Placeholder Team Wins NHL Draft Lottery

In what has been a topsy-turvy NHL season, nothing has gone according to plan. Instead of having the playoffs finished or nearly done at this point of the calendar, we’re sitting about a month away from the potential restart of the season with the qualifying round of the playoffs. Normally, there are 16 teams in the playoff field but thanks to COVID-19, it’s an expanded 24-team field that is going to be culled to a normal field after a series of best-of-five qualifying round matchups. Instead of having teams seeded in the top four of each conference based on points, we have them playing in a round-robin tournament for seeding.

Based on all those deviations from the normal course of action, it should come as no surprise that things didn’t pan out as planned with the NHL Draft Lottery.

On Friday night, the seven teams that failed to make the expanded playoff field hoped to have their name drawn for the top overall pick, which would likely be Alexis Lafreniere. There were eight placeholders for the eventual qualifying round losers in the mix as well but they all had declining percentages of a potential win in the mix. So, of course, how did things turn out? A placeholder team, identified as Placeholder E in the lottery, came up the big winner with the #1 overall pick. What does that mean?

Well, for starters, it means that a team that at least played three games in the qualifying round and was in striking distance at worst for a playoff spot, has the ability to add a top prospect like Lafreniere to the mix as they chase the Stanley Cup in 2020-21 and beyond. A team that had 1 in 40 odds (2.5 percent) to win the lottery came up with the magical combination to earn the top overall selection. As to what team that may be, that is yet to be determined at this point in time. Once the qualifying round is completed, the eight teams that were eliminated will each take part in a second draft lottery. Each team will have an equal 12.5 percent chance to earn the #1 pick at that stage of things.

Los Angeles, who had the fourth-best odds of winning the lottery at 9.5 percent, moved up to #2 in the draft. Ottawa earned the #3 pick via the first-round selection they received from San Jose in the Erik Karlsson deal while Detroit, who held the best odds for #1 at 18.5 percent, dropped to fourth. The Senators’ own selection gave them the fifth pick with Anaheim, New Jersey and Buffalo rounding out the top eight. Outside of Placeholder E, the other seven qualifying round losers will select 9 through 15 in the draft.

Needless to say, there were some GMs of teams that had dismal seasons who were less than thrilled with the results of the lottery selection. Steve Yzerman, a Hall of Famer and now the GM of the team that he spent his entire 22-year career with, the Red Wings, said: “I am not surprised. We had 18.5 percent chance of winning the first pick. They eight playoff teams had a 24.5 percent chance combined of getting the pick …They have to do what they have to do. Anything I say is going to be self-serving. They have to do what they have to do.” Ottawa GM Pierre Dorion followed suit with his thoughts: "We all knew this could happen. It definitely has been a different 2020 compared to every other year that I've been on the face of this earth."

While the thought process of the draft lottery being skewed this season does have some validity to it, the fact remains that just because you, be it intentionally or not, ice a miserable team that leaves you the worst team in the league, by leaps and bounds, doesn’t guarantee you the top spot in the draft. That was the entire point of instituting a lottery to begin with. It helps discourage tanking to some extent and makes teams consider a more aggressive strategy. The NBA followed a similar concept in the mid-1980s, changing to a lottery instead of a coin flip between the worst team in each conference for the top spot. Those teams knew they were guaranteed no worse than pick #2 in the draft.

Now, the lottery has had its flaws for certain. Edmonton had four first overall picks in a six-year span between 2010 and 2015. Buffalo has had a pair of first overall selections and a second overall pick over the last six years yet hasn’t been able to capitalize on those. The Sabres haven’t made the postseason since the 2010-11 season, giving them the longest active playoff drought in the league. It’s clear that just because you get a top pick that it isn’t an instant reversal of fortunes. Detroit or Ottawa wasn’t going to magically turn into a contender just because they selected Lafreniere in the draft. It’s going to take time to figure things out and get those franchises on track.

While there are those up in arms about a team that qualified for the expanded field earning the top overall pick, they’re overlooking one key thing. It’s a lottery, not a guarantee. If teams were more intent on putting quality players on the ice instead of gambling for the top overall pick, they might be further along in their attempt to get back to relevance. As for who gets the #1 pick, well, we’ll have to wait to find that one out down the line.

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Chris Kubala

Biography coming soon!