Three-on-three overtime is coming to the NHL in 2015-16, and with it a host of adjustments for coaches and players alike. Along with those adjustments, if all goes according to plan, will come more goals and a reduction in the number of games decided by the shootout. But which teams are best poised to take advantage of the shift?
Coaching is difficult to assess in advance, but is obviously going to be a big part of the equation. The St. Louis Blues recently put out part of a fascinating discussion between their coaches analyzing three-on-three hockey. Among the issues addressed were the difficulties of making the long change with that much open ice, the benefits of communication between players and specific plays that the team could use in those situations.
Personnel is still going to matter, though, and some teams will start off better equipped regardless of how their coaches handle three-on-three.
Goaltending is always vital in a hockey game, but three-on-three should command a specific skillset. The ability to move the puck will be an incredible asset in three-on-three, particularly as it will make opposition line changes difficult. Additionally, goaltenders who fare strongly when facing odd-man rushes—in a lot of cases, the same goalies who do well in the shootout—will probably have an advantage over counterparts who are weaker in those areas.
Speed is going to be at a premium in three-on-three play. It will be vital to have strong skaters who can exploit all the open ice, but it’s going to be at least as important to have players who can get off the ice in a hurry; there’s simply no room for anything less than lightning-fast changes in this overtime format. This may prove even more vital on defence than at forward.
Finally, there’s no substitute for offensive skill. This isn’t going to be like five-on-five hockey, where there’s a real emphasis on just getting pucks on net and working for deflections and rebounds. Shooters are going to get good looks and the teams that can bury their chances are going to win a lot of games.
One final caveat that should be mentioned here is the element of chance. Ray Bennett, the assistant coach in St. Louis primarily responsible for three-on-three play, describes the overtime as a situation that “looks more like a game,” but the results of five minutes of three-on-three are still going to be considerably more random than 60 minutes of five-on-five. We will see teams get red hot one year and ice cold the next, as we do with the shootout.
Five teams in particular stand out as being particularly well-suited to three-on-three play.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
Tampa Bay is an easy choice. On the back end, Ben Bishop is one of the best puck-moving goalies in the league and defencemen Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman bring mobility and quick, intelligent passes. Steven Stamkos is one of the best finishers in hockey and the Triplets line seems incredibly well-suited to wide-open hockey.
WASHINGTON CAPITALS, PITTSBURGH PENGUINS
Washington and Pittsburgh are both compelling candidates as well, even when we get past the superstars at the top end of each roster. Marc-Andre Fleury has his faults, but he’s brilliant in the shootout and also an excellent puck-mover who should adapt well to three-on-three; ditto for Braden Holtby who is perhaps even a bit better with the puck. It’s hard not to get excited about the idea of a Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang trio; it’s also fun to imagine Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and John Carlson making use of all that open ice.
Out west, the Dallas Stars should do well. The team’s defence is a little suspect, but John Klingberg marries a strong offensive skillset to exceptional mobility and should be a natural. The forward duo of Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn is the kind any team would happily send out in this situation, and if Kari Lehtonen wins the starting job puck-moving from the net should be an asset, too.
Among Canadian teams, the Canadiens stand out. A lot of that is due to Carey Price, who is not only the best goalie in hockey, but also arguably the game’s most masterful puckmover. P.K. Subban and to a lesser extent Jeff Petry are built to play this style of hockey, and the Habs’ generally small and speedy forward corps also seems like a good fit for the format.