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The Death of the Ping Pong Balls: Re-thinking the NHL Draft Lottery

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General Managers discussed the idea of changing the draft lottery system during meetings this week

2020 NHL Draft Lottery Phase 2 Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images

I was an observer of this community for the 2014-15 season. Glad to have found a community of people that obsessed about the Sabres and the draft as much as I was, but reluctant to make a FanPost because I felt I wasn’t knowledgeable enough to contribute. Then the infamous Coyotes game happened, the fans cheered when we lost, and Mike Weber was NOT happy. So I wrote him an open letter which I published here.

This past week there were reports that the GMs (at least some of them) were not happy with the current NHL draft lottery and were seeking changes to it. Elliotte Friedman reported specifically that Steve Yzerman was not happy moving down to the fourth pick this past year.

While the lottery system has been in place since the 1995 NHL draft and it’s current format adopted for the 2016 draft; it has been far from perfect. The 2016 draft rules expanded the lottery so any team could get the #1 pick and was built to keep teams from tanking to get a top two pick.

While there hasn’t been a draft like 2015 that features two sure-fire superstars in recent years; there are two drafts in 2022 and 2023 that are shaping up to resemble the McDavid/Eichel year. With Shane Wright/Brad Lambert in 2022 shaping to be a VERY good 1-2 combo (with Shane Wright being a top-end #1 pick) followed by what is thought to be the 2015 superstar level showdown again in 2023 with Connor Bedard and Matvei Michkov; there are going to be some angry Owners/GMs who get the wrong end of the ping pong balls in the upcoming years.

Alas, back to my open letter to Mike Weber. What has stuck with me for the five years since writing that post is the simple thought of “Why would the NHL create a system where I root against my team?” I think the ideal NHL draft lottery does three things:

1.) You are never put in a position to root against your team. What fun is it to root for a Sabres loss? You want to watch Eichel go in on a breakaway with a tie game and hope he misses so we might get a better draft pick?

2.) There is excitement for all 82 games.

3.) Management should be motivated to win even after they realize they aren’t making the playoffs. They shouldn’t be rewarded for selling every player they can for a draft pick at the trade deadline. They shouldn’t bench half the lineup because the season is lost.

My 2021-22 NHL Lottery Draft Lottery Proposal

How it works:

  • Once a team is mathematically eliminated from the playoffs that team will begin to accrue points towards winning the #1 pick (or highest draft pick they can obtain)
  • The team who accrues the most points once they are mathematically eliminated gets the #1 pick.
  • Tie breakers go: Lower Standings points, ROW, Head-to-head ROW, Goal differential

The pandemic shortened season didn’t allow me to run what it’d look like for this past season. Running this model for Detroit though (who at the time the pandemic ended the season was the only mathematically eliminated team) they had 5 points over 7 games. Ottawa was about a game or two away from entering the sweepstakes, and San Jose was about 2-3 games away.

Running it for the 2018-19 season this is what the draft order would’ve looked like:

2019 Draft Lottery Model

Team Date Eliminated Games Played Record Model Points Total Points in season Draft Order No Lottery Actual Draft Order Model Draft Order
Team Date Eliminated Games Played Record Model Points Total Points in season Draft Order No Lottery Actual Draft Order Model Draft Order
Detroit Red Wings 3/12 12 8-4-0 16 74 4 6 1
LA Kings 3/18 10 6-3-1 13 71 2 5 2
Ottawa Senators 3/9 13 6-7-0 12 64 1 4 3
New Jersey Devils 3/15 10 4-5-1 9 72 3 1 4
Florida Panthers 3/26 5 3-0-2 8 86 13 13 5
New York Rangers 3/23 8 3-4-1 7 78 6 2 6
Anaheim Ducks 3/26 4 3-1-0 6 80 8 9 7
Buffalo Sabres 3/23 8 2-5-1 5 76 5 7 8
Vancouver Canucks 3/29 4 2-1-1 5 81 9 10 9
Chicago Blackhawks 4/2 3 2-1-0 4 84 12 3 10
Edmonton Oilers 4/1 3 1-2-0 2 79 7 8 11
Montreal Canadians 4/5 1 1-0-0 2 96 15 15 12
Philadelphia Flyers 3/31 3 0-3-0 0 82 10 11 13
Minnesota Wild 4/2 2 0-2-0 0 83 11 12 14
Arizona Coyotes 4/2 2 0-2-0 0 86 14 14 15

Some thoughts:

  • It’s frustrating to see how poorly the Sabres finished the season.
  • It tiers the draft picks by points, but still introduces a bit of randomness to the process. You see the clear benefit of having more games to accrue points, but just because a team played the most games it didn’t mean they got the #1 pick.
  • I love that Florida jumped up in the standings so much by going undefeated in their five games. That included two wins against the Capitals and Bruins and a shootout loss to the Islanders.
  • Pure chaos. The last game of the season determined someone picking 4th or 10th.

I’m sure someone will point out that conferences could be very different and that two identical point totals and games played in the Eastern and Western conference could have two different paths to when they’d be mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. Case-in-point: the New York Rangers and Edmonton Oilers in 2018-19. While they were separated by just 1 standing point: the Rangers had 8 games to play after they were eliminated compared to Edmonton’s 3 games. But if this is the only con (and I really can’t think of another one)...wouldn’t you rather be in the playoff hunt until 4 games out rather than be chasing a mid-top 10 pick?

If Kevyn Adams is going to read this: propose this for the 2021-22 season. If people bring up the conferences you can always tweak the schedule at the end of the year to appease that crowd. Perhaps everyone plays two teams from each conference for the last 6 games of the year, or that you play your standings equivalent from the previous year in a home-and-home in all three of the other divisions to end the year.

A play-in tournament for the last seed in the playoffs would take too long. I can’t think of an incentive any player would care about for a tournament for the top pick. I hate rewarding intentional losing so no to standings alone for me. Entry-level contract budgets and getting rid of the draft altogether would be a weird way to go in a league with a salary cap with no luxury tax.

Whatever they decide...I just hope it’s the death of the ping pong balls.