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NHL mulling over having the draft in June

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Could the NHL really put the draft cart before the playoffs horse?

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2019 NHL Global Series Challenge Prague - Chicago Blackhawks v Philadelphia Flyers
Bill Daly is making an offer the teams can’t refuse.
Photo by Chase Agnello-Dean/NHLI via Getty Images

Update May 2:

On May 1, late in the evening, a memo was leaked to the usual insiders that laid out Bill Daly’s case for the draft going ahead in early June:

NHL, Daly state case for early-June draft in memo sent to teams - Sportsnet.ca
The NHL sent out an internal memo Friday night stating the case for an early-June draft. A decision is expected next week.

Friday night, after teams received the NHL’s position paper on the possibility of a June draft, there were several reactions.

A couple were, “They’re really trying to convince us, aren’t they?”

Some wouldn’t change from an original opinion of, “This is terrible, and I don’t support it.”

But the biggest response was resignation: “It sure reads like, this is what we are doing… get used to it.”

That’s what it sounds like to me.

There was more from Pierre LeBrun in tweet form:

In the speculation below from when this idea was floated as a trial balloon, a few draft lottery and trading scenarios are floated. It’s now clear that only pick trades would be allowed, and that the lottery format used would be this one:

Of note: the Leafs have one of those conditional picks that they’d have to sort out, but it’s not a difficult one. The first round pick that was traded to Carolina to dump the Patrick Marleau contract is conditional on the Leafs not being in the top ten of the draft. This draft lottery format would prevent that from being the case. The pick is actually going to end up with the Rangers once it’s confirmed it’s the one the Leafs have to give up. Carolina traded it for Brady Skjei to go on a cup run.

The conditional pick in the Kyle Clifford/Jack Campbell trade is based partly on this year’s playoff spot, but it’s a 2021 pick, so that’s not a concern right now unless the Leafs want to be able to trade it. They might still need a ruling on that set of conditions.

The decision on all of this — or perhaps the inevitable acquiescence is a better word for it — will come fast next week.

Why is the NHL so adamant about this? Obviously the buzz around the NFL draft is something they’d like to have a piece of, to remind people hockey is a thing still as the weather warms up. But the real reason is money. The NHL is a business, an entertainment business. It isn’t a charity devoted to the purity of hockey or the love of the game or anything else warm and fuzzy. And it isn’t greed that drives them to care about the revenue stream and maintaining fan interest.

There is a worst-case scenario where the NHL does not get to play all or even any of the 2019-2020 season, and the 2020-2021 season could still start late and without fans. No fans means no ticket sales. No fans means the AHL either delays its start or has to be financially supported by the NHL affiliates. If that happens, the league and individual teams may owe money back to local, regional and national broadcasters. Maybe a lot of money. Many teams who own their own buildings make more money off the concession profits than the games themselves. No fans means none of that revenue. No fans in the stands means jersey sales decline. No fans means the entertainment district built up around the arena is slowly going broke. Some NHL teams own those business outright, or have a stake in the developments.

When teams start to go broke — and some are so close all the time, just the reality they will have to refund some ticket revenue is likely keeping them up at night — the first place they can turn is to the NHL who offers a line of credit to teams in the USA. This is reportedly not available in Canada due to regulations here, but for most of the teams on the edge, it’s the league that will haul them back.

When that Board of Governors call goes through on Monday, many of those teams will be reminded of who holds the safety net underneath their high wire financial act.

I think we should assume the draft is a go for early June.


This is the original story published when this idea was merely a rumour of a plan:

Yesterday it was revealed that one of the many things the NHL is considering is going ahead with the NHL Entry Draft in June. Even if they can resume the regular season after and play the playoffs, they will do the draft first.

The NHL has a planning conundrum. They can’t know now if they can play the playoffs in July or August, but June is a busy NHL month, and they will have to make decisions about more than just cancelling the NHL Awards show. The draft is currently postponed with no decision on how or when to hold it.

Elliotte Freidman points out an interesting wrinkle to this problem in his mini-blog on the topic:

[C]ontracts end on June 30, and there are many scouts/executives working the draft who currently would not be on-contract for a later-summer event. One team apparently has 18 expiring deals.

