Why the NHL Draft Lottery Format is a Mistake

NHL Draft Lottery
VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA - JUNE 21: A detailed view of the Top 31 draft picks on the video board after the first round of the 2019 NHL Draft at Rogers Arena on June 21, 2019 in Vancouver, Canada. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Gary Bettman announced on Tuesday that the NHL Draft Lottery will take place on June 26th. It will feature the seven teams that are not coming back for the playoffs. However, it will also feature eight spots for the eliminated teams from the play-in bracket. This is pretty confusing. If one of the mystery teams wins, there will then be a second lottery to determine WHICH mystery team that is once the play-in has concluded.

For now, fans of teams that are in the draft lottery just need to know that their chances of winning are the same as it has been for the past few years. Let’s look at why the NHL Draft Lottery being done this way is a mistake.

NHL Draft Lottery Woes

Past Years

Before we begin, let’s get one thing straight. The issue with NHL Draft Lottery being done this way this season is not just that it completely “screws” the bottom teams. The lottery is set up to screw the bottom teams so that NHL teams don’t purposefully lose games. It has been that way for years now. While that is a different topic we can discuss at a later time, the fact is that teams like the Detroit Red Wings and Ottawa Senators are not getting any more “screwed” then the teams in years past have been. Not from the format of the draft lottery, anyways.

Just like this year, the worst team in the league has had a 20% or lower chance of picking first overall since they changed the lottery. We have seen on multiple occasions where teams jump multiple spots to grab a top-three pick. The New York Rangers jumped from sixth to second last year and the Chicago Blackhawks all the way from 12th to third. The possibility of some team jumping up and grabbing a spot isn’t the issue, it’s which teams can.

Playoff Bound Teams

Let’s start with my personal biggest issue of the whole thing. That is the possibility that a team that was clearly going to be in the playoffs now may have a legit shot at a top-three pick. Let’s take the Pittsburgh Penguins for example; according to The Atheltic’s Dom Luszczyszyn, the Penguins had a 99 percent chance of making the playoffs. His projections had them finishing with 102.7 points over the 82 game season. Obviously you can’t have .7 of a point, so make it either 102 or 103 and the point remains the exact same. A 100-point team could theoretically have a chance at the first overall pick.

Yes, it is unlikely. However, we know that small samples in the NHL can be deadly. Even seven-game series the best team doesn’t win much more than half the time. Cut that to a five-game series for needed reasons, and you have some possible crazy outcomes on your hands. The issue isn’t as much about focusing on just Pittsburgh, but rather a whole group of teams.

With so much variance and randomness, the issue really becomes what happens if more than one of the teams who were obviously in playoff spots are eliminated? What happens if all of a sudden one of the Penguins or Edmonton Oilers have a top-three pick? Even though they were top nine teams in the entire league, a three-game stretch could mean they are suddenly gifted in what is an absolutely loaded draft.

Any Solution?

Just the actual possibility of this happening is insane. There would also be complete outrage if one of these teams won the lottery. Having the possibility for something to go wrong is an unnecessary risk the NHL is taking. The biggest issue is, Pittsburgh probably feels that they are being screwed by having to be in a play-in.

Once again using Dom’s model, he had the Montreal Canadiens coming in under one percent chance to make the playoffs and finishing the year with 84 points. How on Earth is it fair that the Penguins have to play them on even ground? Yes, the Carey Price factor is overblown, but in a three to five game sample any goalie can get hot and beat any team. The solution for this is a whole other article to discuss later, however, the fact is that just because the NHL made one aspect of their season questionable, doesn’t mean they should do it again for another. Having even the chance for a clear playoff team to be a lottery winner is asking for trouble.

Non-Playoff Bound Teams

Now, let’s take a look at what the teams like the Canadiens and Blackhawks face. The problem with just adding any team that is eliminated back into the lottery as if nothing ever happened is that it gives an unfair advantage to those teams. They had much better odds than normal to make the playoffs while not losing anything for the lottery. For example, the Canadiens were under a one percent chance to make the playoffs and the Blackhawks were at a three percent chance. Given what we know about playoff series, where even the biggest gaps of series still give the underdog a 30% chance of winning, it means that these team’s chances would dramatically increase.

Chicago

Let’s take a look at Chicago to see an example. When the season paused, they were sitting at a three percent chance to make a comeback and get into the playoffs. Their odds would have been around the five percent mark to win the lottery if they finished ninth last like they were now. However, when it becomes the best three out of five, their odds to make the playoffs skyrocket. Some people may even have the Hawks slightly favoured. Although even if you don’t it’s probably not worse than a 40% chance at winning. Their chance of making the playoffs increases by 37% in this scenario, however, if they lose, their lottery odds drop by roughly one percent.

