Is the NHL’s lottery system broken? If so, how would you fix it?
Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: The NHL lottery system isn’t broken — but it’s also not ideal. The good news: There’s a different format that would serve the league better. It’s not my idea. Rather, it was first suggested in 2012 at the Sloan Analytics Conference by Adam Gold, then a Ph.D. candidate in statistics at the University of Missouri. Even better: It was endorsed by then-Arizona Coyotes captain Shane Doan around 2016, which gave it some momentum, at least in media circles.
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Here’s what it entails: Scrap the idea of total season records. Instead, begin keeping track once teams are mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. Whatever team accumulates the most points post-elimination gets the top pick, the team with the second-most points post-elimination gets the second pick, and so on with all nonplayoff teams. This, of course, still discourages tanking but also incentivizes playing hard until the end of the regular season and preserves meaningful games late in the season. If you think it’s unfair, consider that the worst teams that are mathematically eliminated first get a head start on banking points to help their draft odds.
“It’s been mentioned to a few people at the league,” Doan told Arizona media in 2016 . “The amazing part is everyone’s response is, ‘Oh, that’s a great idea,’ but it never goes anywhere.” I would love for that to change.
Chris Peters, NHL prospects writer: Gold’s idea is interesting, so I’m glad you brought that one up, Emily. As this season progressed, I wondered if many noncontending teams would allow themselves to freefall. I don’t think any of them did so intentionally, as attractive as top 2018 draft prospect Rasmus Dahlin is. Look at how hard the Coyotes have played over the last several weeks. Since Jan. 1, they’ve actually been a middle-of-the-pack team as opposed to one of the league’s worst. And I’m not sure either the Vancouver Canucks or Buffalo Sabres purposely tanked. That’s not to say it won’t happen, but I feel like the incentives to do it are dwindling.
The lottery system, as it is right now, works for me. I think a thorough review once the Seattle expansion franchise joins the league for the 2020-21 season would be prudent, but I’m willing to see how these next few years play out. The 18.5 percent odds that nonplayoff teams get this year — and probably for the next few — just don’t make it seem worth it to dismantle a team and lose for the sake of a draft pick. Now, if the Edmonton Oilers win another one of these things, I might have to sing a different tune.
That brings me to the one change that I’d consider. I would be willing to entertain the idea of a team that wins the lottery one year would not be eligible for the first overall pick the following year. Over the last few years, we’ve seen major-impact players at No. 1 — and this trend looks like it’s going to continue. The player pool is simply getting better across the board. More often, teams who pick No. 1 overall are getting a significant piece for their foundation. I wouldn’t mind seeing that spread around a bit more so that the Edmonton scenario doesn’t happen again.
Greg Wyshynski, senior writer: I hate the Adam Gold plan. Hate, hate, hate the Adam Gold plan.
It’s painfully naïve and it fails to address why bad hockey teams are in the draft lottery to begin with, which is that they’re bad hockey teams. Bad teams aren’t suddenly going to become competent teams just because the top pick is at stake. If they could, they wouldn’t be in the lottery. So you end up penalizing teams that need the help the most, which is sorta the whole point of the draft.
Also, consider the players themselves: Who, exactly, is busting their tails to help their team secure the top pick? Have you seen the half-speed, unmotivated play of an eliminated player? And what unrestricted free agent, with one skate out the door, even remotely cares about securing the future for a team that doesn’t want to re-sign him? Is Jussi Jokinen like, “I’d better win some games for the Canucks before leaving for my sixth team in two seasons”?
Wait, there’s more: How jacked up would the trade deadline become if every bottom-feeder was holding on to its assets to be competitive? And for all the complaining fans and media do over teams that bury young players in favor of overplaying veterans, who do you think gets the ice time under this plan: semi-competent vets, or mistake-prone newbies?
So no … no Adam Gold plan. Let it bounce away like so many unselected pingpong balls.
To address the main topic here: The NHL’s draft lottery system isn’t broken. Maybe just annoyingly damaged. There obviously needs to be some restrictions placed on the number of times teams can win the lottery in a three-year period — I’d like to extend that to prohibiting teams from getting a top-three pick in consecutive seasons. And the notion that a team that finished a point out of the playoffs has even a one-percent chance of winning the lottery for the first overall pick is just asinine. Restrict it to, at most, the bottom eight teams.
I don’t have a problem with tanking. If a team wants to tear it all down, cost themselves revenue for the rest of a lost season, potentially alienate fans and then run the risk of not even getting the first overall pick despite this self-sabotage, more power to them. If you don’t want tanking, then essentially you don’t want the welfare mechanism that encourages it. So if you’re anti-tank, you might as well be pro-draft abolishment.