Over the weekend, Mark Spector of the Hockey News wrote a piece calling on the NHL to intervene in the draft order to prevent the Edmonton Oilers from securing another No. 1 overall draft pick. This led to discussion over Twitter as to the validity of the idea, and how the draft lottery could be better reformed.
Much of this talk was prevalent last season, as a handful of teams tanked for the right to draft Connor McDavid. I wrote a piece on The Faceoff Circle last March about how the draft lottery could be reformed. Below is a reproduced and updated version of that draft proposal.
Let’s make one thing clear: tanking is embarrassing, and the NHL should be embarrassed.
It goes against the inherent rules of sports fandom to cheer for your team to lose. The very nature of being a fan of a team is that you want them to win. The problem with that is when you have a system that incentivizes bad teams to lose. It is common sense that if you reward bad teams losing in the form of a top draft pick, fans are going to want their teams to lose because that is what will maximize their chances of winning in the long term.
Of course, this is the NHL we’re talking about, so common sense is not always so common. Before the draft lottery, the No. 1 pick simply went to the last place team. The 1983-84 Pittsburgh Penguins put on the most blatant display in an effort to land Mario Lemieux with the No. 1 pick. The GM of the Penguins at the time even admits that his goal was to lose as many games as possible.
Did the NHL do anything about it? Yes, but it took eleven years and another incident of alleged tanking, when the 1992-93 Ottawa Senators were believed to have thrown their season to land No. 1 pick Alexandre Daigle. Even then, the NHL waited two years to institute a draft lottery, and the biggest punishment levied against the Sens was drafting hockey’s answer to Ryan Leaf.
Headlining last year’s draft class were generational talents Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. Since there is only a one-team lottery for No. 1, the worst-case scenario for finishing last was landing someone who projects to be an elite player. Not to mention that the worse your team finished, the more likely it was that your team could win the lottery and land McDavid.
The results were about as silly as you would think.
In a league where only one team finished below 70 points in 2011-12, four teams did so in 2014-15. Two more- the Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes- finished with below 60 points. The Sabres, Coyotes, and Leafs spent the season trading away anything of value and replacing them with players that in all likelihood should not be anywhere near an NHL roster. The desire to tank was so palpable that in a March 26 game in which the Sabres hosted the Coyotes, fans audibly cheered the Coyotes’ OT-winning goal.
Even more embarrassing than the results of last season was the result of the draft lottery. The Edmonton Oilers, forever trapped in a cycle of futility, were rewarded with yet another No. 1 overall pick. They've been trapped in a decade-long rebuild, are on their seventh coach and third general manager in eight seasons. Despite a trio of No. 1 overall picks from 2010-2012- not to mention a No. 3 pick in 2014- they remained the league's symbol of hopeless futility. And for their efforts, they got Connor McDavid.
This is embarrassing and the NHL should be embarrassed. But this is precisely what happens when you create a positive incentive to lose. Anyone with half a brain could have seen this coming.
Tanking is dumb. Cheering for a team to lose is awful. There needs to be a change. The NHL’s only response to this is to expand the existing system by creating three lottery spots. This still does nothing to change the major problem at hand: how can you balance helping bad teams by improving their draft position without creating an incentive to lose?
You have to create a system that is both fair and removes the reward of losing more games. While some great ideas have been floated, they lack the third element: simplicity. The bottom line is the NHL will not accept a draft lottery proposal that can’t be explained in ten seconds or less to the average hockey fan.
I have an idea, and it might just be crazy enough to work.
PART 1: Unweighted Nine-Team Lottery
This is pretty simple: you split the fourteen non-playoff teams into two tiers. The first five will simply draft in spots 10-14 based on their finish in the standings. The remaining nine will enter into a completely random draw for spots 1-9. All nine teams have an equal chance of picking at any position. In the 2015 draft, that’d mean as equal a chance at drafting Timo Meier as Connor McDavid, no matter how bad your team is.
Why nine teams? The right amount of balance. The lottery needs to be big enough to not be restricted to only the top tier draft spots (thus doing nothing to discourage tanking), but not too big. Not all non-playoff teams are created equal, and it would be absurd to put a 90-plus-point ninth place team on the same footing as a 65-point last place team. Think of it this way: do you really see the 2014-15 Kings and 2014-15 Sabres as equals?
While no set number will be perfect, a nine-team lottery is about as good a division between teams out of it and in the hunt as one could get. This is helpful because teams in that second tier are presumably trying to make the postseason, and therefore losing to get into the lottery would not be their goal.
