- Craig Custance
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland isn't anti-shootout. He's just in favor of letting actual hockey decide games.
So during NHL GM meetings in the past, he's suggested that overtime sessions consist of five (or four) minutes of four-on-four, then five (or four) minutes of three-on-three. If the game is still tied, a shootout would determine the winner.
There was some support in the past, just not enough.
In the prospect tournament he runs in Traverse City, Holland implemented his version of overtime. On Sunday, he and other general managers in the building got to see what it looked like in actual game action for the first time when the Dallas Stars' prospects beat those from the Minnesota Wild in a shootout that followed the first three-on-three overtime session of the tournament.
The reviews of the three-on-three hockey were strong.
"It's awesome. It was fun," Wild GM Chuck Fletcher said. "Imagine Washington and Pittsburgh with [Sidney] Crosby, [Evgeni] Malkin, [Alex] Ovechkin, [Mike] Green, [Kris] Letang. Every line change is an odd-man rush."
Bear in mind that he was the GM of the losing team.
Other observers were just as enthused.
"This has been a good test case," said Carolina GM Jim Rutherford, who is in favor of the change. "And it looks good."
Said Rangers assistant GM Jeff Gorton: "I thought it was interesting. It was definitely fun to watch. The three-on-threes were pretty fun. It was good, especially when they had fresh ice. The kids were racing up and down, trading chances. I know the fans were into it, and we were watching and enjoying it."
The comments from his fellow executives echo conversations Holland has had in private. There's an appetite among the decision-makers in the NHL to change the current overtime solution. The biggest reason is that parity has made things so tight around the NHL that one point can make or break a playoff berth. More GMs would prefer that the deciding playoff spots be earned by something more closely resembling hockey, rather than points gathered by winning shootouts.
It's safe to say he'll be making his proposal again this year at the GM meetings. Now there is momentum building for it.
"There's more support for expanding overtime among GMs today than there was a year or two ago," Holland said. "Just because it's so hard to make the playoffs, it's coming down to a point or two. I think a lot of managers are thinking like I am. I'd rather see it decided three-on-three."
It was tested during an NHL research and development camp a couple of years ago, and one of the criticisms was that players were gassed during the three-on-three sessions. Wild prospect Mathew Dumba was at that particular R&D camp and participated in the overtime session in Traverse City.
He understands the appeal but is concerned that the wear and tear on players could get to be too much if too many games ended up going to three-on-three. The beauty of the shootout is that it ends games in a timely matter and isn't exactly taxing. That's no small consideration for the players over the course of a long season.
"I think the shootout has its purpose," he concluded.
From a coach's perspective, the overtime session makes things interesting. Do you send out three forwards? Two forwards and a defenseman? How do you navigate line changes when it inevitably leads to an odd-man rush the other way?
The shootout is criticized for being a skills competition and not real hockey, but the three-on-three hockey isn't so far removed from that.
"It's still a little bit of a gimmick, but it's less so than the shootout," said Kurt Kleinendorst, who coached the Wild prospects in the overtime. "To me, it was more exciting than the shootout. It was fun."
On some level, that would be the debate. The shootout is criticized, but it still brings fans to their feet at the arena and sends them home buzzing. It's almost impossible to flip past a shootout while watching different games on the Center Ice package, one of the reasons I've long contended that the NHL needs to develop a channel like the NFL's RedZone Channel that switches between power plays and shootouts as they're happening around the league.
Hockey traditionalists may hate it, but the casual hockey fan attending a game on a Friday night still appreciates the entertainment value.
"We have to give the fans what they want," said Sharks coach Todd McLellan, who is open to the change. "We have to make sure we're doing what's right for the game, and especially what's right for the fans."
Buffalo GM Darcy Regier was watching his game on the other sheet of ice, so he missed the actual three-on-three session during the tournament. But like his fellow GMs in the building, he's open to the change.
He believes in constant evaluation of the game and for looking for ways to improve. If it were up to him, the NHL would have a research and development department, whose full-time job would be to analyze changes that would improve the game, similar to what Brendan Shanahan and his group do at the R&D camp.
His reasoning is that offense and defense don't operate at the same ratio. When changes in the game are made to highlight offensive ability, it doesn't take long for the defense to catch, then pass, the offense. He said he's seen it with the changes made after the previous lockout.
The pendulum has now swung too far in favor of defensive play.
"I believe it has. It's for obvious reasons. [Better] equipment, blocking shots came in after the last CBA, and it's been ramped up to an incredible level. Every player is expected to do that," he said. "Tweaks are important."
He's not looking for massive changes, but an adjustment like a five-minute session in overtime of three-on-three before getting to the shootout would highlight the game's best offensive skill.
"It takes skill level to make a good saucer pass. It doesn't take as much skill to slide and block a pass," he said.
And so maybe this is the year Holland's rule proposal gains some steam. The GMs usually meet around Hall of Fame inductions in the fall, but the real progress is made at the meeting in March. If the GMs in Traverse City remember what they saw back in September, it may not just be Holland pushing for the change.