How to Fix the NHL’s Disastrous Tanking SituationB Wippert/Getty Images
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.
Option 4: Keep the weighted lottery, but flatten the odds
Under this system, we keep the same basic setup as one of the first two options above, but flatten the odds so that finishing last doesn’t offer as much of an advantage as it does today. So instead of the 30th-place team having a 20 percent shot at winning the lottery, maybe we knock it down to 10 percent. Slot the 29th team in at, say, 8 percent, and then keep narrowing the drop from team to team as you go. You still maintain an advantage for the league’s worst teams, but it’s a smaller one.
Biggest advantage: By lowering the lottery odds of the league’s worst teams, you give them a little less incentive to tank. And if dropping a spot in the standings adds only a fraction of a percentage point to your odds of winning the lottery, fans won’t be as obsessed with tracking late-season losses.
Biggest objection: All those percentage points we’re lopping off the bad teams have to go somewhere, and under a flatter system they’d wind up with the better non-playoff teams. That sounds fine in theory, but wait until a very good team misses the playoffs with 95 points, and then wins the lottery and drafts first overall. Lots of fans would scream.
Option 5: Keep the weighted lottery, but even the odds for the very worst teams
Again, we’re keeping the same basic concept that we have today. But we pick a cutoff point — let’s say the league’s five worst teams — and give all of them the exact same odds of winning the lottery, probably something in the 10-15 percent range. Then we mix in the rest of the teams, with the usual decreasing odds.
Biggest advantage: We’ve removed the incentive to finish dead last, while still helping the league’s worst teams. Not a bad little compromise, actually.
Biggest objection: You end up removing the incentive to finish dead last, but create a new one to finish fifth from last. What if there are six really bad teams, and they end up in a race to the bottom five to get the best odds? Of course, that’s pretty much an unavoidable problem, since the only way to solve it would be to drop the weighted system completely. And that’s crazy talk.
Option 6: Drop the weighted system completely
Hey, we said we wouldn’t shy away from crazy. So we’re taking Options 4 and 5 even further and eliminating the weighted lottery altogether. Every non-playoff team goes into the lottery with an equal chance at winning the top pick, no matter where it finished in the standings. It’s just one ping-pong ball per team, and we keep drawing until we have our draft order.
Biggest advantage: This is the first idea on our list that would actually eliminate the incentive to lose entirely. There’s no advantage to finishing last, or finishing anywhere at all, so the days of fans hoping for a loss are gone.
Biggest objection: It would eliminate the incentive to lose, sure, but it wouldn’t create any incentive to win. Instead, teams like this year’s Sabres or Hurricanes would just kind of drift through the last half of the season, playing out a string of games that would literally be meaningless. And, of course, you sacrifice the idea of giving a competitive boost to truly bad teams, which was the whole idea behind using the standings to assign a draft order in the first place. If that’s a big deal to you, you’re going to hate this next idea.
Option 7: Flip the script
We still use the standings to determine draft order. But instead of giving the top pick to the league’s bottom dwellers, we give it to the best non-playoff team and work down from there.
Biggest advantage: You reward winning and eliminate tanking, and nobody ever cheers against their own team ever again.
Biggest objection: This system seems to strike most fans as going too far, and would make it awfully hard for a truly bad team to get better, since a rebuilding team could end up missing out on so much as a top-10 pick for years. And of course, there could be seasons when fans would be conflicted over whether they’d even want to make the playoffs. If you’re this year’s Senators, do you want to make the playoffs as a no. 8 seed and get smoked in the first round, or miss out by a point and get Connor McDavid? That kind of dilemma feels somehow even worse than what we have now.
By the way, a variation of this idea was proposed by Malcolm Gladwell a few years ago, when he was discussing the NBA. He suggested keeping the current system, but flipping the draft order every second or third year. That waters down some of the problems with a full-on reversal, but having the system vary year-to-year would seem odd, and we’d risk punishing truly bad teams that happen to suffer from poor timing. Besides, if we’re going to steal a proposal from the NBA, there’s a much better one coming a few spots down this list.
