In the 2015 NHL draft lottery, the 28th-place Edmonton Oilers usurped the last-place Buffalo Sabres for the first overall pick.
But under an alternative draft pick assignment method proposed occasionally over the years and re-thrust into the spotlight by Shane Doan this week, the Oilers would’ve entered the lottery with the highest odds to begin with.
Elaborated Doan, the Arizona Coyotes’ captain, to Arizona Central on Sunday: “The day you’re mathematically eliminated, you start accumulating points. When you get to the end of the year, whoever’s accumulated the most points gets the first overall pick.”
The method would still give an advantage to the worst teams — by getting eliminated earlier, they would have more games in which to earn points in pursuit of the top selection — but encourage those teams to win during that time. It is, in essence, an idea to make tanking obsolete.
It’s a veritably fascinating and creative idea, but not without drawbacks. The policy could simply expedite the point of the season during which teams tank (in order to be eliminated sooner) and could unintentionally cripple teams struggling due to incompetence rather than deliberate tanking.
The implementation of Doan’s idea would affect the league in ways that can’t be completely foreseen. Bottom-dwelling franchises would operate throughout spring under a completely different mindset than they do today.
But the best way to forecast how the idea would change the future is to hypothetically apply it to the past.
In the 2014-15 season, the format would’ve awarded the top pick to the aforementioned Oilers — at least prior to the lottery, if it remained — rather than the Sabres.
The 2014-15 season was one of several especially terrible teams.
The Oilers, despite finishing with just 62 points on the year, played at a respectable point-per-game clip after their elimination. The Coyotes, meanwhile, collapsed down the stretch. That actually aided Arizona in real life but would have direly hurt them under their own captain’s purported system.
Columbus finished 2014-15 on an absolute tear, ripping off a winning streak to stave off impending elimination for over a week and then going 5-0-1 even once the inevitable wave of elimination did engulf them. That would’ve given them the 3rd pick rather than the 8th pick, awarding them the chance to choose Noah Hanifin instead of the defenseman they actually picked, Zach Werenski.
Let’s look back a year further at how the system would’ve been applied in 2013-14:
The most alarming and prominent takeaway from the 2013-14 number-crunching is just how small the post-elimination time period is.
In that season, 10 of the 14 non-playoff teams were mathematically eliminated with six or fewer games left in the season, even though many had been realistically eliminated much earlier. That would’ve led to quite a bit of small sample size craziness – for example, the Maple Leafs losing merely their last two games in the 82-game season would’ve had a drastic effect on their draft position, and the Canucks losing two of their last three would’ve had a similarly catastrophic result.
Despite being among the best overall non-playoff clubs, Nashville and Washington, moreover, would’ve been boosted by their strong three-game stretches to end the campaign. To put it into perspective, their six- and seven-spot jumps, respectively, would’ve equated to selecting Jake Virtanen and Haydn Fleury instead of Kevin Fiala and Jakub Vrana.
And although the 2015-16 regular season still has another week left in it, here’s how the current standings in Points After Elimination look so far:
Buffalo, unlike the two previous seasons, currently leads the pack in this hypothetical regard, while the Canucks’ ongoing three-game winning streak has them surging up the board.
Two teams have yet to be eliminated, while two others (New Jersey and Carolina) haven’t played in the few days following their eliminations this past weekend.
All together, the retroactive results paint an interesting picture of the pros and cons of Doan’s idea.
On one hand, the system would certainly achieve its initial purpose of discouraging tanking and making meaningless late-season games between struggling teams actually matter. But on the other hand, the system would dramatically reduce the sample size on which the draft order is based and potentially disadvantage the weakest teams that most deserve the No. 1 selection.
Doan told Arizona Central that he’s mentioned the concept to some NHL executives, who have lauded it as a “great idea,” but that it’s never gained any real traction beyond that.
The new approach probably deserves more consideration, but historical examples demonstrate that its implementation would not be without downsides.