Last week, Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reported that the NHL was once again exploring the possibility of altering the draft lottery process, after doing so only a few seasons prior. The news reignited passionate debate about the faults of the current system, especially as it pertains to whether or not the teams that deserve higher selections, are actually receiving an appropriate spot in the draft order.
Further concerns were raised that these changes would just be another ham-fisted attempt by the league to foster and prioritize parity over entertainment, by continuing to introduce convoluted and superficial adjustments that do very little to address the issues inherent to the current format.
Many fans and prominent media figures take issue with how the draft lottery, as it currently stands, simultaneously incentivizes losing and diminishes the quality of play as teams trade away players whose performances are leading to more victories than losses, holding out stars to recover from injuries – wink, wink – and purposefully icing poor rosters, while fans celebrate as the losses accumulate and bring them closer to the saviour that is destined (it’ll happen this time!) to drag the franchise out of perpetual mediocrity.
This reality ostensibly represents an overwhelming rejection of the competitive nature of professional sports, and makes brazen attempts at tanking more of a story than the actual on-ice product.
Current Draft Lottery Format
Before I present an alternative, it’s worth explaining how the draft lottery is currently constructed, to identify possible areas of improvement. At the moment, each team that does not make the playoffs in a given season has a chance to pick within the top three, with a separate draw determining the order of the first three selections.
To ensure that the league’s worst teams are in the best position to select the most highly touted prospects, they are awarded the best odds and are assured of not dropping more than three spots from their actual place in the standings as a result of the lottery draw.
Presently, the three teams with the lowest point totals are given 49.4, 38.8, and 33.9 percent chances respectively of picking within the top three of the draft, with the remaining percentages signifying the probability that they pick outside of that range.
Although even the most abysmal of teams cannot wholly guarantee that they will end up with the first overall pick, many find a season or two of renting the NHL’s basement for the purposes of boosting their lottery odds to be palatable when potential franchise cornerstones such as Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews or Shane Wright are within reach.
What is essentially an intentional concession of a playoff spot is especially tempting for those teams that may not be active participants in free agency, find themselves on many players’ No-Trade lists, and regularly watch their marquee stars depart for more enticing locales.
This is often due to a confluence of factors including increased chances of immediate post-season success, lower tax rates, a warmer or more mild climate, a vibrant night-life or their proximity and attractiveness to sponsors. Or whatever it is that Taylor Hall saw in the Buffalo Sabres. Yikes.
A ‘Golden’ Alternative
Yet, several proposals have been put forth by fans, league executives, and media members to tackle the issue of tanking, the most exciting of which I will briefly explain and then apply to the results of the 2014-15 NHL season.
The circumstances surrounding the 2015 draft, with Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel ranked either first or second across nearly every draft board of consequence, meant that one of the most highly touted prospects in a decade awaited the franchise that would have their numbers drawn in that year’s lottery.
Further, the 2015 iteration has been considered one of the deepest in recent memory, with franchise pillars in McDavid and Eichel later being followed by all-star level talent in Sebastian Aho, Mikko Rantanen, Mat Barzal and Kyle Connor, and supplemented by solid, unheralded players currently having breakout seasons in Conor Garland and Joel Eriksson Ek.
The “Gold drafting” model, presented in a paper at the 2012 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference by the eponymous Adam Gold, essentially dictates that draft order is determined by each team’s point totals in games played once they are mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. This assumes that the worst teams will be eliminated earlier and would therefore have more opportunities to accumulate points and secure a higher draft slot. Simple enough, yeah?
This suggestion has gained traction both online and within the media sphere as a system which would ensure that the NHL’s worst teams are still given an advantage in their pursuit of a higher pick, while assuaging the NHL’s fears that winning would be an afterthought as teams lasered in on the belle of that season’s draft ball.
Having several teams pre-emptively surrendering points tarnishes the league’s image in the eyes of fans, potential sponsors, and TV networks, restricting their revenue streams, and myopically hindering their own efforts to market to a wider audience, making it more likely that adopting avenues to encourage player movement, such as a raising the salary cap, are financially unfeasible.