Option 8: Scrap the lottery entirely and go back to the old way of doing things
Hey, if nobody can agree on how the draft lottery should work, then maybe we should just scrap it altogether and go back to doing things the old way. You finish last, you get the first pick. No ping-pong balls, no percentages to memorize, no math degrees required. Nice and simple, and we never have to speak of this again.
Biggest advantage: The NHL worked this way for decades, up until the mid-’90s. And other leagues still do; neither the NFL or MLB have a lottery-based system, and those two leagues seem to be able to make it through most years without everyone wailing about tanking conspiracies.
Biggest objection: All the problems with the current system — accusations of tanking, fans rooting against the home team, screwed-up incentives to lose and lose often — would just get worse without a lottery. And that would be in a normal year. In a year with a potential franchise player on the board, well, anyone remember 1984? This is a very bad idea, and I include it only because, bizarrely, I still hear from people who support it. Also, I wanted to ease you into the “scrap the lottery entirely” idea, because that’s where we’re headed next.
Option 9: Steal “the Wheel” from the NBA
NBA fans are already familiar with this concept, because the league recently considered implementing it. Grantland’s own Zach Lowe broke that story, and you can read his in-depth analysis of the proposed system here. (The NBA eventually voted against making major changes to its lottery system.)
The short version: You take the radical step of scrapping the idea of standings-based draft slots entirely. Instead, draft picks are handed out in a predetermined order that’s the same for everyone. In a 30-team league, every team gets the first overall pick once every 30 years. Every team would also get a top-six pick every five years, and a top-12 pick every four.
Biggest advantage: Removing the link to the standings eliminates tanking completely. Every team would be treated equally, and fans would always know where their favorite team would be picking. GMs would know, too, which would make it much easier to trade future draft picks without worrying about accidentally making a Tom Kurvers–like mistake.
Biggest objection: While the Wheel would work seamlessly once it was up and running, getting it started would be tricky. You’d have to deal with any future picks who have already been traded, and figuring out who starts where would also be an issue.
But the Wheel’s biggest problem doubles as its best quality: It’s a complete departure from the way fans are used to seeing the draft work. Some fans would love that, but in a hockey world where even the smallest rule-change suggestions are treated as heresy, there’d be plenty of push-back. The Wheel could create situations we’re not used to, like terrible teams picking after the contenders. You could even have a year when the Stanley Cup champion was picking first overall. And what happens to a team that waits 30 years for the first overall pick, only to have it arrive in a weak draft year where the next Patrik Stefan is waiting?
Those are all valid points.And yet … we’re still left with what amounts to a relatively simple solution that eliminates tanking entirely. It would take some getting used to, sure. But even given some of its imperfections, it’s hard not to see the Wheel as an improvement over what we’re stuck with now.
Option 10: The Gold plan
Here’s how it works: Each year’s draft order is determined by a ranking of most points earned by each team after being eliminated from the playoffs. As soon as you’re officially out of the running for a playoff spot, you start the clock on earning points toward your draft position. Bad teams still get a big advantage here, since they’d be getting a head start of several weeks. And teams that narrowly miss the playoffs on the final weekend are basically eliminated from the running for a high pick entirely.
But now, we’re rewarding teams for winning instead of losing. Imagine having a “points since elimination” column in the standings for fans of bad teams to obsessively reload. And then picture how this week’s Sabres/Coyotes games would have played out if both teams were trying to win their way to Connor McDavid.
Biggest advantage: Other than being awesome? Gold’s system is relatively simple once you can get your head around it, it still helps bad teams, and it makes late-season games for non-playoff teams more meaningful than ever before. And most important, it puts the emphasis on winning. No more cheering for your favorite team to lose.
Biggest objection: The most common problem fans come up with is the concern that Gold’s idea wouldn’t eliminate tanking, but rather shift it earlier in the season. Teams like the Sabres, the thinking goes, would just tank even harder to try to trigger their elimination faster. That’s possible, but remember, players don’t tank — organizations do. And a GM like Tim Murray would have a balancing act on his hands: You’d want a roster that was bad enough to be eliminated early, but good enough to be able to win a few late-season games once that happened. That’s a hard switch to flip, as teams like the Maple Leafs are demonstrating right now.
