Vancouver Canucks: How to fix the draft lottery

VANCOUVER, BC - FEBRUARY 28: (L-R) NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, Francesco Aquilini, Vancouver Canucks Chairman and Governor and Trevor Linden, Vancouver Canucks President Hockey Operations hold a 2019 Vancouver Canucks 2019 Draft jersey during a press conference at Rogers Arena February 28, 2018 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. The Vancouver Canucks will host the 2019 NHL Draft at Rogers Arena, the National Hockey League, Canucks and City of Vancouver announced today. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)
VANCOUVER, BC - FEBRUARY 28: (L-R) NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, Francesco Aquilini, Vancouver Canucks Chairman and Governor and Trevor Linden, Vancouver Canucks President Hockey Operations hold a 2019 Vancouver Canucks 2019 Draft jersey during a press conference at Rogers Arena February 28, 2018 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. The Vancouver Canucks will host the 2019 NHL Draft at Rogers Arena, the National Hockey League, Canucks and City of Vancouver announced today. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images) /

The Vancouver Canucks dropped in the draft lottery again this year, and again Canucks fans had reason to cry foul at a system that hurts the teams that need the most help. It doesn’t have to be this way.

In each of the last three years, the Vancouver Canucks have been bad. Really bad. In fact, over the span of those three years, they have been the worst team in the NHL. And yet, they have drafted 5th, 5th, and 7th overall in each of the ensuing first round drafts. What gives?

Of course, we all know why it works this way. The Edmonton Oilers tanked for a decade and hoovered up first overall picks for years, leading the league to create the new draft lottery system, whereby the top three picks are decided not by the standings but by a lottery. The logic behind it was to prevent teams from tanking, and fair enough; it’s not much fun to watch and it can’t be much fun for players.

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The problem is, there is still some incentive to tank, because teams that finish lower in the standings get higher odds of winning the draft lottery.

And, of course, the standings still determine the draft order for the subsequent rounds after the first round. But at the same time, the reward for tanking doesn’t always pan out, as the Vancouver Canucks have learned.

The whole thing has become a real bummer, and in a hockey-mad market like Vancouver, it has meant endless, insidious arguments between the proponents of #teamtank, who want to increase the team’s odds of winning the draft, versus those who think you have to cultivate a winning culture on the team even in the last gasps of a bad year.

No one enjoys these debates. No one wins them. Everyone just ends up miserable.

I can fix it.


Who’s in

Let’s assume my new plan starts the year that Seattle gets added to league, so the NHL has 32 teams. Half of those teams make the playoffs, as usual, and half of them don’t. For the 16 teams that don’t make it, lets call them T17, T18, T19, etc, calling the worst team in the league (the Vancouver Canucks? just kidding! kind of) T32.

T17-T24 are going to draft in reverse order as they normally do. Only the top 8 draft positions are  still undetermined and only the 8 worst teams are left. And those 8 teams are going to earn their draft positions on the ice.

That’s right, Canucks fans, meaningful hockey in April!

There will be two mini-tournaments, each featuring a pool of four teams. T25, T26, T27, and T28 will play in one tourney, T29, T30, T31, and T32 will play in the other. The T25-28 tourney determines the order of the 5th to 8th overall picks, and the T29-T32 tourney determines the 1st to 4th overall picks.

So let’s look at what would have happened to the bottom 8 teams in 2016-17.

The four worst teams, Colorado, Vancouver, Arizona, and New Jersey would have played a tournaments to determine the 1st to 4th overall picks. The Vancouver Canucks would gave been in a position to jump to 1st overall with a great tournament, or they could fall as low as 4th with a bad one. (Of course, in reality under the current system, they dropped to 5th, and they were powerless to change that.)

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Meanwhile, Buffalo, Detroit, Dallas, and Florida would have battled for the 5th to 8th picks. In actual fact, Dallas didn’t have to win anything except a random lottery to get the 3rd overall pick. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Flyers would have drafted 12th overall, which seems reasonable for a team than earned 88 points that year. Under the current system, the lottery balls fell in Philly’s favour and they got the 2nd overall pick despite having a whopping 40 points more than Colorado.

How it works

It’s a round-robin format, with a single championship game, and a single consolation final. Home-ice advantage determined by the standings (ie. the team that finished ahead gets home ice). All games would have a full playoff-style overtime, so that mathematically the round robin must end up with two teams ahead of the other two in the standings. The top two play for the top two draft positions, the bottom two play for spots 3 and 4.

So each team is playing four extra games, with a lot riding on them for the local market. The mini-tourneys would run concurrent to the first round of the playoffs, making it like hockey’s version of March Madness. While they wouldn’t have the same excitement as the actual playoffs, they would generate a ton of interest in each of the markets involved, since the outcome could significantly altar the course of the franchise.

Imagine if there had been a four-team tournament this spring to determine who could draft Rasmus Dahlin. Tell me you wouldn’t watch that.

Why it works

This plan works on just about every possible level. Let’s break it down:

For the fans:

Fans of the Vancouver Canucks, represent! Your team might suck, but even at the end of a brutal year, there are some circumstances that can make it feel exciting again. Unfortunately, the Sedins can only retire once. But this tournament would happen every year, so in 2016-17, we could have been watching the Canucks have a crack at the Coyotes for the right to draft Nico Hischier. I would watch that.

