With the playoff race coming down to the wire and the battle for top seeding in each conference raging on, the most anticipated game on last night’s schedule may have been the one between the two worst teams in the league. The Coyotes and Sabres met in a rematch of last week’s showdown, one that ended with Sabres fans cheering an overtime goal against their own team.
All of that is ridiculous, and it’s a situation the NHL had to know was coming. By going with a draft lottery system that guarantees the last-place team a top-two pick in a draft with two franchise players, the league all but guaranteed that things would get silly as we came down to the wire. The Sabres have been widely accused of tanking their entire season to ensure they get one of those two picks, and the Coyotes have given them a run for their money by trading away just about everyone with a pulse as the season wore on. Meanwhile, fans of other miserable teams like the Oilers and Maple Leafs watch with envy, wishing their teams could drop into the race for dead last. The whole thing is a mess, and the league should be embarrassed.
But while it’s easy enough to second-guess the NHL’s handling of the situation, I’m going to invoke my long-standing rule of hockey criticism: You don’t get to complain unless you can offer up a better idea. Luckily, when it comes to assigning draft order, there are plenty of other options available to the league. Some of those involve tweaks to the current way of doing things, others offer more radical changes, and still others discard the existing system entirely and come at the problem from a whole new angle.
You won’t like every idea below, but you’ll probably think at least a few of them would be improvements over what we’re stuck with now. So here are a dozen ways the NHL could go about the business of handing out draft picks, ranked in order from the least to most disruptive.
Option 1: Just keep things the way they are
We’ll start with the status quo. As a reminder, here’s how the system works today: All 14 teams that miss the playoffs are entered into a lottery, with the worst team getting the best shot at winning (20 percent) and the odds dropping from there. Whichever team wins moves up to the first overall pick, with everyone else slotted in based on the reverse of the final standings (meaning nobody can drop more than one spot).
And maybe that’s fine. After all, not everyone thinks the current system is a disaster. And even those who’d agree that this year’s silliness is a bad look for the league might argue that that’s mainly a result of a fairly unique set of circumstances — i.e., two blue-chip franchise players in the same draft. That’s a reasonably rare situation — the last time we’ve seen this sort of top two was probably back in 2004, when Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin came in — so maybe there’s no need to panic over a problem that won’t be anywhere near as pronounced most seasons.
Biggest advantage: It would certainly be the easiest solution.
Biggest objection: The league has already decided against this approach, as we’ll see in the next section.
Option 2: The same basic system, but we draw more than one winner
What if we kept the same general idea behind the current system — a weighted lottery involving all the non-playoff teams, with the same set of odds tilted in favor of those that finished further down in the standings — but drew more than one winning number? Like, purely for the sake of argument, three?
That would mean you’d have three lottery winners, and they’d get the first three picks in the draft. Other teams could drop as many as three spots, so the team that finished in last place overall could end up picking as far down as fourth.
A system like that wouldn’t eliminate tanking, and it wouldn’t discourage fans from rooting against their own team to get better odds. But it would at least reduce the incentive to mount an all-out campaign to finish dead last, and it would prevent a situation like this year, when the reward for being terrible is a guaranteed chance to draft a franchise player.
Biggest advantage: The NHL has already decided to do it. The system I just described was approved last summer, and will go into effect next season.
Biggest objection: Other than not going far enough, the biggest problem with the league’s new system is that the NHL didn’t implement it for this season. That was understandable — you could argue that it’s unfair to shift the odds around on short notice — but in hindsight, the league should have pushed to get the change done before the offseason started. Don’t like it, bad teams? Make some moves and don’t finish dead last.
Option 3: Keep the weighted lottery, but establish a floor
This is a relatively new idea; I saw it for the first time a few weeks ago in a post on a Coyotes blog. Essentially, you’d keep the existing system, but establish a minimum points threshold that teams would have to hit to be eligible for the draft lottery. Maybe it’s a firm number, or maybe it shifts based on how the league as a whole is performing, but the core idea remains the same: If a team can’t meet that minimum threshold of on-ice respectability, then it loses its eligibility for the lottery.
Biggest advantage: Teams couldn’t blatantly tank if they knew they had to maintain some minimal degree of competitiveness. And you’d occasionally get late-season situations in which bad teams had to win their way into the lottery, which would be fun to watch.
Biggest objection: We’d probably spend the entire offseason arguing over what exactly the cutoff should be. And while we all hate tankers, sometimes a team finishes last because it really did get hit by a massive wave of bad luck; those teams could end up missing the cutoff even though they weren’t trying to tank.