The world of professional sports is tough. To even the playing ground between first place and last place teams, the draft is often ordered from the lowest-seeded teams to the highest-seeded teams picking in a reverse order of the standings. With draft lotteries, though, the game is changed.
In recent years, the team that has finished last has failed to make the first-overall selection in four of the last five years. The Edmonton Oilers have won the lottery twice, selecting Nail Yakupov and Connor McDavid in 2012 and 2015 respectively. The Florida Panthers lost the lottery in 2013 before winning it in 2014. The Buffalo Sabres, in contrast to the Oilers, have lost the draft lottery twice in both 2014 and 2015.
It’s a tough business, and while the NHL gives the lowest-seeded teams the best odds to win the lottery, the odds are still stacked against the favorites.
With 31 teams in the NHL now, the bottom 15 teams are eligible to make a lottery selection. The odds to get the first overall pick were as follows heading into the lottery:
- Colorado Avalanche – 18 percent
- Vancouver Canucks – 12.1 percent
- Vegas Golden Knights – 10.3 percent
- Arizona Coyotes – 10.3 percent
- New Jersey Devils – 8.5 percent
- Buffalo Sabres – 7.6 percent
- Detroit Red Wings – 6.7 percent
- Dallas Stars – 5.8 percent
- Florida Panthers – 5.4 percent
- Los Angeles Kings – 4.5 percent
- Carolina Hurricanes – 3.2 percent
- Winnipeg Jets – 2.7 percent
- Philadelphia Flyers – 2.2 percent
- Tampa Bay Lightning – 1.8 percent
- New York Islanders – 0.9 percent
While it would appear the Avalanche, Canucks and Golden Knights / Coyotes had the best odds to pick in the top-3 positions in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, the reality that hit these four clubs was not a good one.
All It Takes is One
At the conclusion of the lottery Saturday night, none of the top four teams finished with picks within the top-3 positions. The ultimate winners of the lottery were the New Jersey Devils who will be picking first overall for the first time since 1979 before they even moved to the Garden State. The Devils that year selected defender Rob Ramage. The Devils only had the fifth best odds – nearly 10 percent less than the Avalanche, to win the 2017 lottery. Breaking the odds even more, however, were the Philadelphia Flyers and Dallas Stars who also moved up in the draft.
Heading into the lottery, the Flyers had only a 2.2 percent chance of picking first overall, 2.4 percent at picking second overall and 2.6 percent at picking third overall. Similarly, the Dallas Stars had a 5.8 percent chance at first overall, 6.1 percent at second overall and 6.4 percent chance at picking third overall. In the end, all it took was one lottery ball for each of the Devils, Flyers and Stars to fall to earn them the distinction of picking first, second and third overall as opposed to fifth, 13th and eight overall respectively.
Irony for Colorado
The Colorado Avalanche took the biggest hit in the lottery. After finishing the season with far-and-away the worst record in the NHL at 22-56-4 and earning a lowly 48-points on the year, the Avalanche very clearly needed this lottery pick to help them moving forward.
To be fair, the Avalanche have many quality players who were taken with high picks on their roster already — the list includes Matt Duchene (third overall in 2009), Gabriel Landeskog (second overall in 2011), Nathan MacKinnon (first overall in 2013) as well as two consecutive 10th-overall selections of Mikko Rantanen and Tyson Jost in 2015 and 2016 respectively. Still, the team is clearly hurting and in need of help. The lottery helped three teams, but significantly stifled three – none more than the Avalanche.
The lottery is made to keep teams from tanking intentionally. It’s a system that allows every team that finished outside of the playoff race to have a chance at the first overall pick – but it also limits teams who might want to take advantage of the system and intentionally boost their chances at earning a top-3 pick. As evidenced by recent years, tanking to finish in last place won’t guarantee the first overall pick. It won’t even guarantee a top-3 pick. All it does is give teams who finished last a better chance at earning those opportunities.
The irony of this situation, however, stems from the New Jersey Devils winning the lottery. Before the franchise called the state of New Jersey its home, it once resided in the state of Colorado as the Rockies, prior to the Quebec Nordiques relocating. In the end, the current Colorado franchise lost the first overall selection to the former Colorado franchise.