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How 2020’s NHL Draft Lottery Displays a Broken System

Last Friday night’s draft lottery, at least for Detroit fans, was an emotional experience. 

The Wings fell in the draft and will pick 4th overall after a future placeholder team that gets eliminated from the play-in tournament, followed by LA and Ottawa. Despite the 18.5% odds for the first pick this year, Detroit has fallen 9 out of 12 possible spots over the past 4 years.

Now that a few days have passed and emotions aren’t at an all time high, it’s easier to address some of my personal concerns and issues. As much as my own bias is involved, there is some real shared criticism with the draft lottery that seems to be positioned under a magnifying glass after this year’s result.

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Do you know how bad things have to be when people, myself included, agree with Brian Burke?

This Draft Hurts The League More Than It Helps

When the NHL is already towards the bottom of the list in popularity in North America, having a lottery with such a polarizing response hurts the brand. The number of fans that were already confused on how this year’s draft was even going to work hurts the product before anything even unfolds. It felt like the league was rolling out something they weren’t fully confident in just to see if it would stick. 

In May, the league proposed an early June draft that would guarantee Detroit the first or second pick, Ottawa couldn’t do worse than 3 and 4, and New Jersey, Buffalo, Montreal and Chicago couldn’t jump beyond 2, 3, 4, 5, respectively. 

Bias aside and looking at the financial opportunities, the league could have potentially made more profit during this stretch of time given the desperation for sports was higher and many leagues across the globe weren’t back in action. Especially when you considered how well the NFL draft played out, it would have made sense to try and capitalize on an earlier window. 

I can’t imagine the confusion of being a new or casual fan after these modifications just to be left with more unanswered questions after the draft. The league is counting on ad revenue from both drafts and the play-in tournament – it’s possible Lafreniere’s unidentified team helps drive interest but there is the risk of losing viewers out of the frustration and or pure confusion from people who weren’t that involved anyways. 

Did the NHL prioritize money, excitement, and attention to their league at the expense of 6 organizations who needed it? No one knows for sure, but there’s an underlying problem with your draft structure if this theory exists with your consumers. Fans shouldn’t have to believe a draft was rigged for their explanation.  

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This Won’t Stop Tanking 

Even though tanking is an issue across all sports, no league wants to encourage their teams to intentionally lose games for personal gain down the road. But even so, teams have tanked and have been successful at obtaining higher picks. The league needs to discourage management groups from trying to lose but comprehend why that situation exists and help those teams before the mediocre tier of teams.

Now this opens a real possibility that those mediocre teams that got into the expanded tournament won’t be as concerned with losing. No, the players aren’t going to try to lose games, but I think there will be a significantly less sting after the first 8 eliminations. 

Teams like Arizona, Minnesota, Montreal, or Columbus may not have the best odds of going deep into the playoffs (that still could get cancelled at any given day because of the pandemic). If you don’t want to reward teams that tank, I get it, but you don’t give an immense bonus to a team that ends up losing anyways. The first overall pick is not a participation trophy. 

Detroit didn’t need to tank, they were already aggressively horrible. Yzerman knew this team obviously wasn’t a playoff destined group, but he tried to make the roster more competitive. That’s not a tanking motto. 

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One of their best forwards of the season was only acquired in mid November. Their best goal scorer in Mantha, who was on pace for 40+ goals, missed a quarter of the season. Dekeyser played 8 games before needing season ending back surgery. They traded away one of their defensive prospects to bring in Perlini, hoping to re-energize his career, and he scored 1 goal in 40 games. 

The Wings were historically bad because they had superficial talent past the second line and first pairing. They were the only team in the league with a points percentage in the 200s. Detroit’s goal differential was -122 before the season even ended, and the next worse was the Senators at -52. 

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It’s important to highlight how awful the Wings were because this team is not going to improve next year because the system that should be helping bad teams is failing. Whoever Detroit picks at four is most likely, best case scenario, starting in Grand Rapids. 

Detroit and Ottawa are going to be in the conversation for the draft lottery in 2021, and maybe longer. Buffalo, New Jersey, and Anaheim aren’t getting immediate help. LA is the only team that could see a quicker turnaround. These picks help, obviously, but they don’t turn a franchise around in the timely matter needed. These organizations don’t want to be losing, but sometimes that’s the only way to obtain the skill needed. 

Where would Pittsburgh be if they didn’t draft Crosby? Or Edmonton with McDavid? How much longer would it have taken Toronto to make the playoffs without Matthews? Imagine a Chicago dynasty without Kane or the Islanders without Tavares for all those years. These teams don’t need their next superstar, they already exist.

