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It’s Good That The Draft Lottery Is A Weird Mess Now

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Vote chaos.

2020 CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

On Friday night, the NHL conducted its Draft Lottery Show, in which a number of white men gather to have a contest over who can move their face the least in response to career-altering information. They also decide the selection order for the upcoming entry draft, which will go down in history either because of the great players selected or because it turned out to be the last draft before the collapse of civilization from COVID/fascism/murder hornets/superfluous Star Wars films.

This draft is usually considered to have one gold-plated, can’t-miss superstar, Rimouski Oceanic winger Alexis Lafreniere. Lafreniere, or “Laffy” as he is required to be called by the Law Against Interesting Hockey Nicknames, has a whopping 112 points in 52 games this year. Since no player with that level of production in the QMJHL has ever been a draft bust, every fanbase of a bottom-seven team was understandably hopeful that they might print the golden ticket. (Except San Jose. Be nice to them, they’re old.)

The league, however, had to make some adjustments. After one failed proposal that would have made the lottery more predictably tied to the standings—just going to note in passing that the NHL’s idea went most of the way towards rigging the lottery in favour of Detroit; hold onto that thought—the league settled on a compromise with its expanded playoff structure. As you likely know, the league instituted a play-in round for the teams ranked between ninth and twenty-fourth in the NHL, adjusted for division. Eight of those teams will win and get to go on to the “real” playoffs, and the other eight will be deemed to miss the playoffs.

Of course, we don’t know who those eight losers are, because the play-in round hasn’t occurred yet. So the league made a bunch of “Placeholder” teams with a chance to win. Guess what happened:

As the diehard fans of Placeholder Team E shouted nonspecific slogans and pulled on blank jerseys, quite a few people were furious. A team in the sort-of playoffs will have a chance at winning the top selection the draft. A team that might not even suck that badly could add a franchise winger. That doesn’t sound right!

But it is. It’s right and good. Let’s look through why.

1. Math Reasons

None of this is that crazy, from an odds perspective. Detroit was significantly more likely to pick fourth than anywhere else. There was nearly a one-in-four chance a placeholder would get the first pick.

The odds were the same as always; if we’d had a normal season, the next gang of eight teams would have had these shots at first overall and one of them would have gotten it. This is definitely a more fun and exciting possibility than some of the alternatives, which is why it is good, but it was hardly totally beyond the realm of possibility. The system is still fundamentally same as it’s been since 2016. Results like this are going to happen sometimes.

2. Detroit Will Be Fine

Detroit fans get to be sad for a bit. It sucks to lose out on a franchise player and to settle for a very good one, and Detroit did just endure a terrible season where their team was far and away the worst in the NHL. We can all take a moment to pity the Red Wings fanb—

Oops, sorry, sympathy’s used up now. Hey, remember when the Wings had a semi-dynasty for twenty years and they practically bought an All-Star team pre-salary-cap and they got the second-best defenceman in history in the second round of the draft and they got two of the most absurd late round steals in any sport ever and they won four Stanley Cups and everyone talked about how they were the Gold Standard Organization to such an extent that Ken Holland could give a ninth forward a contract in the low eight figures for longer than the average life expectancy in North America and the whole hockey media would nod solemnly and insist that The Red Wings Way (TM) was the only true and righteous way to run a hockey team so help us Jesus Christ PRAISE DETROIT?

I remember. Look, the Red Wings are, for the first time in nearly thirty years, really terrible. It takes some getting used to, and I don’t think many Wings fans have that mindset yet. Which, to be blunt, is the only way you can go into a draft lottery where your odds are skewed to fourth expecting anything but the fourth pick. In 2016, you know who I talked myself into? Pierre-Luc Dubois. My dream pick was Patrik Laine. I didn’t even contemplate winning the actual top pick. That’s what cheering for absolute garbage teams for a decade does: it teaches you expectation management. It’s all right, guys, you’ll get there.

Also, I assume that whoever Detroit gets fourth overall—Alexander Holtz, maybe?—will immediately turn into a destroyer of worlds next to Dylan Larkin and he’ll ruin the Leafs for years to come. See? Expectation management. It’s an art.