Striking Gold in the 2014-15 Season
Applying this model to the 2014-15 season offers a practical example as to how Gold drafting could have changed the fortunes of several of the league’s largest exporters of armoured war vehicles.
The Gold model would have essentially done away with the numerous iterations of what had been dubbed “The McEichel Bowl”, the most notorious of which was a late-season matchup between the pitiful Arizona Coyotes and Buffalo Sabres that saw fans of each team cheering raucously for the opposing team’s goals.
While as humorous as it was bewildering, the scene served as an unpleasant reminder that competitiveness was not a pressing priority for many teams in their race (crawl?) to the bottom.
Now, without further ado, here is what the draft order would look like if Gold drafting was in place for the 2014-15 season, with each team’s actual draft position following the lottery compared to where they would be placed based on their Gold points. It is important to note that these would most likely not be the actual results as the incentives for winning would be flipped, but let’s suspend reality in the name of fun.
At first glance, there are some notable results. Buffalo and Edmonton are the first teams eliminated but would remain in the exact same spots in the draft, mostly owing to the fact that each team would have about a month until the end of the regular season to accumulate points.
Columbus, Colorado, and Dallas are the biggest what-ifs in this scenario, as their actual 2015 Draft positions are much lower than what would be expected under the Gold model. Columbus’ actual draft position grades out as especially punitive as they skyrocketed up the draft order by amassing points in all of their games following elimination and retroactively obtaining the fourth overall selection, with fewer games played than Toronto, Philadelphia, Arizona, and New Jersey.
The debacle that was Arizona’s post-elimination performance was particularly egregious as they accrued the seventh most Gold points despite being the third team eliminated from contention, and yet they were rewarded with a top three selection.
Although the Gold system would have undoubtedly forced them to renege on some of their more blatantly suspect roster decisions and leading to more of an honest attempt at winning, they should serve as the primary culprit in the movement to change how draft order is decided.
How Does this Affect the League?
As has been demonstrated on numerous occasions, scouting teenagers and projecting their professional futures is a challenging task, even at the top of the rankings, where prospects are thought to be more of reliable commodity.
The most infamous examples of draft busts within the esteemed group of first overall picks in recent memory include Alexandre Daigle (Ottawa Senators, 1993), Patrik Stefan (Atlanta Thrashers, 1999), and Nail Yakupov (Edmonton Oilers, 2012), who all underachieved for a plethora of reasons related to poor relationships with coaches, inability to acclimate to the NHL, or decline related to suffering significant injuries.
However, completing this exercise in 2021 allows us the benefit of hindsight, and to contemplate how teams may have fared as a result of occupying a different draft position.
At the top are McDavid and Eichel, two superstars who would still go first and second in a re-draft to Edmonton and Buffalo and would most likely remain in NHL purgatory judging by the historic incompetence of their management groups, frustratingly incapable of capitalizing on the immense talent falling into their lap. However, with Columbus now picking third, several notable events may not have come to pass in the following years.
Columbus’ actual selection happened to be collegiate star Zach Werenski at 8thoverall, eventually forming one half of their top pairing alongside Seth Jones, who was later acquired in return for center Ryan Johansen (age 23). At the time of the 2015 draft, Columbus’ center depth on a given night consisted of some combination of Johansen, Boone Jenner (22), Brandon Dubinsky (29), and Alexander Wennberg (21).
Now, with several budding young centers in the pipeline, the Blue Jackets may still have picked highly-regarded defenseman Noah Hanifin with the third pick over center Dylan Strome, suggesting that picking either one of Hanifin or Strome would still result in Columbus eventually following through with the Johansen-Jones deal, or some form of it, to bolster their defence corps and would result in somewhat similar playoff success.
However, if they selected Mitch Marner with their pick, they would have their true offensive star in the vein of Artemi Panarin, who they would acquire in 2017 for Brandon Saad, but one that would have been under team control for a longer period of time.
It is not difficult to imagine that Panarin and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, who left Columbus as free agents in the summer of 2019, may have viewed the organization’s future differently with Marner waiting in the wings, and elected to re-sign.
