Fixing the NHL Draft Lottery

Detroit Red Wings pick 4th overall NHL draft lottery
By Jeff Watters

February 16, 2021

The NHL draft lottery has not been kind to the Detroit Red Wings. With talks of a refreshed draft lottery format now being discussed, let’s take a look at how to better improve a severely flawed system that has stunted the Red Wings’ rebuild. 

With Pierre Lebrun’s recent piece ($) on the increasing likelihood we will see yet another change to the draft lottery, I thought it appropriate to delve into how this could affect our beloved Red Wings.

Regarding last year’s lottery — and the Red Wings picking 4th — Pierre writes:

It bugged some people around the game because the Red Wings aren’t tanking. They are undergoing an organic, massive rebuild after 25 straight years in the postseason and going for it forever, which depleted the pipeline.

Certainly, all of Red Wings nation would echo this sentiment. 

After shipping out 1st round picks on an almost yearly basis for a decade and a half, the Wings were all in every season. Following the departure of Nick Lidstrom, Ken Holland did everything in his power to extend the playoff streak and surround Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg with as much talent as possible. By continuing to move out 2nd round picks and prospects for middling veterans — and handing out a handful of ill-advised contracts — the Wings began their slow and steady descent in the standings.

Most would agree this went on for too long and the rebuild should’ve begun earlier, but the Wings remained steadfast in their efforts to keep their playoff streak alive — mortgaging their future in the process.

The result? An absolute bottoming out that you could’ve seen coming 10,000 miles away.

Steve Yzerman on phone
Steve Yzerman has reportedly been in the NHL’s collective ear about his feelings on the lottery’s shortcomings. | Dave Sandford, Getty Images

Now, with the Wings among the league’s basement dwellers, they are in desperate need of elite talent. Without it, a return to playoff bubble status is about as far as they’ll get before they have to hit the reset button yet again.

The extreme measures the NHL has taken to prevent teams from “tanking” has now begun to punish teams who have undergone these organic, inevitable rebuilds. And teams aren’t happy about it.

Possible Draft Lottery Changes

With most NHL teams displeased at how the 2020 lottery unfolded — and quite simply fed up with the current iteration of the draft lottery as a whole — it’s looking more and more likely that there will indeed be some changes.

After witnessing bubble teams jump up to acquire top 3 picks on a yearly basis, it’s clear to many the lottery is broken.

According to Lebrun, the idea floating around NHL circles the most goes a little something like this:

  • The worst teams would have better odds to win the draft lottery.
  • Many teams support the idea that a team should not be able to win a top 3 pick in back-to-back drafts.
  • The last place team drafts no lower than 3rd overall


So, what could this all mean for the Detroit Red Wings?

(To be clear, none of these proposed changes are set in stone — just ideas that have been shared with Lebrun. All analysis below, however, will be based on the presumption this is what we’re working with).

Well, if something like this was put into place prior to the 2021 draft lottery, I would be very, very nervous.

Why?

The 2021 draft lacks the top-end, elite talent the Red Wings need. They won’t be finding a hugely-impactful player this year. Assuming the Red Wings finish in the bottom 2 or 3 and get these increased odds, there’s a very good chance they pick in the top 3.

As a result, under this new, proposed format, they would then be ineligible to pick in the top 3 in 2022 — a MUCH better class at the top. 

No Shane Wright. No Brad Lambert. No Matthew Savoie.

If this whole scenario came to fruition, the Red Wings would be irate. The new system would, in effect, do the exact opposite of what it set out to do and prevent the league’s worst teams from drafting the best players.

Shane Wright top prospect 2022 nhl entry draft
Shane Wright of the Kingston Frontenacs tops a list of elite forwards up for grabs in the class of ’22. | Photo: Ian MacAlpine/Kingston Whig-Standard/Postmedia Network

Obviously, the flaw in this proposed format is that it would treat all 1st, 2nd, and 3rd overall picks as equally valuable.

Jack Hughes (2019) does not equal Connor McDavid (2015).

Nico Hischier (2017) sure as hell is no Auston Matthews (2016).

Whoever goes 1st overall in 2021 is not at Shane Wright’s (2022) level.

I mean, I get it. You want to prevent a team from picking at the top every year (even if it guarantees you absolutely nothing — right, Oilers fans?).

Regardless, if these changes were put into place, it would put an entirely new spin on the 2021 draft lottery for Red Wings fans. Instead of feverishly expecting the inevitable 3-spot drop, they would be praying for it.

It is important to note that Lebrun doesn’t believe the league would agree to limit the number of top-3 picks a team can make. This could be something he gathered from a source or it could be pure conjecture. One thing is for certain — it would not be in the Red Wings’ best interest if implemented prior to the 2021 draft.

