The 3-4 weeks of players skating informally leading up to training camp is mostly about getting the legs, hands and cardio where they need to be for the start of training camp. While players are always working to improve certain parts of their game, there is not usually a general theme or concerted effort to work on anything as a team at these skates.
Should it be different in 2015? I think so. Coming down the pike is a pretty significant change with the potential to significantly impact on points in the standings. That change is the switch to 3-on-3 for overtime. For those who missed the change, the NHL announced that it will replace the 5-minute 4-on-4 overtime with a 5-minute 3-on-3 overtime. If the new 3-on-3 overtime ends in a tie, the game will be decided by a shootout just like it was in the past. The thought is that the 3-on-3 overtime will increase the number of games decided in overtime compared to 4-on-4.
The short version is that when you look at the limited amount of 3-on-3 results in the past and project them to NHL overtime games for 2015-16, the effect is surprisingly minimal. This is basically because 3-on-3 scoring rates historically have not been that much higher than 4-on-4 scoring rates.
But here’s the thing. Up until now no one had any kind of plan or strategy for 3-on-3 hockey. The Puck Daddy article relied on a tiny 87 minutes of 3-on-3 hockey since 2007. And there is the rub. My guess is that teams skated two defensemen and one forward. And they had no real strategy or plan for this event that happened maybe once per season. If you do that without defensemen who can chameleon into a forward as appropriate, you could actually see 3-on-3 being worse for scoring because you could get a bunch of forwards playing 1v2 with defensemen who are unclear if/how much/when to step into the play.
So while I get the fact that historical math suggests only a very modest increase in games decided in overtime, I see two key things that suggest the possibility for different:
1) The point swing in 2015-16 could be significant before teams adjust, scout, copy, etc. and things even up. We very much saw this in 2005-06 when the NHL changed rules (elimination of the two-line pass) and more significantly changed how they enforced the game. Some teams including the Hurricanes adapted more quickly than others and literally rode it to incredible seasons. I get that it was different because the changes were in play for the entire game, but the Puck Daddy article estimated that 18% of games would be decided by 3-on-3 hockey. That is 15 games per team, each team would earn something between 0 and 15 extra points based on their results in the new overtime format. That is a huge number. Historically the way this worked was that overtime was somewhat of a crap shoot year to year and the shootout even more so.
But with the 3-on-3 being brand new, I think the potential for some teams to figure it out quickly and excel at it while other teams flounder is a very real possibility. And imagine if a team comes up with a strategy/system that dominates especially early while some teams are figuring it out. If such a team went 13-2 in the 3-on-3 overtime, that would be the equivalent of an extra 5.5 points versus just breaking even in 3-on-3 hockey. That could easily be the difference between making or not making the playoffs.
2) 3-on-3 hockey will be played completely differently from the past. Because of the volume of it that will be played and its importance in deciding games (compared to a couple minutes per year previously) teams will implement systems for it. The idea will not just be to chuck one forward and two defensemen out there and let them have at it. Will teams play a brand where the two players without the puck (regardless of their regular position) play like forwards with the puck carrier adopting more of a trailer/defenseman role? Will teams try to enter the zone three-wide which could put a ton of pressure on the opposing defense to sort things out right especially when players start crossing? Will we see non-boards cycling games whereby teams use the open ice to possess the puck by continually playing it to places to where they can win the race? Will there even be defensemen and forwards or will position be completely situational forcing players to be chameleons.The possibilities are endless, but I think it is certain that teams will develop their own systems. In the long run, many of these systems converge and look similar as less successful teams adopt what the successful teams are doing. But out of the gate in 2015-16, we could see wildly different approaches to how to play this game. Because of that, I think we could see wildly different point totals for 3-on-3 overtime games.
But here is the thing. Teams have very little time to sort this out. The formal training camp in the NHL these days is about 18 days (September 20ish – October 7). In that short window, teams must evaluate youth and make a bunch of roster cuts. They must work on the huge list of other things that are part of the game like systems, sorting out lines, power play and penalty kill and just basic skill development and reps. It is not like there is a ton of extra time to spend hours working just on 3-on-3 hockey. Surely, some amount of time will be dedicated to this, but how much?
So if I was the Hurricanes, I think it should go like this:
–Captain Eric Staal should make arrangements to have lunch with Coach Bill Peters. Technically, the teams cannot do official team stuff until training camp starts, but there is no reason that the two cannot grab a sandwich together. Bill Peters should accidentally pack a mini white board for this meeting, so he can show Eric what he is thinking for basic system, strategy and personnel for 3-on-3 hockey.
–Then Eric should take this back to the informal skates and start working on it with the players who are there. Especially now when players are gradually trickling back into town, it could be very helpful for some groups of three (maybe Jordan Staal (when he arrives), Eric Staal and John-Michael Liles or another defenseman) to get on the same page and start understanding who goes where and does what 3-on-3. Heck, they were playing some 3-on-3 scrimmages last week anyway because they only had enough players for that. They might as well use that time in a more focused way. Projections based on historical math seem to suggest otherwise, but my hunch is that there could be 4-7 points in the standings for teams that adapt first and dominate early.