely pressure a puck carrier directly, fronting him akin to a penalty kill even at even strength, because losing that man means that help has that much further to come and by then puck is already likely gone. As a result, teams are conceding basically two thirds of the ice, and allowing attacking teams a clear path through the neutral zone and zone entry.
Now not every team takes advantage of this, as the Anaheim Ducks put on display two nights ago where Ryan Getzlaf inexplicably left a drop pass for no one except Mikkel Boedker, who gave many a Hawks fan April 2012 flashbacks with his OT game winner. And as life-affirmingly hilarious as Getzlaf’s misfortune was, it’s an exception that shows the rule; just look at how the play unfolds. Concession of the neutral zone up until the blue line, and the last forward who was caught deep, Max Domi, not even thinking about pressuring the puck carrier, merely getting in position to wall off the blue line.
Because it’s so goddamn hilarious to pick on the horde of CHUDs that is the Ducks, look at even the Hawks defensive set that leads to Jonathan Toews’ game winner. Toews himself basically stands in front of a stationary Getzlaf waiting for him to pick his angle like a point guard directing traffic at the top of the key.
And that’s what this 3 on 3 is. While mocking the NBA is stupid and often times dog-whistle racism, hockey and basketball are obviously two very differently operated games. And 3 on 3 overtime basically turns hockey into teams running half court sets in the first half of a game in February and conceding on defense, waiting for their turn to go down and score. However in basketball there’s always going to be another chance that can be manufactured even as the game clock grinds down in the final seconds of close games. There is no guarantee of another chance in overtime hockey, where only one shot between either of the two teams needs to go in. Goalies opt for moving the puck to the closest skater rather than freezing it and taking the defensive zone draw, because as soon as the defending team regains possession, it’s a race back to the far blue line, just as if a defensive rebound was pulled off the glass. Even the opening faceoff is treated like a jump ball, where the team that loses it retreats immediately. And while there’s plenty to like about the NBA game on its own terms, it doesn’t transfer well to the ice, and it certainly shouldn’t be what’s deciding games when points are at a premium even in November.
So the next time a “Please Like My Sport” debate arises and hockey fans begin to shout from the tops of their lungs about what makes the sport better, know that that the NHL has now now unexpectedly made itself resemble basketball far more than it needs to. And the NBA would never have the rocks for brains to fundamentally alter the way their games are decided just to attract casual fans.