The Tanking Argument and Its Merits

The current draft lottery was implemented to discourage tanking. Now, the NHL is seemingly backing off such an extreme response to bad teams being…bad.

Everyone has their own definition of what it means to tank and how this affects the integrity of the game. 

The reality is, with today’s salary cap, competitive windows are cyclical and the Red Wings 25-year run was unprecedented — and will take a miracle to replicate. If teams try to contend forever, they’ll be stuck on the bubble…forever.

This isn’t anything groundbreaking, but let’s take a simple look at this cyclical nature of how teams typically operate:

You draft talent, that talent gets expensive, and you add more expensive talent until you have a powerhouse capable of winning a championship.

Then, inevitably, this talent ages, declines, and you have a team filled with expensive players performing well below their cap hit.

With these declining performances of your highest-paid players, your team tumbles down the standings, eventually finding themselves on the playoff bubble or on the outside looking in come playoff time. They’re financially handicapped and tethered to unmovable, underperforming players.

Now, on the way down to salary cap purgatory a GM has two choices:

Squeeze every bit out of this group and try to put as much talent around them as you possibly can (eg. Ken Holland with Datsyuk and Zetterberg), or look reality in the face and accept that it’s time to take a step back and reload for the future (eg. 2018 New York Rangers).

Inevitably, you’ll need to embrace the second option, so now it becomes a matter of pushing all of your chips in — making the future rebuild all the more difficult — or getting a head start on building a team that can contend long-term. 

When the Red Wings finally decided to take that step back, they were 100% correct in doing so. They weren’t the first team in NHL history to declare themselves sellers at the trade deadline and prioritize futures over current NHL talent.

Ken Holland Red Wings press conference
It takes time to rebuild a team to the level Ken Holland is eluding to here. | Photo: detroitnews.com

They were in the re-load phase of their competitive cycle. It was time to ride out the bad contracts while adding draft picks, and accepting that the team was no longer capable of going on a playoff run.

Should this be considered tanking?

Of course not.

I’ve never heard of anyone criticizing a team for trading NHL talent for draft picks. It’s also very clear that, in doing so, GMs are knowingly weakening their NHL team. So why are some quick to jump on a team and cry tanking! tanking! when they begin losing games? Wasn’t it expected?

Should teams be limited to “hockey trades” only? Should they be prohibited from trading draft picks and always play to the cap ceiling in order to win as many games as possible at all times?

Of course not. 

Call it “tanking” if you will, but the reality is there will always be talented teams and there will always be bad teams. Who really needs that top draft pick? If the bad teams are continuously given poor odds and miss out on top talent, guess what they’ll continue to do?

Be…a bad team.

And continue to tank.

My Proposed Draft Lottery Format

As much as I would support a simple reverse-order draft, we all know that’s not going to happen. Still, take a look at how past drafts would’ve shaken out had the NHL gone that route:

2020: Alexis Lafrenière – Detroit Red Wings

2019: Jack Hughes – Colorado Avalanche (sorry Ottawa)

2018: Rasmus Dahlin – Buffalo Sabres

2017: Nico Hischier – Colorado Avalanche

2016: Auston Matthews – Toronto Maple Leafs

2015: Connor McDavid – Buffalo Sabres

2014: Aaron Ekblad – Buffalo Sabres

Alexis Lafreniere New York Rangers
Alexis Lafrenière should probably be a Detroit Red Wing. | Photo: Getty Images

Let’s be real. Does anything there stand out to you as dramatically changing — or negatively/unfairly impacting the landscape of today’s NHL? Not at all. Bad teams (aside from the 2019 Avs) got good players. Buffalo would be better and the Red Wings would be further along in their rebuild. Isn’t this what should be happening?

Ok, back to my proposal.

Increased odds for the league’s worst teams are a given. Not allowing these teams to repeatedly win the lottery, again and again, makes sense as well — although I kind of feel like, who cares if they do? Regardless, let’s appease those against it.

The Red Wings winning the lottery and subsequently being ineligible for the top 2022 prospects can’t happen either. Not just because it’s the team I write about and cheer for, but because when you’re at the bottom, you need the help. One draft isn’t going to cut it and punishing a bad team for landing a top pick to this extent is, again, counterintuitive. You’ve got to give the league’s worst teams a shot at drafting a franchise player.

So, here it is. My pitch for how the NHL should handle the draft lottery moving forward.

  • The last place team receives 50% odds to pick 1st overall, 30% to pick 2nd overall, and 20% to pick 3rd overall; Odds to pick 1st drop to 20%, 15%, 10%, 5% for the 2nd-5th teams from the bottom of the standings.

  • The bottom 5 teams are the only teams eligible to move into the top 2; all other teams can move up a maximum of 3 spots. Eg. a team with the 6th best odds to win the lottery can move up no higher than 3rd overall.

