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The myth of drafting or: How to win the Stanley Cup by embracing your mediocrity

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It's time for a real change to the draft lottery.

Chicago Blackhawks v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Rebuilding through the draft is a myth.

Every time this topic arises, people will list the Chicago Blackhawks and/or Pittsburgh Penguins as evidence that the current drafting system works. Those might be the worst examples possible.

Those two teams benefited from back-to-back exceptional drafts within a short period of time. That is where the secret to their success lies, not in general drafting prowess. There is no guarantee that a sound plan for adding junior-aged talent to your team will pan out, and a lot of luck is involved in having those selections become NHLers.

The only thing close to a guarantee of acquiring a key player for your team is to have a top-five slot, and players slated for that range are often concensus choices. May I invite you to read this excellent article on the subject of draft-pick value.

The road to success

If things stay the way they are with the draft lottery system, the Vegas Golden Knights could be a powerhouse in four years’ time. Slated to draft third in each round at the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, all they have to do is hire a random coach and select the worst goalie available from the unprotected lists.

They can also help themselves out using the Toronto Maple Leafs’ strategy from last season: load up the roster with players on the final year of their contract that can be flipped at the trade deadline to playoff teams for a haul of draft picks.

The Knights will then have combined the quality they’ll automatically have from this June’s draft and the 2018 event after they inevitably finish near the bottom of the standings with the quantity gained from other clubs around the league.

With a competent AHL coach, these players will all graduate to the NHL around the same time. With a glut of young talent, you can flip a few to other teams for some veterans to sprinkle in among them. Perhaps with one blockbuster acquisition, possible because of all the money saved from the cheap bargain that young players on entry-level contracts are.

Within just a few seasons of existence, the Vegas Golden Knights are now competing for the NHL championship.

The attempt at parity

It has been clear that Gary Bettman is bringing a lot of money to the NHL, and in that regard a lot of owners are happy with his work. But let's face it: he's been rewarding mediocrity for too long. To be healthy, any sport needs some suspense. If you already know the results beforehand there is no point watching.

There are different ways to achieve that level of entertainment: high-end talent competing for trophies throughout the regular season (e.g. Laine vs. Matthews, Bobrovsky v. Dubnyk), following records and milestones, and parity of the teams in the league allowing for close games on a nightly basis, with each team having a shot at the post-season.

How can that latter state be achieved? One has to acknowledge that the league has a certain parity as it currently stands. Other than a few outliers, the league has been quite competitive from top to bottom. Nonetheless, well before the end of the season the teams that will compete in the playoffs are pretty much set. The Flames will be the exception to what has mostly been confirmed as the rule, with only wild-card spots really on the line by the time the All-Star break rolls around.

Sports Clubs Stats is tracking the odds for making the playoffs. Even though the following graph doesn't show what the teams are, the important thing to know is the trend of the lines. Not a lot has changed since Week 13; the beginning of January. That is almost half a season’s worth of essentially meaningless hockey.

Playoff odds over the course of the season
Image credit: SportsClubStats

There was some debate about the point system during the General Managers Meetings on whether the league should go with a three-point system: three points for a regulation-time win, two points for an overtime or shootout victory, one point for an overtime or shootout loss, and zero points for a regulation loss. This gives every game a value of three points in the standings, and not just ones that go beyond 60 minutes, which has inflated point totals above a team’s true win-loss record since the system was introduced.

The salary cap

The league’s greatest equalizer is the salary cap that forces the spreading out of talent. There are some issues, in that not all the league’s destinations are seen as equal. Edmonton, Winnipeg, and Buffalo aren’t cities that top-end talent is lining up to move to, and the introduction of no-trade clauses allowed players to prevent such transactions from occurring. New York and California are often cited as preferred destinations for players, with the environment just as enticing as the team they would play for. But overall the salary cap is the most effective way to redistribute skill available.

Uncontrollable things such as injuries can still derail a potential contender. Those teams often end up finishing near the bottom, or at least out of the post-season picture. The coaching system, the depth of the organization, and the overall makeup of a team can help a franchise cope with any adversity that arises. Mediocre management would be quickly exposed by a team undone by a single bump in the road.

Increasing professional integrity

Despite those best efforts, the loophole outlined above still exists, and allows for the circumvention of those plans. Indeed many of the Stanley Cup champions in recent years have benefited from a multi-year period of ineptitude in some capacity.

The league has changed the rules after what can be called The Buffalo Scheme: an obvious effort to tank the team in a bid for first-overall selection Connor McDavid. While that particular attempt didn’t quite pan out with Edmonton leaping over them in the lottery, and new rules that allow the 25th-place Winnipeg Jets to jump up to the second-overal position last year, the new lottery regulations aren’t enough to discourage tanking. Buffalo did wind up with the second-overall selelction, which they converted into Jack Eichel, for their efforts

More can be done to keep the league more competitive throughout the season, while limiting the rewards for having a terrible campaign. Here are my recommendations:

  1. The league should set a more democratic lottery system. Every team that does not take part in the playoffs should he assigned two numbers. The eight teams eliminated in the first round should get one lottery ball apiece. The lottery would therefore incude a total of 23 teams (with Las Vegas included) and the best chance any team has is 2-in-38 (15x2 + 8x1), or 5.3%. Separate lotteries could be held for each of the remaining 22 spots if the goal is truly to discourage a purposeful tank.
  2. The NHL should keep the two-point hybrid system as is. The league has achieved a semblance of parity because of it, and the change to the lottery suggested above would give teams no reason to stop fighting for wins and playoff positioning as the season progresses.

Teams that undergo a reconstruction without a total demolition are penalized by the league’s current rules. Actually, the most devoted fanbases are penalized for what is actually good management; keeping a team competitive enough to make the post-season, but thereby being excluded from the top draft selections, and even the chance to win one.

The Detroit Red Wings have been a model of consistency and a blueprint to follow with a decades-long streak of playoff participation. But that success was only on the surface. The team has not been competitive in the playoffs since two seasons after their last Cup in 2007-2008, with their finishing position never allowing for the addition of a top-tier prospect.

One of the main reason teams miss the playoffs now is a substantial amount of injuries, which (as far as I'm concerned) is a random factor.

Performance vs. Injuries
Image credit: Man Games Lost

Looking at this graph makes you realize that it's always good to be able to draft two generational talents to offset the effect of an injury.

Some owners should take a strong position and ask for a more fair system. Any team with a loyal fanbase that demands a full effort each year falls behind those that can get away with mediocrity. A five-year draft plan simply doesn’t work if you’re never able to get into the top handful of picks at the draft.

For now the future is bright for the Leafs who long embraced their poor performance and gathered a heap of top-end talent as a result. The Arizona Coyotes turned a poor season into an exceptional draft last year, and are sparing no effort to draft high once again. The Vegas Golden Knights could be the latest to join this club who have gamed the system to get ahead of the competition.