Additionally, residing in a smaller market may have suppressed Marner’s salary demands as a result of a lack of the hometown boy-type leverage that he had over Kyle Dubas, and his status as a rising star may have made Columbus a more attractive destination for free agents who would relish the opportunity to play alongside him in the lineup.
Yet, we must account for the presence of the strict taskmaster John Tortorella, whose abrasive coaching style has unnerved several young talents including Johansen, Panarin, Pierre-Luc Dubois, and most recently, Patrick Laine, and one must wonder if the same would occur with Marner, leading him to demand a trade and eventually blossoming elsewhere. Although Columbus is admittedly an extreme example, it is important to note how quickly an organization’s outlook can change by hitting on a pick.
As previously mentioned, the first round of the deep 2015 draft gave teams the chance to draft one of several stars and one has to wonder how the fortunes of teams such as Arizona, Carolina, and New Jersey may have changed as a result of picking any one of those players in lieu of the actual underachievers they selected in Dylan Strome, Noah Hanifin, and Pavel Zacha.
The Toronto Maple Leafs were also rumoured to be interested in selecting Hanifin, a pick which would have left them lacking a dynamic sidekick for Auston Matthews, something that may not have mattered if Toronto does not win the draft lottery the following season. Evidently, even this minor change would drastically transform the balance of the NHL half a decade later.
Benefits of Gold Drafting
Applying the Gold method to the 2014-15 season teases out several of the significant benefits it would offer to the NHL and frankly, any professional league which allocates new players via a draft.
First, and most importantly, teams who earnestly try to win are the ones who are ultimately rewarded with the opportunity to select higher-ranked prospects in this scenario. With players who can immediately vault a team into contention such as McDavid and Eichel on the line and accumulating points being the only mechanism to pick them, regularly suffering nightly blow-outs is no longer a viable avenue to success.
This should push teams to ice their best possible rosters through to the end of the year and ensures that fans are paying for a competitive product. It would expose executives who rely on failure to build their success rather than those who take risks and make shrewd signings and trades to improve their teams.
In a league notorious for recycling the same names for management positions, this may result in an influx of new and innovative hockey minds.
The Gold plan also offers the NHL a built-in marketing opportunity, with the battle for Gold points resembling a type of in-season tournament, and one whose prize could tangibly affect the quality of the team in future seasons.
Imagine an NFL Red Zone style channel, purely dedicated to showcasing the final drive for that year’s prized prospect. Take the Arizona-Buffalo game I mentioned earlier, instead of two fanbases cheering for a loss, they would be clamouring for the coaches and general managers to put the team in the best position to win, and for players to execute to the best of their ability.
These matchups would hold more intrigue for viewers and replace the slog towards the conclusion of the season with suspenseful, high-stakes entertainment.
Drawbacks of Gold Drafting
Despite the clear positives of this method, there are some issues that may need to be addressed. Some teams would undoubtedly try to lose as many games as possible, as early as possible, to begin their accumulation of Gold points.
Other teams may just simply be poorly constructed, and be punished regardless of their effort level. Trading players who may not fit the age profile of the team or are looking to play for a contender are common ways for poor teams to accumulate draft capital and re-stock their prospect cupboard. Removing significant assets via trade may result in their inability to win games when it matters and limits their ability to make necessary transactions for their future.
All of these are valid arguments against the Gold plan, but the fact that the worst teams would still have the most runway to accumulate points, should act as enough of a safeguard against inadvertent punishments.
Sports are often a platform for the most polarizing debates of what-if, supplying many a daydream for long-suffering fans of franchises that were agonizingly close to claiming sporting legends as their own.
Think Michael Jordan being passed over by the Trailblazers in favour of Sam Bowie, or Tom Brady falling to the New England Patriots in the sixth round, unwittingly setting the foundation for one of the most memorable dynastic empires in football and sports history.
Although countless hours could be devoted to analyzing the repercussions of altering the past, even the lone example of the Columbus Blue Jackets should demonstrate that the Gold model would significantly adjust how teams are incentivised to play, and reward teams whose sincere efforts at competitive relevance are more reflective of the spirit of athletic competition.