The NHL Needs to Change Its Draft Process

Here we are in the midst of the NHL season and the biggest concern in Buffalo is a fear that the team will win too many games and lessen its chances of securing a top draft choice. Not only are fans and local media already looking ahead to the 2014 NHL Draft, but more startling, also the 2015 draft when phenom Connor McDavid will be eligible

As the league continues to augment its game, the NHL needs to make changes to its drafting process. Below are a few suggestions.

Cap Penalties/Rewards

nhl salary capOne of the biggest issues with the current status quo is that teams aren’t given any incentive to be competitive once they’ve fallen out of the playoff race. In many professional sports leagues outside North America, teams are relegated to a lower league if they finish at the bottom of the standings, instead of being rewarded with a high draft pick. While it’s understandable that the current infrastructure of the NHL couldn’t support such a system and the draft lottery is already in place to maintain the integrity of the game, there are still additional measures that can be implemented.

One idea would be accessing cap penalties for teams that finish near the bottom of the standings, while granting cap rewards for the highest finishers among the teams who fail to qualify for the postseason. The 9th-place finishers in each conference would receive a $5-million cap bonus and the second place finishers a $3-million bonus, while the second-to-last place finishers receive a $3-million penalty and a the last place finishers a $5-million penalty.  The cap adjustments would go into effect for the following season.

A potential problem with such an initiative could be that many of the lower-ranking teams already are not spending to the cap ceiling, thus why they are finishing near the bottom of the standings. The penalties and bonuses could be adjusted to find numbers that make sense and to adhere to any salary cap changes.

Granting Exceptional Status

Connor McDavid
(OHL Images)

Going back to the Buffalo Sabres example, what’s disconcerting is that not only does the team have nothing to gain by competitively playing out the remaining games this season, many fans are weary of what the team may do in the offseason. There is a fear in Buffalo that the team is “bottoming out” a season too early, as this year’s draft has been deemed “the one before McDavid.” Local media in Buffalo have gone as far to suggest that the team shouldn’t make too many improvements to the roster this summer so that it can improve its chances of landing McDavid instead of competing for a playoff spot.

There’s also the humorous anecdote involving Alexander Ovechkin. Like McDavid, Ovechkin was already the consensus first-overall pick years before his draft year. The Florida Panthers attempted to draft Ovechkin in the ninth round of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, even though he was two days too young to be eligible that year. Panthers GM Rick Dudley claimed Ovechkin was old enough once leap years were taken into consideration.

Needless to say, Dudley lost his argument. However, the cases of Ovechkin and McDavid are special circumstances and should be treated as such. In the Ontario Hockey League, they’ve implemented an exceptional status rule that allows extremely gifted players to join the league a year early. A similar ruling should be put into place for NHL Draft eligibility.

Not only would this be good for the NHL, it’d be good for the players granted exceptional status. As part of the rule’s stipulations, the player would still need to play out the additional season in junior hockey; the team would simply just hold the rights of the player (similar to the rules regarding college players who return to school after being drafted). This would safeguard the player against any potential major injuries that would otherwise hinder his draft potential or future NHL prospects.

These are a just a few suggestions of how the NHL can improve its broken drafting process. Feel free to supply ideas of your own in the comments section below.