  • There are two lottery winners only: Last place team picks no lower than 3rd, 2nd last picks no lower than 4th, etc.

  • Teams can only be awarded the 1st overall pick twice in a 5-year window but can be awarded any other pick an unlimited number of times. After a 5-year window passes, starting with the first lottery win, the window resets; e.g. if Team A wins the 2020 and 2024 lotteries, a new 5-year period begins the next year, making them eligible for 2 more lottery wins from 2025-2029. Similarly, if they win in 2020 and 2021, they are not eligible to draft 1st overall until 2025.


Increased odds for the league’s worst teams? Check.

Taking bubble teams out of the equation (they had no business being in the conversation anyway)? Check.

Preventing teams from drafting 1st overall year after year but allowing teams in need to draft elite talent immediately to get them out of the basement? You betcha.

Let’s be clear. I’m not a fan of limiting how often a team can draft 1st overall, but I think this is a fair way to go about it. We’re unlikely to see another Oilers-Esque run of 1st overall picks, so I don’t think this would end up having a significant impact on many lotteries.

What This Would Mean for the Red Wings

This is what we’re all here for, right?

Hypothetically, this is how it could all break down:

Let’s say the season ended today and the Red Wings finished with the 2nd best odds to win the 1st overall pick. If they were awarded this pick, they would be permitted to draft 1st overall one more time over the following 4 years. 

Let’s say they do win the 2021 lottery and draft, say, Luke Hughes, for example.

In 2021-2022, the Red Wings are slightly better and end the season 5th from the bottom in the standings. A miracle happens! They win the draft lottery and get the 1st pick. They draft Shane Wright.

Now that they’ve won the 2021 and 2022 lotteries, they’ve used up both 1st overall picks in the 5 year period starting in 2021.

So, from 2023-2025 the Red Wings would only be able to pick as high as 2nd overall. If they finish dead last during one of these years they can still pick 2nd or 3rd. If they finish 2nd last they could pick 2nd, 3rd, or 4th overall, etc.

In 2026, they would again be eligible to win the 1st overall pick and could do so twice from 2026-2030. Obviously, you hope a team is beginning to turn things around at this point.

Why This Proposal Beats the Current Format

The absolute best thing for the NHL is to have all fan bases engaged and all owners making money. Just ask Gary Bettman.

The best way to do that? Avoid prolonged periods of non-competitive hockey in as many markets as possible. 

What’s the quickest way to turn around a non-competitive franchise? Franchise talent.

Ultimately, it will take a good GM, support staff, scouting department, development staff etc. to execute a rebuild. I think my proposal would make it much easier when compared to what’s currently in place.

Andrei Svechnikov Carolina Hurricanes
The Carolina Hurricanes had no business drafting Andrei Svechnikov 2nd overall in 2018. | Photo: Getty Images

With the league’s worst teams having a much improved shot to draft the best talent available (and no team outside of the bottom 5 eligible to draft higher than 6th), they’ll be better equipped to expedite the rebuilding process.

With a limit of 2 1st overall picks over a 5-year period, a team will have multiple opportunities to pick 1st overall without worrying about which draft class looks better than another. The Buffalo Sabres can still draft a Jack Eichel (2015), Rasmus Dahlin (2018) and still be eligible to draft an Alexis Lafrenière (2020). 

The Oilers wouldn’t have been eligible to draft Nail Yakupov (2012) after drafting Taylor Hall (2010) and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (2011) 1st overall, but still would’ve been in the Connor McDavid (2015) sweepstakes as their 5-year window wouldn’t reset (and I’m sure they would’ve been really devasted to miss out on Yakupov).

Gone would be the days of the Carolina Hurricanes jumping 9 spots to draft Andrei Svechnikov; The New York Rangers (who finished the 2019-20 season with the 18th best Win%) being gifted Alexis Lafrenière; and the Blackhawks moving up from 12th to 3rd to draft Kirby Dach.

Final Thoughts

The news that the NHL is strongly considering updating the draft lottery system is a step in the right direction. For the Red Wings, one can only hope it’s not too late for them to benefit from a newly constructed system that caters to the bottom feeders of the NHL.

The Red Wings need truly elite talent. You’re not going to win a cup without it. Lucas Raymond and Moritz Seider are a great start, but they’re just that…a start. 

As long as the Red Wings aren’t handicapped by a silly rule preventing them from capitalizing on multiple drafts, this should be a good thing for Steve Yzerman and co. This is a major caveat, however. If the idea of limited years selecting in the top 3 does come into play this season, the days leading up to the 2021 draft lottery will be absolutely nerve-racking. 

But will any of these proposed changes be implemented in time for the 2021 draft? Will the 2021 draft even happen in 2021? Lots of questions to be answered. And all will be of major significance for the Red Wings.

Featured Image: Bruce Bennett, Getty Images

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