Hey, who has enough scouts and other members of the front office to have 18 running out...

It isn’t just hockey operations employees of teams who have contracts about to expire, either. The June 30 fiscal year end of the NHL is a big problem the entire NHL has to deal with before too many more days pass. If a decision is made in May to cancel the rest of the 2019-2020 season, they can, with some modifications, just carry on with the normal calendar of events. The only thing they’ve missed is the draft lottery, and it’s not that hard to find ping pong balls at short notice.

But the NHL isn’t going to make that decision in May, and it’s not just the massive amount of lost revenue that’s holding them back. NHL hockey makes money, it’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s about humans striving for greatness, and it’s about celebrity and it’s a morality play for the 21st century. And all of that means nothing without the Stanley Cup.

If the NHL can’t play playoffs and contest for the Cup, the trustees who look after it can actually award it to someone else. Someone (a lawyer) tried to make them do that back in 2005.

When Gary Bettman says the NHL wants the playoffs, you should take him at his word. Because without them, the NHL is meaningless.

June is not the offseason

If all you do is watch hockey games until your team is eliminated, your offseason starts sometime in April, May or early June. But June is not the offseason. The NHL is so packed with deadlines and contract-related timelines, that even August isn’t completely devoid of the business of hockey, and June is the busiest month of the year for some departments in a hockey team’s office.

The normal June calendar looks like this:

June 1: Draft rights expire for some players.

June 15 or 48 hours after the Stanley Cup Final: First buyout window opens. The buyout window closes on June 30, and subject to each team’s arbitration cases, they may have another chance later in the summer.

~June 21: NHL Awards in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Two or three days after the awards: NHL Entry Draft

June 26: Qualifying offers are due for Restricted Free Agents. RFAs who do not receive qualifying offers become free agents on July 1.

June 27-June 30: Discussion period for UFAs.

June 30: NHL fiscal year end.

July 1: Most signing bonuses are paid and players contracts have formally expired or flipped to the next year. Some players must provide no-trade clause lists.

In order to play hockey after June 30 — hockey that is part of the 2019-2020 for purposes of calculating Hockey Related Revenue, contractual control of players, insurance, and a host of other things — the NHL and the NHLPA will have to agree to a formula for moving their fiscal year end and their entire calendar of year-end activities to some future date. And they might be doing it without any future date firmly in mind. They might be doing it purely speculatively.

If player contracts are just going to be extended — let’s say to August 31 for the sake of picking a day — then signing bonuses and free agency might get moved to some date in early September. That leaves enough time after the potential playoffs to fit in buyouts, qualifying offers and enough offer sheet speculation to satisfy the fans, just in time for training camp to begin for next year.

It’s easy to see how fitting a draft in there as well makes it a too-crowded schedule. And the draft is really the only part of that June calendar of events that could be detached from the rest of it all and fit in now when we all have time on our hands. This isn’t much different to PPP trying to decide if we should do the T25U25 now instead of August. And the NHL have about as much solid intel to make that decision with as we do.

Draft order solutions

The draft order is, of course, the biggest problem to solve, should the NHL choose to go ahead with this scheme. For PPP, we just have to decide if we want to include Unknown 2nd-Round Drafted Player on the voting list. The NHL has to figure out how to order the 31 teams when they may or may not finish the season in the future.

The whole thing seems absurd at first until you step back, remember a thing or two, and look at it again. Thing one is that the regular season is nearly done and the standings changes possible, even if the entire 82 games were to be played, would be minimal at the bottom of the list. No one can catch Detroit for best odds of picking first. This entire idea would be much harder to consider if Steve Yzerman hadn’t done such an amazing job of tanking.

The contested battle for the next best odds in the standard lottery has only three true contenders: Ottawa, San Jose and Los Angeles, and in another happy accident, one of those teams has two of the picks in play. The next set of bad teams who are clustered between 67 and 72 points might argue privately to the NHL about it not being fair that they’d have to put their future in the hands of fate before they’ve had a chance to lose some more games, but they aren’t likely to publicly complain about that. We all must preserve the pretense than no one ever tries to lose. Those not-quite horrible teams are all longshots to win one of the top three picks, or even to pick better than their standings position, but since a longshot has won recently, most GMs will believe it’s more likely than it actually is.