3. It’s Okay That A Play-In Team Can Win

The obvious comeback there is that fans aren’t mad their team didn’t win—they’re mad that a good-ish team might wind up picking first overall.

First off, just to be clear, I don’t believe this. If Detroit had won the lottery the number of Wings fans complaining about the pick would quite rightly be zero. That’s entirely fair. I too like winning stuff better than not winning stuff, despite cheering for the Leafs.

But the draft lottery, as it has been since inception, is a consolation for not getting to make the playoffs. That’s why the lottery starts, normally, right under the playoff cut line and why the league typically does the lottery during a playoff game. You don’t get to enjoy the big dance, so you get a little hope for the future.

That’s exactly what it is now. Getting knocked out in the play-in round, without making the playoffs, will be brutal. The play-in round is a substitute for the end of the regular season; so be it. The chances of the upper-mid-tier teams getting eliminated from the playoffs effectively just went way up, and yes, that includes teams like Pittsburgh and Toronto. I don’t get the impression that too many other Atlantic fanbases were crying about the chance of the Leafs getting knocked out in Round Zero even though their chances of making the playoffs, at the time of suspension, were a lot better than they’ll likely be in a best-of-five series. The coin has a flip side.

4. Ottawa Will Also Be Fine

I hate to admit this: Ottawa is going to get a really good draft haul. They’re picking third and fifth in a draft that’s normally considered to have eight excellent skater prospects. Walking away from this draft with, say, Tim Stutzle and Jamie Drysdale is the kind of foundation teams dream about. It might not be quite as good as Lafreniere, but it’s pretty swell. And there have been more than a few drafts where you could have done a lot better with third and fifth together than with first.

5. Excitement

Meanwhile a whole new door opened up for a bunch of fanbases. There’s a chance at a star player! Intrigue! Action! All that good stuff! It’s like a surprise bonus round on The Price Is Right where you, I don’t know, throw a ball at a dartboard or something, I haven’t watched The Price Is Right in like twenty years. The point is that sports are about hope for future rewards and this result just made more of that possible.

And before anyone asks—

6. The Play-In Teams Aren’t Tanking

Teams do tank in the NHL. Or more specifically: general managers tank. Players sometimes lose hope as the season winds on and give up.

I am very, very skeptical that this will apply for the play-in teams. It’s the first competitive step on the road to the Cup and I guarantee you every team involved is telling itself it has a chance. There’s not much room for personnel moves in any event; it’s not like Marc Bergevin can pull a Tim Murray and trade his goalies to tank (also it’s not like he can trade Carey Price regardless.) Everyone is in it to win it, and while some of those dreams will be ruthlessly crushed, they appeal to the competitive spirit. I don’t think anyone’s throwing a best-of-five series unless they’re down two games and six goals, and in that case, they probably deserve a break anyway.

7. Maybe People Will Start To Reconsider The Whole Draft Lottery

Here’s the reality: the draft lottery is kind of silly. It doesn’t really disincentivize tanking very well, because you get better odds from finishing lower once you’re awful. It just mixes in a dose of randomness and generates a television program for it.

Insofar as the result here is bad, it’s because the same system we’ve had for four and a half years is bad. We could stand to look at some totally new ways of doing things, instead of just taking the reverse standings order and fudging the numbers a bit. We could consider something genuinely exciting like the Gold Plan or this creative auction-based idea or any of plenty other things. A placeholder team having a shot at Lafreniere isn’t any more absurd than what the lottery already is—but if it makes people annoyed, well, maybe we can finally try to make something better.

Assuming these playoffs ever actually happen, I’ll be cheering like hell for the Leafs to beat Columbus and I won’t spare a thought for the next lottery unless they’re eliminated. If they were to win it, I’d be over the moon; if they were to lose it, I’d be fine with it.* But the chaos here is fun, it’s no more unfair than the usual system, and it gave much of the league actual hockey excitement in a time when both hockey and excitement are in short supply. So congrats to Team Placeholder E, and may the best loser win.

*Unless the Montreal Canadiens win it. Then it’s a goddamn travesty.