This Keeps Hurting The Markets That Need Help

Most of the teams that could potentially land Lafreniere don’t need the exposure or income. Pittsburgh isn’t suffering. Toronto’s jersey sales aren’t hurting. There aren’t empty seats in Chicago. Calgary, Winnipeg, and Montreal aren’t losing viewership or attention. Season ticket sales aren’t going down for a team in NYC. 

While Detroit isn’t a market that’s necessarily suffering , they need a jolt of excitement. The same can be said about LA. How many more season ticket holders would Ottawa get if they drafted Lafreniere? Buffalo and New Jersey already have a tense fanbase at times. 

I genuinely hope Lafreniere goes to a smaller market team, one that could improve their organization on and off the ice. Somewhere that keeps extra dollars out of Gary Bettman’s hands. I hope he goes to Arizona or Columbus or Florida. Like I said, these same teams are going to be back next year. Their problems weren’t solved in the capacity they needed to be because the league literally skipped over their suffering. 

There is a systematic problem with your lottery if the teams who need the most help keep falling the most. The past 4 years, a team outside the bottom 10 has placed into the top 3. How does your system gift the average teams who are closer to the playoffs before the struggling teams who need it more? 

Futures of franchises should not be based on solely luck, and if they are, you need to downsize the pool of teams who are allowed a chance. 

Hard To Justify 

If you believe Detroit doesn’t deserve help because of their championships in the last 30 years, I don’t blame you. If you believe Detroit tanked so they still don’t deserve it out of integrity to the game, I get that too. 

But where is the integrity in saying an organization that used to be successful doesn’t deserve the help they’ve needed for half a decade, but a team that essentially are in the playoffs does? 

It was Holland’s integrity to a dying playoff streak and aging veterans he both re-signed and brought in that led this team here. His blind loyalty to patch up a sinking ship is an organizational problem at the end of the day. To me, that highlights better morals than giving up, blowing up the team, and blatantly tanking. It makes a stronger case that Detroit is actually more deserving now more than ever for the pick. 

If the plan for the Wings or Senators going first overall was unfair, how do you justify this?  Where is the integrity in helping teams that constantly make the playoffs over the ones who have been in the basement for years?

Detroit didn’t have a 25 year playoff streak or win 4 championships in 12 years on a fluke. They acquired their core talents through years of drafting in deep rounds, when scouting was significantly less important and nowhere near the standard it is today. A 4th overall pick in 2020 standards is not the same as it was decades ago. The last time Detroit owned a 4th overall pick was in 1983 when they selected Yzerman. If you re-do that draft, he goes first overall to the Minnesota North Stars.

A rare example of the counter argument is Colorado falling from 1 to 4 in 2017. It gets them Makar, but if you revisit that draft, they’d probably end up with Hischer. A good player, but it doesn’t change their franchise like they needed to start contending again. My point still remains that bad teams deserve the best talents available before anyone else. Philly and Dallas should have never selected before them. 

If you expand the playoffs to 24 teams, those teams that now qualify increase their chances at winning the Stanley Cup. Those teams should have had higher odds at cup or draft, not both 

How To Fix It 

If there is anything productive from this mess, it could be that the league finally takes a long hard look at their system and how it’s flawed.  

Maybe the only eligible teams to win the lottery are the five teams at the bottom of the standings. The remaining eliminated teams have their normal odds at 2 and 3.

Or you could just eliminate the draft. Those 18-year-olds go to free agency and let teams bid for their services, giving teams a cap to spend during an auction so the worse teams have a bigger allowance. Teams can spend for their positional need this way. 

The Gold Plan could work, where it uses points after a team has been eliminated, so the draft is determined by how many points a team got.

Establish a weighted lottery, keeping the system in place but set up a minimum points threshold for teams to acquire. Or a maximum points threshold that would eliminate teams that go over.

Ken Kal even suggested the two worst teams in the league play each other before the playoffs and the winner gets the first pick and the loser earns second.

There is no shortage of options or ideas. There’s just a fundamental, structured issue at the core of the lottery that deserves to be fixed for the benefit of not only Detroit, but for any team who only gets 17 wins during a season and gets eliminated in February during any given year.

Detroit isn’t getting a bad player at 4. Personally, I’d take Raymond at 4 if Stutzle is gone. This is a draft class where anyone in the top 10 looks promising to be an impact player. The point in all of this is that the needle mover player, the generational talent, shouldn’t have even been considered going anywhere else besides the teams that were already eliminated. 

Obviously a pandemic doesn’t help the situation and the need to adapt is vital. But the lottery structure has been an existing concern for years and it will continue that way until something changes. While this is obviously my own opinion, and admittedly if Detroit drafted higher the amount of anger I have wouldn’t be so intense, these problems would still exist in a vacuum.