The Issue

This is the fundamental issue with how the NHL is running the NHL Draft Lottery this year. Teams are getting a much better chance at making the playoffs. However, they’re also not losing any chance of winning the lottery. The teams that now have a worse chance of making playoffs are the ones that probably shouldn’t be in a draft lottery regardless. They showed over a 70-game sample that they were a legitimately good NHL team. And the lottery is supposed to assist the bad teams. This is where the bottom seven teams may feel “screwed”, although it’s more just unfair that some teams get a great boost in the chances of making playoffs while they get nothing of benefit.

Two Lotteries

This brings us to the next issue, the over-complication of the NHL Draft Lottery itself. Bob McKenzie was on TSN1050 today and explained it there. Basically, the lottery will take place like it normally does. The odds are listed above. If all three lotteries go to the seven teams that are already out of playoffs, there will be no other lottery. However, if one of the mystery placeholders wins, a second lottery will take place after the play-in games are done.

The losers of these play-in games would all have a 12.5% chance to win the pick. This means for some teams, their odds of winning the lottery may actually increase. Originally, a team like the Winnipeg Jets who finished 17th by points percentage would have a one percent chance of winning. However, the mystery teams will have a combined 25% chance at a pick, which will then give each team a 12.5% chance at winning.

Improved Chances

Let’s look at the Jets. They would usually have a one percent chance at winning the lottery given they finished 17th in points percentage. Now, they would climb to 3.125% just for losing their play-in series. This isn’t the biggest deal in the world, however, you do have to wonder why all eight teams get the same odds? Is it because this is how the NHL views it to be fair to balance out the lower teams? Maybe it’s so teams wouldn’t try to purposefully lose if they know a top pick is available and they would have better odds? But then you would ask why not wait until the play-in round is completed to just draw the lottery like you normally would?

Either way, the addition of a second lottery seems overly complicated, especially because there wasn’t too much of an explanation given on the percentages. It is most likely because the league wants to draw up content, which is totally understandable. But from an explanation standpoint and an actual logistical and fair view, it just doesn’t make sense.

Solutions?

The real question is how can you fix it? And there truly is no great answer to that. If we want to make it “fair”, maybe you give the teams less of a chance to win the lottery because they had a better chance to make playoffs? The real issue here is how do you make it “fair” for teams like Pittsburgh, who could be screwed out of playoffs but also should be nowhere near the lottery. Another solution is to cap the number of places a team can jump. Whether that be five spots up, or six, or whatever really. Whatever would be deemed fair. But that has its issues too.

There will certainly be issues, either way, it just seems unfair to the teams who have no chance of competing. Even if those teams understandably don’t want to, there’s no reason that the teams who should have been in the lottery get a bump for playoff chances while also not having it affect them in any way if they lose. Or, having even better chances if it doesn’t work out. Another solution is waiting until the play-ins are completed so you can do it more fairly. However, people want the content to talk about and the NHL wants to stay relevant.

Perhaps the NHL should have limited it to the bottom seven teams only. Although, the teams like Montreal and Chicago would have an argument that they are being screwed out of both scenarios then.

Going Forward

There is no easy way around this. Maybe the fairest way would include changing parts of the 24-team tournament too. The overarching issue that teams now have a better chance at playoffs while the lottery doesn’t have much effect may leave a sour taste in some fan’s mouths.

Some of the bottom teams, like the Buffalo Sabres, are left asking questions. Questions like why do they miss the cut but also don’t get a lottery increase? The NHL had a very tough decision to make. One thing is for sure, they made the NHL Draft Lottery much more complicated than expected.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. I’m sorry, but I just don’t see what all the hand-wringing is about. Just as likely as a team losing a best of five against someone they should play better than is that the same team lose steam in the last 11 to 13 games of the regular season while teams just like the one they lose to in the best of five get hot. It happens. We see some version of the story every season. I would rather them finish the season than just pack it in. And as much as it would’ve been nice as a Red Wings fan to see them guaranteed one of the top two spots as rumored, it isn’t like they really lost anything. Would it seem unfair for Pittsburgh to win the draft lottery? Sure. Would it have been a good feeling for the NHL to recognize that the Red Wings have never shown signs of tanking as they dropped and awarded them first overall on principle? Sure. But when I think with my intellect and not my feelings, what they put forward makes sense if you’re trying to make a good faith effort to finish the season and quickly get back to normal.

  2. If one or all lottery picks are won in phase 1 by teams 8-15, there’ll be teams purposely losing the play-in tournament knowing they’ll have a 12.5% chance to land a top 3 pick. Or, if 3 lottery picks are in play, 12.5% x 3 chance of landing 1 of the top 3 picks. If the Habs have a 12.5% chance of landing Laf, I can see them doing what they can to get the best opportunity at a possible francophone star. Imagine a play-in series where both teams are trying to lose.

  3. […] The NHL has announced plans for returning to play this Summer, coronavirus-permitting. The regular season is now officially over and in the record books with the playoffs coming up. But there was also something for teams that aren’t invited to the second season: the format of the 2020 NHL draft was also announced. We, like every other hockey fan around the world, have opinions. And what good is working when you can’t argue with your boss? […]

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