This past Saturday evening was one of the wildest draft lotteries in recent memory. Since moving to this current format in 2016, where every team that misses the playoffs has a chance at drafting first to third overall, this year’s selections were occupied by teams finishing higher than 28th in the league standings (New Jersey- 27th, Philadelphia- 19th, Dallas- 24th). Much to the dismay of fans and sympathizers of the Colorado Avalanche (30th), Vancouver Canucks (29th), Las Vegas Golden Knights (Expansion), and Arizona Coyotes (28th), it was the New Jersey Devils who overcame 8.5% odds of winning the first overall pick and have the privilege of choosing between Nolan Patrick or Nico Hischier.
While Devils fans rejoiced over the groundbreaking news, a lot of objections have arisen among the hockey blogosphere over the NHL’s current draft format. Complaints ranged from fans and sympathizers feeling that the Avalanche, Canucks, or Knights were “entitled” to a top-three selection, to outlandish claims of the draft lottery being “rigged”.
It helps to first look at why the NHL took on this new format in order to address the nature of this naive backlash. When the Edmonton Oilers drafted first overall for three consecutive seasons (2010-2012), it raised concerns about how easy it was for teams to “tank” and secure a selection no higher than second overall. The Buffalo Sabres also demonstrated this in the 2014-2015 season, when their 30th overall finish assured them a pick no higher than second overall in a draft that featured Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. While the Sabres lost out on the number one pick (to the Edmonton Oilers ironically), the insurance of a franchise-caliber player in Jack Eichel made the fallback to second overall easier to mitigate.
Simply put, the NHL doesn’t seem to be condoning a rewards system for plundering in the standings anymore.
From a marketing perspective, it doesn’t really make much sense for the league to “rig” the lottery for the Devils to win. Why would the NHL pick a mid-market team playing in the shadow of big market franchises like the Rangers, Flyers, Penguins, and Capitals? It would make more sense to “rig” the lottery for any of the teams ahead of New Jersey. The Avalanche had the lowest point total (48) in an NHL season since the Atlanta Thrashers’ 39 points in 1999-2000. The Vancouver Canucks are one of the NHL’s big Canadian markets, and would’ve benefited most from winning the first overall pick. The Golden Knights are Bettman’s latest expansion experiment that he’s making great strides towards being successful. The Arizona Coyotes have been on life support by the NHL for years, who’ve done everything in their power to make Arizona’s existence justifiable.
Out of the seven teams involved- New Jersey, Philadelphia, Dallas, Colorado, Vancouver, Las Vegas, Arizona, the Devils are the only team to miss the playoffs six times in the last seven years, and (along with Arizona) are the only teams to miss the playoffs for five consecutive seasons. Aside from Las Vegas, every other team mentioned has made at least two playoff appearances since 2011. The Devils also selected lower than fifth overall just once since 1991, whereas the Avalanche, Coyotes, and Canucks made a combined four top-five draft selections since 2011- all of which had much deeper prospects. Just something to think about when people whine about why Colorado, Vancouver, or Arizona “deserved” that first overall pick.
It’s also worth mentioning that finishing 30th overall has largely resulted in hit-or-miss odds drafting first overall in recent years. The chart below compares the 30th overall teams in the past 12 seasons, to the team that wound up drafting first overall that same year.
|Season||30th Overall (Standings)||1st Overall (Draft)|
|2005-2006||St. Louis||St. Louis|
|2007-2008||Tampa Bay||Tampa Bay|
|2008-2009||NY Islanders||NY Islanders|
Since the 2005 lockout, six teams that finished 30th overall wound up selecting first overall in the draft that same year. It’s also worth pointing out, the last 30th overall team that made a first overall draft selection was the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2016- the first year the current draft lottery format was used.
Most of these sympathizers and disgruntled fans might have been deluded by Colorado, Vancouver, Arizona, and Vegas having the “highest” odds of drafting in the top three without paying much regard to what they exactly were, and how they compared to the odds of losing out. The four teams respectively had 49.1, 35.2, and 30.7 (2x) percent chances of drafting in the top three, meaning their odds of selecting outside of that range were all higher than 50 percent- 50.1 (Colorado), 64.8 (Vancouver), 69.3 (Arizona/Vegas).
Simply put, the Devils, Stars, and Flyers overcame some stifling odds as individual teams, but did so in a drafting format that doesn’t favor its lowest-ranking teams as much as many fans might have realized. For those complaining about the “rigged” or construed drafting format the NHL currently uses, you’re better off getting over the turnout and put your team’s odds into perspective next time they’re in this situation.