As we get closer to the end of the season you will probably see more and more stories about the NHL Draft Lottery. Since it’s the thing that happens between the end of the regular season and the start of the playoffs, this really isn’t surprising. And when I gaze into my crystal ball I see a great number of these stories having a common theme: that tanking must be eliminated and teams shouldn’t be allowed to win the lottery multiple times like the Oilers have.
A quick look at today’s standings show the Oilers, once again, near the very bottom, currently in 28th place overall. With a number of teams bunched at the bottom of the standings - the 29th place Jets and 23rd place Canucks are separated by just five points - there is no guarantee that the Oilers will remain in the bottom three when the season comes to an end, but if they do it will be the sixth time in seven seasons that the Oilers will have finished in the bottom 10% of the league; 2012/13 being the Oilers time they managed to climb a little higher in the standings, getting all the way to 25th overall.
And finishing last, or at least near the bottom of the standings, has been very good to the Oilers as it’s resulted in four draft lottery wins in the last six seasons. Lottery wins that allowed the team to draft Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov, and Connor McDavid. The Oilers are so good at the lottery that they’ve actually won it four different ways - by winning the lottery from 30th place, by finishing last and losing the lottery but retaining the first overall pick, by winning from 29th place, and by winning from 28th place. At this point it almost seems as if the Oilers are winning draft lotteries just because they can.
For the fans in Edmonton, the team’s draft lottery dynasty has been a lot of fun (it’s just about the only thing that been any fun when it comes to the Oilers) but the fans of other teams, and managers as well (ESPN Insider access required, sorry if you're cheap), are beginning to feel frustrated by being left out of all the fun. And so calls to again overhaul the lottery format in order to limit the number of times a team can win the lottery have gotten louder. If (when) the Oilers win the again lottery this season those calls should be expected to get even louder. You may or may not be able to hear these calls over my non-stop laughter and the crying of Leafs fans, but they’ll be there.
All joking aside, I appreciate the complaints about the Oilers winning the lottery over and over and over again, but I feel like the complaints miss two important things. First, we’re talking about random chance. Football games start with a coin toss, if every coin toss for two weeks came up heads, would that system be broken? And in a way that's what has happened here, the coin just keeps coming up Oilers. The NHL has already adjusted the format or the odds three times during the Oilers draft lottery dynasty to try and prevent teams from being intentionally bad and trying to win the lottery - in 2010 the Oilers had a 48.2% chance of selecting first overall and could pick no lower than second, this year the 30th place team will have a 47.5% chance of picking fourth - but the Oilers keep beating the odds. Sometimes it happens, it's doesn't mean that there is a problem.
Which bring me to my second point, a much more depressing point. The Oilers haven’t been trying to be bad enough to finish last and win the lottery for a while; they just suck. In 2010/11 the Oilers were built to finish last and secure another high draft pick. This was the high water mark for Steve Tambellini as a General Manager; the team did exactly what he wanted them to do and that was finish dead last. In the years since that though, the Oilers have been trying to turn to the corner but the ship has remained anchored to shore. Poor scouting, both amateur and pro, poor cap management, and lousy luck when it comes to injuries have all combined to bring the Oilers rebuild to a grinding halt.
If you want to argue that another first overall pick won’t help the Oilers, I won’t disagree. But not allowing them to pick first doesn’t make them a better team either. A change to the draft lottery format that I’ve seen suggested a number of times is that teams that picks in the top three two years in a row be allowed to pick inside the top five the following year. Go back to the summer of 2011, the Oilers have drafted Hall and Nugent-Hopkins and can pick no higher than sixth the next year, would they have done anything differently? I’d have a tough time arguing that they would have. Again, the problem isn’t the draft; it’s that the Oilers suck.
If it was up to me, with a salary cap in place, I’d get rid of both the draft and entry level contracts, and I’d let the market figure it out. If a team wants to spend $10M a season on kid coming out of junior, good for them, that’s $10M they’re not spending somewhere else. If that’s too extreme for you or you just really like the draft, then I’d be happy to settle for throwing the names of all 14 non-playoff teams into a hat and figuring out the draft order that way. Your choice, I’m flexible.
Neither will happen though because the NHL likes parity, it’s good for the bottom line, and the draft is a way to make that happen, by distributing talent to the teams that need it the most, the teams at the bottom of the standings. Being intentionally bad like the Oilers were (along with the Sabres, Leafs, and a few others) will never sit well with me but it’s an unavoidable by-product of a system that awards talent based on league standings. The league has taken steps to try to prevent teams from tanking, and that’s a good thing. Expecting them to also be concerned about a coin coming up heads a bunch of times in a row is probably a little much though.