Image courtesy of the NHL.com
Even with the recent tweaks to the NHL’s draft lottery odds, the system is clearly meant to help struggling franchises. Long-term parity is the name of the game.
As such, the results of last week’s draw can only be considered an embarrassment. We still don’t know which organization will pick first overall because that selection belongs to one of the play-in squads. Needless to say, that runs counter to the whole spirit of the draft. Now bubble teams and dark horses—previously in the unenviable position of neither truly contending nor sitting low enough in the standings to receive a lottery slot—find themselves in a win-win: They will either advance to the postseason for a chance to hoist the Stanley Cup or lose…and earn a 12.5% crack at the top pick in this year’s draft.
It’s especially notable this year because Rimouski Oceanic forward Alexis Lafreniere is a cut above any other prospect in the class of 2020. Though development is always a guessing game, the 18-year-old looks the part of an instant-impact elite winger. YouTube channel Draft Dynasty released a scouting report that highlights both Lafreniere’s high-end skill and the polished, all-around game that should make him a coach’s dream for the next 10-plus years:
Despite his franchise-altering potential, Lafreniere will not suit up for the team that needs him most. A club in this year’s playoff conversation will add the young star on an entry-level deal while the bottom-feeders settle for lesser prizes.
The Detroit Red Wings (17-49-5) are clearly the biggest losers in that respect. They had mustered the lowest points percentage since the lowly 1999-2000 Atlanta Thrashers and were sitting a whopping 23 points behind the 30th-placed Ottawa Senators when COVID-19 brought the campaign to a screeching halt. If anyone could use a boost of legitimate talent, it’s a team icing the corpses of Frans Nielsen and Justin Abdelkader up front. Moreover, the Wings were awful this year precisely because they were so desperate to remain competitive over the past decade. Their Cup window was closing, but they tried to hold on for dear life and are now facing the inevitable downturn. Though the system is theoretically built to guide them out of the gutter, they slid down to the fourth overall pick.
On the flip side, what if the Pittsburgh Penguins (40-23-6) were to have Lafreniere fall into their lap? That’s one hell of a way to close out Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin’s illustrious careers. Optics matter in pro sports, and watching a blue-chip prospect head to a playoff team that has been accused of getting preferential treatment in the past is…not the best look.
In Toronto, the Leafs (36-25-9) have roughly $40 million of cap space per year tied up in four forwards. General manager Kyle Dubas doesn’t have much wiggle room to improve his roster, but if his team falls in the play-in round, it could be granted yet another young star on an inexpensive rookie deal.
The most ridiculous possibility of all lies out West: The Edmonton Oilers (37-25-9), who picked first overall four times over a six-year span (2010-2015), could acquire the perfect winger for Connor McDavid now that Leon Draisaitl is a full-time center alongside Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Kailer Yamamoto. Once again, the very team that spurred the league’s decision to change the lottery odds could be the one that benefits from them.
And if these laughable scenarios don’t occur, Lafreniere would still begin his NHL career on a respectable squad. Carolina, Vancouver, Calgary, Nashville, Winnipeg, Minnesota and the New York Islanders are solid teams that don’t “deserve” the top overall pick. Columbus’ stingy team play allowed it to survive the departures of Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene and Sergei Bobrovsky in free agency. The New York Rangers and Florida Panthers already boast a couple of exceptional pieces. None of these franchises orchestrated the possibility of drafting Lafreniere because they could have never fathomed it. They were too good—or not bad enough. This boiled down to dumb luck.
In spite of its best intentions, the NHL’s draft lottery is shafting the teams whose outlooks were heavily predicated on it. Detroit and Ottawa were the two worst clubs in 2019-20, and barring a trade, they won’t be picking in the top two. Assuming the system is indeed meant to support the poorest performers, this result is unacceptable.
Granted, you could forgive the league for running into a couple of hurdles amid a historically messy campaign. COVID-19 has disrupted life as we know it, including professional sports. The NHL had to devise a plan on the fly for both the conclusion of the campaign and the offseason. Where would the games be played? How would the playoffs work? What happens if someone tests positive for COVID once play resumes? It’s a logistical nightmare and there is a lot of money on the line. High-stress situations are the perfect breeding ground for mistakes.
The draft lottery, however, was perhaps the easiest item to handle on the agenda. And unlike with the season itself, there was ample time to iron out the kinks. Why is a play-in team even eligible for a lottery pick? That doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense. 24 teams were included in either the play-ins or playoffs. They should have all been excluded from the lottery, giving the very worst franchises the chance to rebuild in earnest. Isn’t that the entire purpose of the draft order? If the NHL is afraid of a cellar-dweller going to the well over and over again as the Oilers did not so long ago, simply add a stipulation that prevents it from selecting in the top three more than once over a certain time period (say, 3 years).
You would be throwing the terrible teams a bone, but only one. After that, it’s up to management to produce a solid foundation out of their new building block. Conversely, you would avoid situations where decent squads add top talent on ELCs. Letting them get in on the lottery action this year merely serves to steepen the climb for the bottom-feeders.
Amid a season plagued by uncertainty—and it remains to be seen whether hockey will even return in 2020—the draft lottery was one area where the NHL could dictate the terms through and through.
Somehow, it still managed to look foolish in the process.