The other disadvantage is one that’s common to a lot of these ideas: By taking away the incentive for bad teams to lose, you might end up turning the trade deadline into collateral damage. The deadline is already hurting due to a lack of sellers, and that problem would get worse once bad teams had to balance any trades for future assets against the need to win their way to a higher pick. That’s a legitimate concern, but I’m not convinced that the excitement of the Gold plan wouldn’t make it worth it.
Option 11: Determine draft order with a tournament
Anytime this discussion comes up, it’s not long before somebody raises this idea. And it’s not hard to see why — it sounds like it could be all sorts of fun. The basic idea is that you take some or all of the non-playoff teams and dump them into some kind of postseason elimination tournament, where the winning team earns the top pick.
Biggest advantage: You’re forcing teams to earn their draft slot, putting the emphasis back on winning instead of losing, and giving fans of bad teams something to look forward to instead of checking out midway through the season. And if it worked, it would be awesome.
Biggest objection: It probably wouldn’t work. Look, I love the idea of a high-stakes tournament as much as anyone, but let’s be realistic. You’d be asking players who’d just suffered through miserable years and are probably hurt and exhausted to stick around after the season to keep on playing — not for the Stanley Cup, but for their team’s right to draft some guy who might come in and take their jobs. Sure, it could be awesome. But it could also make the All-Star Game seem like a bastion of intensity by comparison.
Option 12: Scrap the draft entirely
You wanted a radical change? Here’s one for you: Scrap the draft altogether. Not the lottery, not the draft order — the whole thing. No more draft, at all, ever again.
So how do you determine which prospects go where without a draft? The same way we determine where most people take their first job: through the free market. Well, not really a “free” market, since we’re still talking about a league governed by a salary cap. But we let teams bid on the prospects they want, and we let those prospects make up their own minds about where they want to begin their pro careers.
Crazy? Maybe, especially in North America, where the presence of some sort of draft is basically a staple of major pro sports. But it’s an idea that seems to be gaining at least some degree of traction among hockey fans and media. Some proposals would keep the limit on rookie contracts, while others would scrap that, too, and just make the whole thing an open auction.
Biggest advantage: For one thing, it would be a better system for the players entering the league. The whole concept of a draft is inherently unfair to players, the very best of whom often get stuck in the worst organizations. By scrapping the draft entirely, young players could pick their teams based on whatever was most important to them, be that money, opportunity, or the development program.
From a fan’s perspective, the whole process would be crazy fun. Imagine all the excitement of free-agency day, except this time featuring players a smart team would actually want. It would be college signing day at the pro level. The rumor mill would be madness, and the announcements of each prospect’s decision would be great theater. And of course, scrapping the draft spells the end of tanking forever; not only would it no longer be a helpful strategy, but being labeled a loser would make a team a less attractive destination for prospects.
Biggest objection: Let’s start with the obvious: There’s absolutely zero chance of this ever actually happening. The league had to be dragged kicking and screaming toward even the most minor draft lottery fix — there’s no chance it makes a change this big.
Beyond that, there’s the question of whether this sort of system would just split the league into haves and have-nots. Let’s be honest, some destinations are just more desirable than others. If you’re a team like Winnipeg or Ottawa, with bad weather, high taxes, and a lack of championship banners,how are you ever going to compete with Los Angeles or New York to attract the attention of some 18-year-old kid? Those teams are already at a disadvantage when it comes to free agency — being able to occasionally draft top players is supposed to be one way to counter that.
That problem is probably overstated; teams in small or undesirable markets tend to do just fine at attracting undrafted college free agents, because they can often offer better opportunities for playing time. But it would be a concern, and you can bet that fans in those markets would scream about losing the draft.
So there you go. A dozen ideas for fixing the draft lottery, from the status quo to absolute chaos. You’ve probably kept a running ranking in your head of which ideas you like best, and it’s no doubt different from mine. There are no right answers here.
But at least we know there are options out there. And the next time you’re watching some team tank its way through a season in front of hometown fans rooting for losses and somebody shrugs their shoulders and says, “There’s nothing else we can do,” you’ll know that’s not true. There are better options out there. The league just needs to make one happen.
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