And with a lot on the line in these games, fans could have legitimate reason for hope. All it takes is for a bad team to go on a good run, and suddenly they’re gonna get a chance to draft a generational player. That’s eight dejected markets that suddenly have some reason to get the adrenaline going.

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For the players:

There can’t be anything more miserable than the tank conversation for the players. I didn’t like Brandon Sutter’s comments about fans being crazy to cheer for the tank, but I certainly understand the source of his frustration. It’s a demoralizing feeling to be cheering against your team and it must be even worse for players who know that a section of the fanbase is cheering against them.

Let me be clear: under the current system, I’ve been on #teamtank. I don’t think it is at all crazy to want to draft Rasmus Dahlin, and if we had to lose a bunch of meaningless games to improve our odds of doing that, then I supported it. But I don’t want to be in this position in the first place. I would rather see the Canucks have an opportunity to win to get Dahlin. For the players, that means having the fans behind them again, cheering for them to benefit the long-term health of the franchise.

Plus, the players get a taste of that playoff feeling. When the Vancouver Canucks said goodbye to the Sedins, the last three games felt like the playoffs, in fact, it still gives me goosebumps to watch them. The dramatic goals, the late-game heroics, it was incredible. Don’t tell me those games didn’t mean something to Bo Horvat or Nikolay Goldobin.

For the coaches:

As much as the players hate the tank, the coaches must really hate it. If you don’t believe me, try asking them about it in a presser. But under my system, tanking is really de-incentivized. For those bottom-8 teams, you want to make sure you are playing well going into the tournament that will generate a lot of attention and will shape the team’s future.

And the front office wants you to win down the stretch too, because the higher you place in your bracket, the more home games you get. That’s $$$ for the Aquaman, so you can bet the message comes down from on high that there’s no tanking anymore.

Coaches often talk about the difficulty of getting a team ready to play during those post-deadline doldrums, when everyone knows the season is lost. Bingo. Now you have a reason to play. You need to go into that final tournament on a high. Individual players will want to play in those games because of the playoff-atmosphere. The coach now has a genuine carrot to dangle; those last weeks of the regular season are where players fight for a spot in those tournament games.

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For the team:

More revenue, more excitement, less negativity. Win-win-win.

Plus, the system is fair. If you’re a team that is struggling, the lottery can’t cheat you out of a chance to draft high. No one is jumping or dropping more than 3 spots (so the range is less than currently) and even if you have the unlikely situation of dropping a full 3 spots, it’s not in favour of a team that doesn’t need a huge boost (like the 16-17 Flyers, who weren’t far off from making the playoffs, and yet got to draft Nolan Patrick.)

Seriously, think of the hype a tournament like this would get in a town like Vancouver? We would eat this up, don’t you dare deny it. And we could roll it out in time for the draft in Vancouver. What a world.

Naysayers corner

“There are too many games already at that time!” Yes, there would be a lot happening. But in the regular season we have nights were everyone is playing and we manage. I honestly love the idea of having that much hockey going in mid-April, it is my favourite time of year for hockey and this could only add another layer of fun. There’s also the option of running the tournaments concurrent to the second round of the playoffs, although my preference is for what we could affectionately call “April Anarchy!”

“What if teams try to shut down players and then bring them back for the tournament?” We’d have to have a rule that to be eligible for the tournament they would have to have played say 15 of the last 20 games. Something like that.

“Teams will tank to fall into the easier brackets!” Yeah I suppose that’s possible, but teams already tank, and this would still minimize it. For teams T17-T24, these are teams that are typically still in the hunt for a playoff spot until quite late in the season, they’re not in tank mode. Teams T25-T28 might try to tank into the bottom tourney, but if another team tanks more effectively and you finish T28, you’ve now lost home-ice advantage in the tourney and you risk going in flat, losing out, and getting 8th overall when you might otherwise have gone in on a roll, won out, and got the 5th overall pick.

Ultimately, there’s no way to avoid tanking altogether unless we commit to a system that could seriously punish the genuinely bad teams. That’s what we currently have. It sucks and teams still tank. This system minimizes the tanking incentive while still acknowledging that weak teams need help.

“It’s a gimmick, players won’t care about it!” It’s a gimmick, sure, but a much more fun gimmick than Bill Daly flipping cards with team logos on them while Trevor Linden looks like he’s going to be sick. 3-on-3 overtime is a gimmick too, but it’s fun and the players have taken to it. Majority of players would go for this, because they love hockey, they get to play four high-intensity games, and they get a chance to improve their team in the process.

“What about pending UFAs?” They might not have as much commitment to the team’s draft position, but they can use it as a showcase to raise their UFA value. Lots of attention, chance to prove that you are a valuable asset to a team in a clutch situation. Heck yeah, John Tavares, get out there and earn a payday! These guys are willing to play in game 82 of a lost season, so I see no reason they wouldn’t be willing to play a really fun games 83-86.

Told you I could fix it

There, done. Fixed.

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But before anyone comes at me to say they already suggested this: I know. I don’t mean to pretend that this is all just some sudden revelation that came from my brain alone. I’ve heard people float versions of these ideas a few times here and there, and I’ve just cobbled them together into what I think is a workable version.

I’m sure it could use some tweaks and I would love to hear them. I don’t normally read the comments but I will make an exception this time if you promise not to say anything mean about my spreadsheets.