LeBrun: Why NHL GMs are considering a change to 3-on-3 overtime – ‘something needs to be done’

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Let me start by prefacing this story on three-on-three overtime by saying I have never had an issue with a 60-minute tie and would be OK with the NHL going back to that.
I mean, 1975 New Year’s Eve, Red Army-Habs, enough said.
But I’m also a realist, and judging from the reaction of the three teenagers in my household alone, I know three-on-three OT is here to stay.
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It might get tweaked, though.
The NHL’s 32 general managers and league hockey ops chatted about that this past week during their meeting in Toronto. Some have concerns about the way the three-on-three sessions have evolved, most notably teams constantly leaving the offensive zone to retain possession and regroup, and the idea now is to think about potential changes ahead of the three-day GMs meetings in March when rule changes actually get voted on.
“I am in favor of exploring tweaks,” said veteran Blues GM Doug Armstrong, a member of the GMs’ executive committee. “Three on three is excellent entertainment when played with pace and multiple scoring opportunities. It is usually the top-end skilled players on the ice, and to have them show off their speed and skill is great for the fans.”
The key part of that quote is “when played with pace and multiple scoring opportunities.”
That is not always what we get now in three-on-three. Heck, some teams who lose the opening faceoff in the extra session never touch the puck again before it’s over.
“I just think OT is not as exciting as when it first came in — not as many change of possessions with all the regroups,” said Kraken GM Ron Francis. “So we are trying to look at if there was a so-called ‘over-and-back line,’ does that change things? I like the thought process.”
The issue here is that many overtime periods are dominated by the attacking team going in and out of the offensive zone and regrouping continuously until finally getting that ultimate scoring chance that ends it.
“I feel like something needs to be done,” Wild GM Bill Guerin added from Sweden. “Look, I don’t think it’s urgent. It’s not the weakest part of our game for sure. The possession time is nice, and it shows a lot of skill, but like some of the other guys were saying (at the GMs meeting), the run-and-gun part of it was nice, too, as far as the excitement level.”
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And as Guerin also says, give teams credit for how they’ve adjusted from those early years of three-on-three mayhem.
“They’ve learned how to defend it,” he said. “Hey look, you don’t want to just give the puck away. If you can’t get to the net, if you can’t create an opportunity, let’s try again. So I think there’s a lot of different ways of looking at it. But I think it was really good it was brought up and I think before our March meetings it gives everybody time to think about it and watch closely.”
Some of the other GMs we talked to refrained from official comment because they want to wait until the March meeting and review the data being compiled by the league on three-on-three shots, chances and changes of possession between now and then before deciding where they stand.
Predators GM Barry Trotz’s perspective in that room is unique. One of the game’s great coaching minds, Trotz was one of the first to immediately see the way the chaos of three-on-three overtime could be better controlled.
Barry Trotz, now a GM, was once one of the coaches who helped control the chaos of three-on-three overtime. (Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)
“When it first came in, I was a big proponent of puck possession and faceoffs, getting possession with a strong faceoff guy and not giving it up,” Trotz said. “It’s really entertaining when there’s change of possession, missed chances, missed plays, big saves, and then going the other way. It’s chaotic.
“But more tactical is more puck possession, trying to attack what is usually the two forwards and one D, so trying to build up speed and attack a forward and not give up an odd-man rush going the other way and lose a point in the standings. Because the points are crucial.”
So yes, coaches always ruin the fun. Sure, fans loved the chaos of the original three-on-threes when it was more back and forth, but coaches are sweating it out with so much parity in the NHL and every point in the standings mattering so much.
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Hence, if the regroup in overtime means giving up fewer chances, so be it.
So now what? How can the NHL improve three-on-three (if at all)?
“I wish it was longer,” Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald said.
There are a lot of people with him on that. But it’s a non-starter. The NHL Players’ Association has forever fought the notion of extending the overtime session because of the wear and tear it already creates on the game’s top players. Only a handful of players see the ice in overtime, so adding even more to their plates never made sense to the NHLPA, and you can understand why.
Some of the early ideas for tweaks include a team losing possession if it purposely leaves the offensive zone with the puck, or maybe even making it so that you can’t cross the center red line, at least on a regroup.
“But it could be a failed pass,” Trotz said of a failed regroup. “We don’t want more whistles. You don’t want to lengthen the game.”
As Trotz said, what if the defending team knocks the puck off the stick of the attacking team with puck possession and it goes backward across the blue line or red line — whatever the new regroup rule would be — and then that attacking team got the puck back? Which team gets possession in that scenario? The potential ramifications of any regroup limitation would lead to questions like that.
Another idea is whether to impose a shot clock to limit puck possession in overtime.
Former NHL player Mike Johnson, now a TSN analyst, said it best on the Got Yer Back podcast this past week when we discussed this subject. Three-on-three OT, which he likes, is already gimmicky enough when compared to five-on-five hockey. Coming up with some of these potential regroup rules will make it even more gimmicky in his mind. He’s got a point.
But it is also true three-on-three isn’t the same brand of chaos and entertainment it once was. So let’s see what GMs come up with, if anything, come March.
Plus a penalty shot idea!
Trotz, by the way, apropos of nothing, proposed this: “If you get a penalty shot, in soccer (Lionel) Messi takes all the penalty shots, you know — why not do it in hockey? People want to see our stars.”
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So at any point during a game, the idea here from Trotz is that regardless of which player gets hauled down on a breakaway leading to a penalty shot, the team in question gets to pick whatever player it wants to take the shot.
“So if a fourth-line guy who gets five goals a year gets a penalty shot, why not send McDavid over the boards?” wondered Trotz.
I mean, why not?
(Top photo: David Berding / Getty Images)

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