As a card-carrying member of the goaltenders' union, the Florida Panthers' Roberto Luongo says he genuinely likes the NHL's newest innovation, three-on-three overtime, even if it does put a lot of stress on members of his profession.
"It's fun," Luongo says. "I like to watch it on TV" – which, of course, is not exactly the same as actually playing the game three-on-three, with its back-and-forth action and wide-open looks.
But NHL fans will get a chance to watch a full 60 minutes of three-on-three hockey in all its glory during this weekend's all-star game. If you can get past the John Scott sideshow, or the absence of so many real stars such as Alex Ovechkin, Jonathan Toews and Sidney Crosby, the format change should make what is usually an excruciating display of hockey something more watchable.
The NHL is trying the three-on-three format, with a $1-million winner-take-all prize, for two reasons. One, every other attempt to make the game more spectator-friendly has failed miserably. Nowadays, it's hard enough to get the good players, let alone get them to try, knowing full well that the outcome is essentially meaningless and quickly forgotten. For many, rest – and getting away from the job for a few days – far outweighs the attraction of attending what is largely a trade show, though the host city Nashville usually knows how to deliver a party.
Secondly, as Luongo says, three-on-three overtime has been one of the more well-received initiatives introduced by the NHL in recent years. Of the 171 games tied at the end of regulation this season, 109 were decided in overtime (63.7 per cent), according to figures provided by the Elias Sports Bureau. At a similar point last season – 740 games into the schedule, when overtime was played with four skaters for each side – the percentage of overtime games in which a goal was scored was 45.2 per cent (or 84 of 186).
One semi-disturbing trend: Within the past six weeks or so, the number of games ending in overtime has dropped off. It was at 68.4 per cent through Dec. 17 (78 of 114), but is down to 54.4 per cent since then (31 of 57). In the first month of the season, OT was basically a free-for-all, a track meet up and down the ice that often ended in a hurry. As the season has moved along, it has become more tactical, coaches making sure that, to the extent that it is possible to check when there are only six skaters on the ice as opposed to 10, players take their defensive responsibilities more seriously.
"I think that's bang-on," assessed Calgary Flames' defenceman Mark Giordano, a Pacific Division team selection. "I've noticed the exact same thing. Teams are learning how to defend better.
"Teams, when you don't have the puck, are sitting in that tight triangle, and letting them pass it around the outside as much as they want. The minute you start chasing, that's when you get really tired – and you're in trouble if you're tired out there."
Ottawa Senators defenceman Erik Karlsson was one of the few critics of three-on-three overtime when it was first introduced. He has since come around – a little.
"I didn't have much of a choice," Karlsson said. "We've been playing it a lot lately and we've been good in it. It's definitely entertaining."
According to Karlsson, the beauty of three-on-three overtime is you never know what you're going to get.
"It all depends upon the two teams playing; and if you want to win the game, or are playing not to lose," Karlsson said. "If you're playing to win, there's going to be a lot of back and forth and whoever scores first is going to win."
Even its harshest critics believe deciding a game in three-on-three, even if it's still a little gimmicky, is better than resorting to a shootout. Teams, such as the Los Angeles Kings last year, missed out on the playoffs largely because of their season-long failures to win that extra bonus point when a game played in four-on-four overtime ended in a tie after 60 minutes.
"I think the shootout was cool for the fans, but it doesn't show who the better team is," Kings' all-star defenceman Drew Doughty said. "When it comes down to three-on-three, you're usually putting your top three guys on the ice right off the bat against the other team's top three guys, so that's real hockey. You're trying to win the game the right way and I think that's better."
"There are strategies to three-on-three," Giordano added. "Usually, you roll three or four sets, so that's pretty much half your team – at least – who play in the overtime. I just think, as a player, you feel you've won the game more as a team when you win in an overtime situation rather than in a shootout.
"And the opposite is also true too – if you lose, it doesn't feel as if a coin flip cost you the game."
Naturally, the tactics you see in regular-season three-on-three will likely be absent from the all-star game where, according to Luongo, the biggest single factor may be fatigue.
Luongo's team possesses the 43-year-old Jaromir Jagr, who pleaded with the fans who voted him in not to, for fear it would kill him. Giordano's Pacific Division squad features Scott, who figured that once he got the puck his 6-foot-8, 259-pound frame would help him protect it. Not everyone in the NHL endorsed Scott's selection, but Pacific Division coach Darryl Sutter said he was okay with it.
"He was voted in, and that's the rule," Sutter said. "Unless you say, 'I don't want to be part of that,' if I'm voted in, I'm going. It's his ... best chance ever to play in the all-star game. I'm fine with it. He's a respected guy. I don't know John Scott. I've never met him. But everybody says he's a good team guy."
The one question players could not conclusively answer was if the format change – and the prize purse – would make the game more competitive.
"The only thing I can say is, the goalies compete every time," Luongo said. "The goalies always compete. You have to. Honestly, I don't know if it's going to make it more intense or not. Twenty minutes of three-on-three, with only nine players is going to be tough. I'm not sure what kind of intensity there's going to be."