Is the incentive to tank gone? Not entirely. A team on the cusp of the lottery tier might take steps to ensure they don’t win enough to lose the lottery positioning. But on the flipside, in a season of deep parity, those teams may also be on the cusp of the playoff hunt and not want to lose games. The cutoff team last season, for example, was the Colorado Avalanche. Despite finishing 9 points behind the second wild card spot, they were in the hunt most of the season. By the time a team like that gives up on their playoff hopes, the trade deadline has long since passed. This means that team can’t do much to tank even if it wanted to.
But what is important is the incentive to lose is extremely reduced. If you’re the, say, sixth or seventh worst team and playoffs are extremely improbable, there is absolutely zero guarantee that your team’s draft position will improve by losing games and sliding down the standings. You could go on a winning streak, move up in the standings, and still draft first. You could just as easily slide down the standings and draft ninth.
Look at last year’s Leafs as an example. Their catapult down the NHL standings was accelerated by replacing Cody Franson, Mike Santorelli, Daniel Winnik, and Roman Polak with the likes of Eric Brewer, Joakim Lindstrom, Zach Sill, and Tim Erixon. The goal was clear: with playoffs out of the question, make the team worse, lose more, get a better pick and better chance at McDavid. Under this system, the Leafs were already pretty comfortably into the proposed lottery tier (i.e. bottom nine) by February 1. Given that they’d have had an equal shot at No. 1 or No. 9, do they make all those moves?
What it also does is remove the incentive to be as bad as possible and finish dead last. Even under the new system, the last-place team is still guaranteed a top-four pick and proportionally the highest chance at drafting 1st overall. The incentive to lose and improve your draft position is still existent. If all being last does is give you an equal shot at drafting first as it does ninth? That’s the difference between Sidney Crosby and Brian Lee. Alexander Ovechkin and Ladislav Smid. Steven Stamkos and Josh Bailey.
Now, one would think that a team could still accumulate a lot of top-end picks, but there’s just one more added hitch.
PART 2: The "3-2″ Rule
Here’s where the random draw gets a little trickier and more selective: if you draft in the top 3, you are ineligible to win a top 3 pick again for two seasons. Imagine this rule in effect for the previous draft. The Sabres based their entire season on tanking for one of McDavid or Eichel (who they ultimately drafted), but under the "3-2 Rule," they’d have been ineligible to draft either. The Oilers, recipients of four winning lottery balls in five years, would have been ineligible to draft higher than fourth due to drafting third the previous season.
Crazy, isn’t it?
This operates as somewhat of a failsafe to the lottery. Not only is a top pick no longer guaranteed, but if you manage to get one in one season, you’re guaranteed not to for the next two years. This removes the incentive of sustained tanking, similar to what the Sabres did the last two seasons. Under this rule, the 1989-91 Quebec Nordiques and 2010-12 Edmonton Oilers would be relics of the past. With an equal chance at drafting first or ninth, the desire to tank is greatly reduced. Imagine that, but only with picks 4-9. Let’s put it this way: no one is going to throw their entire season for a one-in-nine shot at drafting Matthew Tkachuk.
The current NHL model is deeply, deeply flawed. It’s embarrassing to watch fans cheer for their teams to lose, but the status quo incentivizes it. The more you lose, the better your draft position and chance of moving up in the lottery. The only way to remove that incentive is to remove any improvement in your overall draft position just by losing games.
This proposed model is not perfect, but it solves a lot of those problems. Are fans of a bottom feeder really going to cheer for losses when it does nothing to actually change their standing in the draft? How about when they can’t pick in the top two because they already have recently?
Look back to those Sabres fans cheering on Arizona; does that happen under my hypothetical system? Not when they could draft anywhere in the top nine, and especially not if drafting in the top two last season was to make them ineligible to do so again this season.
Some may say this system is unfair to truly bad teams, who aren’t exactly on par with, say, the ninth worst team. Boo hoo. It’s not entirely fair; but, do you know what? That’s a good thing. Knowing that the ninth-worst team in the league could waltz in and grab the No. 1 pick while your team drafts ninth, do you as a fan have any reason to cheer for losses? Does your team’s management have any reason to trade away players and ice an AHL-calibre lineup?
It may not be perfectly fair, but at the end of the day, your team still gets a top 10 pick. The most important thing is what this system addresses: it’s time to put an end to incentivizing losing. You need a workable system to do it. This is a workable system.