Damien Cox: The NHL should let everyone in the draft lottery, just like it’s 2005 again

Let’s consider a couple of key questions about the 2020 NHL draft.

With the rest of the 2019-20 season in serious jeopardy, when might the 2020 draft take place? It was scheduled for June 26-27 in Montreal, but was postponed in late March.

And if the 2019-20 season isn’t completed, which without a treatment or vaccine for COVID-19 is looking more and more like a possibility, how can you possibly conduct the 2020 draft?

Everybody’s guessing as to what the future may hold. But there’s a herd of draft-eligible players out there who are going to need answers in the relatively near future, along with 31 NHL clubs looking to add new talent to their depth charts.

Let’s look at the likeliest scenario.

Sometime in May or early June, Gary Bettman and Co. are going to realize finishing the 2019-20 season is a fantasy given historic sporting events like the Summer Olympics and Wimbledon are already history. These ideas of holding some sort of NHL competition in a single location like Grand Forks, N.D., are fun to kick around, but just one positive test of an asymptomatic player would quickly bring the entire exercise screeching to a halt.

Once the regular season and Stanley Cup playoffs are officially cancelled, the NHL can then start planning the 2020-21 season with increased confidence. You could start as late as February or even March 2021. The runway becomes much longer.

But you’d still need to sort out the 2020 draft. Elite prospects like Alexis Lafrenière are going to be playing next season, so there has to be a process to award the rights of eligible players to NHL clubs.

But in what order would the teams draft?

The Detroit Red Wings, with 71 games played and only 39 points accumulated, would want the season to be treated as if it were complete, giving them the most balls in the regular lottery process. If you believe that being dreadful should be rewarded with a high draft pick — I don’t — then you would probably side with the Wings.

The rest of the league presents a much more difficult picture. There are six teams packed tightly with between 62 and 68 points, with a different number of games played. Then there are 10 teams with between 71 and 80 points. They’ve played between 69 and 71 games. Then another five teams, including the Maple Leafs, have between 81 and 83 points.

Quite clearly, finishing the schedule could have created a lot of movement in those groups. A team could move up or down four or five slots. The difference between the fifth pick and the 10th is massive. Simply going with the incomplete standings would be unfair and arbitrary.

For a more logical solution, look back to the 2005 draft.

After the entire 2004-05 season was obliterated by a labour shutdown that ultimately resulted in the modern salary cap system, the NHL had to decide on an equitable way to conduct the 2005 draft, with young Rimouski centre Sidney Crosby as the grand prize.

In the 2003-04 campaign, the Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks and Washington Capitals had been the three worst teams. The Capitals had intentionally gutted their roster to enhance their draft position in the 2004 draft, won the lottery and selected Alex Ovechkin. Before 2005, only the teams with the five worst records were in the lottery.

It made no sense to go with the same order again. Instead, the NHL came up with a rather clever plan. All 30 teams — even the Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning — were eligible for the draft lottery, instead of just non-playoff teams. The lottery weightings were then based on the number of playoff appearances in the previous three seasons and the number of first overall picks in the previous four drafts. Teams that had none of either got three balls in the lottery, and other teams got either two balls or one depending on the results.

“Nobody was particularly thrilled,” Bettman said at the time. “But everyone understood that on balance it was probably the fairest way to approach it.”

The lottery became a dramatic, must-see TV event. The Penguins, after having only a 6.3 per cent chance to win, captured the first pick. That on its own may have saved the Pittsburgh franchise, which was in severe duress at the time.

Anaheim won the No. 2 selection, Carolina got the third pick and Minnesota was at No. 4. It was also a “snake draft.” The Pens picked first, but then selected last in the second round. The Lightning picked last in the first round, then owned the first pick in the second round (ultimately traded to Anaheim).

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Pittsburgh had the first pick in the third round, and used it very well to select defenceman Kris Letang. (The Maple Leafs, fifth overall in 2003-04, benefitted slightly from the process by getting the 21st selection. They made a brilliant pick, Finnish goalie prospect Tuukka Rask. We all know what happened after that.)

If the current NHL season can’t be completed, the 2005 draft process should be used as the prototype for 2020. Aside from being fair to all 31 teams, it would create all kinds of talking points and widespread interest at a time when sports fans in general are dying for their fix, and pro teams are going to be searching for creative ways to attract customers again.

These are unprecedented times, but the NHL has a sensible precedent from which to work. You could even argue the NHL should use this kind of system every year. The philosophy of artificially rewarding the worst needs to come to an end.

Damien Cox

Damien Cox is a former Star sports reporter who is a current freelance contributing columnist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @DamoSpin



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