"It's on us as the players going to the game to get out there and make it enjoyable for the fans and play hard," Giordano added. "You're not going to see anyone run a guy over in the all-star game, but you can still play hard and make good plays. I'm interested in seeing how it goes. I hope it's not really boring and really slow because of the lack of intensity.
"With five guys out there, it wasn't great to watch. I think it's a smart idea – create a little tournament format, put a little bit on the line for teams and see what's going to happen. I think it's going to work."
NHL second-half story lines
In a season in which goal-scoring totals continue to drop, the Capitals' Holtby has a chance to do something no goaltender in NHL history has accomplished and that's to win 50 games in a single season. The previous high was 48, set by the New Jersey Devils' Martin Brodeur in 2006-07. Holtby has 30 wins and thus needs 20 more in Washington's final 35 games to achieve that previously unassailable total.
Patrick Kane's Gretzky-like push for the scoring title
A year ago, Kane was in contention for both the scoring and MVP titles until he broke his collarbone and missed the entire stretch drive. This year, he is 15 points clear of the Stars' Jamie Benn, the reigning scoring champion, and 20 ahead of third-place Tyler Seguin, mind-boggling gaps. Kane's scoring totals, prorated over the course of a full season and adjusted for this low-scoring era, compares favourably to the numbers Gretzky put up in his prime.
The Connor McDavid watch resumes
McDavid, the Oilers' rookie sensation, was off to a great start when he broke his collarbone a dozen games into the season, putting him behind the likes of Jack Eichel, Artemi Panarin and Max Domi in the Calder Trophy chase. But a strong finish could put McDavid back in the conversation. Voters traditionally remember the final stages of a year more than the early parts. Pavel Bure, in 1992, played only 60 games and still won the Calder.
The trade-deadline question
The NHL trade deadline falls on a leap year Monday – Feb. 29 – and it will be interesting to see if it's a buyer's or a seller's market. Last year, the sellers made out like bandits; a year before that, it was the complete opposite, with the buyers mostly winning the day. With only nine points separating 17 teams in the middle part of the standings, the temptation to go for broke will be strong this year.
Will there be a 50-goal scorer?
Washington's Alexander Ovechkin has won the Rocket Richard trophy as the NHL's scoring leader in each of the past three seasons, and is at 28 goals now, two goals back of the leader. But there is a good chance the NHL will finish the year without a 50-goal scorer. If that happens, the push for smaller goalie equipment, reconfigured zones, bevelled goal posts and all the other tweaks that could enhance scoring will be renewed again.
The President's Trophy goes to … the Washington Capitals?
They are the most fascinating contender for the Stanley Cup, the one Eastern Conference team that has set itself above all the rest, separated by 11 points from second overall Florida and a full 15 clear of the third place Rangers. As opposed to the West, where you have a three-time champion atop one division and a two-time champ atop another (Chicago and Los Angeles, respectively), the East seems to have one team that's massively better than all the rest. But injuries and bad luck can sometimes make even the most attractive championship contenders stumble.
The Norris Trophy alert
Of all the award balloting that will be conducted at season's end, the Norris for the NHL's top defenceman is once again the most competitive. Erik Karlsson of Ottawa and Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings frame the debate the same way Paul Coffey and Ray Bourque did decades ago, pure offensive skill versus exceptional two-way play. But San Jose's Brent Burns has a chance to score 30 goals, which has only happened once previously in the 21st century; and Oliver Ekman-Larsson is the engine driving the surprising Coyotes to the playoffs.
The race for 30th place
The NHL tweaked the draft lottery again this year, making it more difficult to "tank" a season in pursuit of a high pick. Auston Matthews is this year's answer to McDavid and he would be a good fit in Arizona, playing for his hometown Coyotes, though they would need to collapse epically over the final third of the season to get in contention for No. 1 overall. But Toronto, Winnipeg and Edmonton are all foundering at the bottom of their respective divisions. Maybe Canada gets another generational player for the second year in a row.
If Twitter account mentions are the criteria, the Canadiens are the team that's fascinated more people than any other this year, with P.K. Subban, Carey Price and Brendan Gallagher all in the top 10. Montreal was an early season powerhouse with all hands on deck. Could the Habs be the dark-horse playoff hope in the East, if they make the playoffs and get everybody healthy and humming by season's end?
The 1969-70 season (the third year after expansion) was the only time in NHL history in which there was no Canadian content in the playoffs, after Montreal lost a tie-breaker to the New York Rangers in the battle for fourth place and Toronto brought up the rear. But this year, all seven Canadian-based teams were on the outside looking in at the all-star break. The closest challengers: the Vancouver Canucks two points back of third-place Arizona in the Pacific; and the Ottawa Senators and Montreal Canadiens, three points out of the wild-card picture in the Eastern Conference.
An unusual number of high-profile unrestricted free agents are set to hit the open market in July, meaning quality players from Steven Stamkos and Eric Staal to Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien have about a month left to sign extensions – or they could be fodder for headline-making deadline deals.