NHL reportedly considering rule changes surrounding its 3-on-3 overtime format

The NHL is discussing adding NBA-esque rules like a shot clock or something resembling a half-court violation to prevent players from circling back in OT.

The NHL’s overtime system can be exciting, but it also can break your brain when you see a player voluntarily leave the attacking zone to regroup. It happens frequently, and while the maneuver makes more sense as you break it down, it betrays the spirit of 3-on-3 OT.

During the NHL’s latest GM Meetings, executives discussed possible tweaks to 3-on-3 OT rules that might limit or eliminate that strange (but tactically sensible) practice.

As you can see around the 1:40 mark of this video from TSN, NHL executive Colin Campbell shared a few possible solutions. One path: echo the NBA’s half-court violation rules by not allowing a skater to cross back behind the red line or even the blue line after they enter the offensive zone.

Another NBA-like tweak could involve introducing a “shot clock.”

That said, Campbell followed up by pointing out that the NHL also aims to avoid “unintended consequences.” Specifically, the league doesn’t want to institute changes that lead to “more faceoffs, more whistles.”

When hearing about possible tweaks, people understandably call for other, often more dramatic changes. What if the NHL made 3-on-3 OT longer than five minutes (the ECHL expanded to seven with some claims of success)?

Some call for better incentives to play aggressively in a variety of situations, such as rewarding three points for a regulation win.

Campbell threw cold water on such bolder ideas, though, stating that the league didn’t discuss making overtime longer or getting rid of the shootout.

“We don’t mind the format,” Campbell said.

While those specific changes to 3-on-3 OT were discussed, Campbell said they’ll consult coaches for feedback on potential tweaks in March.

Unintended consequences?

As annoying as “looping back” can be to witness, the phrase “unintended consequences” reverberates.

The NHL has a history of overcorrecting small details in self-defeating ways. Smart teams found salary cap loopholes and signed contracts that the league ratified, only for teams like the Vancouver Canucks to get hit with salary cap recapture penalties that seemed more about spite than fairness.

Amid the early exhilaration over 3-on-3 OT, people joked that NHL coaches would eventually figure out a way to “ruin” it. The practice of leaving the offensive zone to maintain possession simply makes sense, whether the focus is on tiring out opponents, creating a higher-quality scoring chance than what seemed to be available, or limiting the risk of a counterattack.

Changes appear to be coming to the NHL's beloved overtime format. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)
Changes appear to be coming to the NHL's beloved overtime format. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)

If you institute hockey’s answer to a half-court or shot clock violation, would you just create a new set of circumstances where players and coaches game the system?

Often, the NHL’s focus seems to address the symptoms and not the disease. Executives might not like to constantly hear about removing the shootout or tweaking the standings system, but players and coaches will always prefer to take safer approaches when there isn’t enough incentive to roll the dice.

Maybe a half-ice rule could have some legs, but it could just as easily cause the league a new set of problems and “unintended consequences.”