NHL Draft Lottery: a Race to the Bottom

It’s that time of the year when hockey fans have nothing better to do but decide who will win the Stanley cup based on zero games played, wait to hear what other meaningless hiring’s the Toronto maple leafs will make in order to appear like they are addressing issues, and discuss rule changes for the next year.

For those unfamiliar with how the draft order is selected, the 14 teams that do not make the playoffs are seeded in reverse order of how many points they earned in the regular season with the worst team picking first and the best picking last. In this situation you win by losing as the worst team would have the opportunity to draft a possible franchise player who could step into an NHL role sooner rather than later.

Simple enough? That’s just the beginning. The 14 teams are then entered into a lottery, with the worse teams having better chances of winning the lottery. Before the lockout, the winner of the lottery moved up four places in the draft with all the teams that it leap-frogged moving back one position. After the lockout, the winner automatically moved to the first draft position.

But why complicate things? Many say that the best solution is the most elegant one, the worst team should pick first, end of story. They need it don’t they? The issue is that would encourage teams to tank in order to draft higher (see Mario Lemieux) and no franchises audience wants to watch a race to the bottom. It’s bad for competition and it’s bad for the NHL. This is especially necessary this coming year with Connor McDavid, who has been heralded as the next greatest hockey human, almost assured to be the first overall pick. It is easy to imagine teams losing in order to get this kid.

That is why it is no surprise that the NHL recently adjusted the draft lottery odds, lowering the odd’s of the worst four teams while raising the odd’s of the better ten. If you are the worst team in the league, you still only have 20% of a chance of getting Connor McDavid.

Below are the draft lottery odds

Non-Playoff Team
(Fewest Pts. to Most)
New Draft Lottery Odds Odds Under Former Allocation
1 20.0% 25.0%
2 13.5% 18.8%
3 11.5% 14.2%
4 9.5% 10.7%
5 8.5% 8.1%
6 7.5% 6.2%
7 6.5% 4.7%
8 6.0% 3.6%
9 5.0% 2.7%
10 3.5% 2.1%
11 3.0% 1.5%
12 2.5% 1.1%
13 2.0% 0.8%
14 1.0% 0.5%

Graph provided by NHL.com

But that’s OK, this Eichel kid is supposed to be another extraordinary player, the sabers would at least get him if someone else leapfrogs them in the standings, right? Well actually, the league also announced that there would be a lottery for the top three overall spots rather than just the first. So you can be monumentally awful and only pick fourth overall.

But is it enough? If the team that just comes up short of being the worst in the league in 2014-15 (NY Islanders) wins the first overall pick in the lottery, the odds that the worst team (Buffalo) wins the lottery for second pick increase. It is highly unlikely that they continue to fall.

I think there is a simpler solution that encourages teams to try to win while also giving an edge to the worse teams to win the lottery. You have 14 teams, the one with the best record should get one entry into the draft, the second best would then get two entries, and so on and so forth. This would leave the worst team with fourteen entries and a much lower advantage over its closest competition. The lottery should not be just for the first overall pick, or an arbitrarily assigned number of picks like three, but for every pick. This would make it much more risky to tank in a season, incentivizing teams to compete every year, while also giving a slight competitive advantage to legitimately bad teams.

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