The real sticky part is the question of who gets in the lottery at the top end, and who doesn’t. Florida was most likely going to be a lottery team in the past that never was, and will most likely not play in the playoffs in the future that might not be, but that isn’t certain. Can you make a decision on how to order the draft based on what might have been and could still be? The Leafs could have been a lottery team, and might yet be, however unlikely. But should Florida and Toronto be set in and out of the lottery now when there could be a regular season that ends up with the opposite result?

The solution seems to be to have all 31 teams’ places decided by some new form of lottery weighted to give Detroit the best chance of picking first and the teams at some specified point no chance. For the top few teams in the NHL, this entire conversation is moot, whether they know it or not. Their chances of drafting a good player at 31 is the same as at 30, 29, 28, and... well, that stops being true at some number, but like everything else on our minds, there is no definitive answer of when it changes state from true to false.

This is just fodder for fighting over how you get 31 teams into an order, not an argument against doing it. A lottery or set of lotteries could create a list no one likes, everyone complains about, and is therefore pretty fair. The draft could go on, virtually, as a TV event — something sports broadcasters really, really need right now, and the teams can check one task off their to-do list.

Why won’t this work?

More decisions would need to be made about conditional picks based on the standings, games played in the playoffs, etc. Arbitrary rules could be made, and the NHL is nothing if not an organization that can just do that (subject to the NHLPA’s agreement). If you’re arbitrarily making a new draft order, you sort out conditional picks too. At some point, we’ll all have to admit, the point of the NHL is putting on a show. That’s what the Cup represents. So... put on a show.

There’s just one other problem, though. How do you have the draft without trades? How do you have pick trades without player trades? There can’t be player trades in this hiatus because the rest of this season might go ahead. So either the NHL allows pick trades only, in which case the entire economy of pick values changes, or they don’t allow any trades, which might mean we’d see something brand new in the NHL.

There’s “bird in the hand” thinking at play in sports when it comes to draft picks as assets. Maybe it’s impossible to overcome, but once a draft pick stops being a lottery ticket and becomes a specific prospect — a person — he never gets traded right away. Before the draft, a pick is valued by how probable on draft day a player selected with it will have value. But the actual prospect is valued by what he might become. The mental model switches to longer term thinking the instant the draft pick has a name, a page on Elite Prospects and crying parents.

If the NHL held the draft in the hiatus, without allowing teams to trade picks, everyone would be forced to find new ways to make the eventual offseason trades. It’s possible that the currency would just get shifted to next year’s picks, but it’s also possible that teams will start trading their just-drafted prospects as the futures in deals for NHL players they need for next season.

No one does this. It’s really hard to find examples of prospects traded close to their draft date. No one does this because we know the future of a prospect is too hard to pin down, but the desire to believe in the best-case scenario about every prospect is too hard to resist. It’s human nature to hope for the best, even if we do plan for the worst as well.

That human desire for hope is why this mad scheme is even being considered by the NHL. We want the best-case scenario future where the Stanley Cup is awarded to anyone but Boston in 2020, and we’ll sit here waiting for it for as long as it takes. The best case for the NHL means a better case for the world, and that’s where we’ve really pinned our hopes here. If the NHL was pessimistic about the future of all of us, they’d have had the draft already, shut down the league, turned the lights out and gone home.


A couple of more takes:

NHL exploring moving Draft up to June – before season is completed - TSN.ca
One of the items discussed on the NHL’s biweekly General Managers conference call on Tuesday was the idea of conducting the 2020 Draft virtually in June, before the 2019-20 season is completed, as first reported by TSN Hockey Insider Pierre LeBrun.

NHL needs to decide 'relatively quickly' on fate of June draft - Sportsnet.ca
If the NHL is going to proceed with a June entry draft amid its paused season, deputy commissioner Bill Daly says it will need to commit to that approach “relatively quickly.”

And some clarity on rumours about plans for resumption, how serious they are, and what they look like now:

Sources - NHL no longer considering neutral sites
The NHL has turned its attention away from neutral sites and is focusing on restarting the 2019-20 season at league arenas, sources tell ESPN.