Shootout a popular irritant
For Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock, a man who elevates checking
to performance art, the shootout produces a feeling of
"You are right on edge as a coach when the game goes to overtime — way more open ice and scoring chances," Hitchcock said. "When it goes to a shootout, you become an observer, you're just standing there."
No lines to match, no grinders to employ, no board battles to win. The shootout celebrates elements of the game — individual skill, creativity and daring — that coaches such as Hitchcock rarely accent.
But the man who once famously used defenseman Adam Foote as his third shooter acknowledges that shootouts are a hit with fans, an increasingly important part of the game and an area that needs improving on the Jackets .
"They have become a huge thing," Hitchcock said. "Just look how many games we've lost this season because of them."
The Jackets have the most shootout losses (eight) in the NHL and the second-most (31) since the league adopted the tie-breaking format in 2005.
Hitchcock and his assistants find themselves spending more time preparing for skills competitions, and Jackets general manager Scott Howson wonders whether the three-year surge in three-point games is the direction the league wants to be taking.
Howson is considering a proposal to reduce the points awarded for overtime and shootout wins to 1 1/2 . He's not sure if he will broach the subject at the next NHL general managers meeting in March.
"(The shootout) is a positive development for the fans, and it increases our entertainment value," Howson said. "But I have concerns we are seeing more and more three-point games. Is that where we want to get to as a league?"
Howson says his idea is not related to his team's poor performance in shootouts. The Jackets are 2-8. Goaltender Steve Mason is 0-6. Even Mathieu Garon, who set an NHL record by winning 13 straight shootouts, has dropped his past two decisions.
The Jackets have lost 20 of their past 23 games to fall well off the pace for a playoff spot. During the disastrous stretch, the Jackets have lost all six games that went to shootouts, robbing them of points and potential momentum.
"It's a great way to win and a crappy way to lose," Mason said. "I obviously haven't had the most success in them, so right now I don't like them. ... It adds insult to injury, especially if you did not perform well."
Hitchcock said the Jackets need to develop more shooters. Rick Nash (36.4 percent career conversion rate) and Kristian Huselius (33.3) have been regulars, but the Jackets don't have a comfort level beyond those two.
Defenseman Fedor Tyutin is 3 of 7 lifetime and delivered a memorable goal in Chicago on April 8, 2009, the night the Jackets clinched their first playoff spot.
But their most recent trip to Chicago on Dec. 1 is more emblematic of their shootout fortunes. They went 1 of 11 in a 4-3 loss to the Blackhawks that ended with Mason treating his goalie stick like it was a Pete Townshend guitar.
"We've got to get to the point where we can have a pool of six players we can draw from," Hitchcock said. "We're not there yet."
Hitchcock said teams are placing greater emphasis on shootouts, especially as they become more prevalent. As of Jan. 1, 16 percent of games this season have ended in shootouts, nearly 3 percentage points higher than a year ago.
Teams are trying to match a shooter's strength (a move he does particularly well) against an opposing goalie's weakness. Nashville's Jason Arnott has taken just three career attempts, but coach Barry Trotz used him to beat Garon on Dec. 10 in the Predators' 4-3 win.
"The preparation for shootouts has become a lot more detailed," Hitchcock said.
Hitchcock is struck by the unpredictability of the shootout. It can make heroes out of marginal players and goats out of stars.
Journeyman goaltender Wade Dubielewicz is 5-1 in shootouts, including a 2007 season-ending win that got the New York Islanders into the playoffs.
Meanwhile, superstars such as Alex Ovechkin (28 percent) and Evgeni Malkin (20 percent) have struggled to score.
"Many of the great players are so impulsive and so instinctive that they might overthink (in shootouts)," Edmonton Oilers assistant coach Tom Renney said.
For his part, Nash says he enjoys the challenge and loves the excitement shootouts supply.
"The game ends with everyone on their feet," he said.
Nash thinks Howson's proposal is a decent compromise, allowing the shootout to remain but rewarding teams that win a game in regulation. (Some have proposed awarding three points for a regulation victory).
"Any system where we can reward team play, whether it be 5-on-5 or 4-on-4, over a shootout, I'm for," Florida Panthers coach Peter DeBoer said. "That's the fabric of our game."
Hitchcock, too, wants winning to be about the team, not individuals. He favors playing three-on-three before resorting to a shootout.
But league commissioner Gary Bettman believes fans deserve the last word.
"It has been overwhelmingly well-received based on the (feedback) we get," Bettman said. "People are always coming up with ways to change the game. ... We don't always need to be making changes."