Few things in professional sports are as offensive as tanking.
When teams tank they make a mockery of the league they play in and play their fans for fools by making them pay to watch a team that’s not equipped to win as many games as it can. Players, we know for the most part, are always trying their hardest, but it’s easy for management to construct a roster that renders the athletes’ efforts moot, all in the pursuit of a perceived easy way to rebuild through higher draft picks.
The NHL knows the above paragraph is true and that’s why it has an annual Draft Lottery. Discouraging tanking is both a noble endeavor and smart business.
So there should be no sympathy for tankers, even after the 2020 NHL Draft Lottery rewarded a team that’s first going to have a chance to play its way into the Stanley Cup playoffs with three wins in the scheduled upcoming NHL play-in round if the NHL returns from its paused that was caused by the coronavirus pandemic. If a team loses in the play-in, it’ll have a chance to pick No. 1 overall.
The NHL decided to include the play-in teams rather than just conduct the lottery among the seven teams that weren’t invited back to complete the 2019-20 season. The odds were the same this year that they were for all 15 teams that didn’t qualify for the playoffs last year. Had there not been a play-in round of games because of the extenuating circumstances the league exists in, there howls about unfairness you’re hearing would be quieter.
The NHL decided that just because Detroit, which entertained the continent with 39 points in 71 games, tanked in a pandemic year, it shouldn’t be rewarded with greater odds. Wise move.
The Red Wings had an 18.5 percent chance of winning the lottery. Ottawa, which has two first-round picks after a 62-point season and a trade with San Jose, had a 25-percent chance. In the end Detroit wound up fourth, Ottawa wound up third and fifth, Los Angeles moved from fourth to second, and one of the eight play-in losers will get the chance to draft consensus No. 1 prospect Alexis Lafreniere at a date to be determined. The lottery among the eight losers will be held after the play-in round.
As expected, Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman, whose plan was foiled by the lottery gods, was disappointed and at least a little frustrated with the lottery working properly.
“I am not surprised,” Yzerman told the Detroit Free Press on Frida. “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,” Yzerman continued. “Anything I say is going to be self-serving. They have to do what they have to do.”
Yes, they have to preserve the integrity of competition. The Red Wings are paying the price for being successful for so long and not looking to the future when their best players were getting older. They made the playoffs every season from 1990-91 through their first-round exit in 2016. They won the Cup four times in that span. It was a great run, but they let the personnel thin out and lost some talented players for nothing. They trotted out goaltender Jimmy Howard (save percentage: .882) in 35 games last season, not exactly giving their young, under-talented roster a chance on a nightly basis. Using a winning lottery ball as a shortcut should not be considered a privilege.
After all, winning even multiple lotteries isn’t a guarantee of success. Just ask Edmonton (four No. 1 picks six years, 2010 to 2015, including the best player on the planet Connor McDavid) and Buffalo (two No. 2 picks and a No. 1 in the past six seasons) where all their Stanley Cup titles, or even trips to the league semifinals, have been over the past decade.
The best organizations scour the globe for talent and don’t have to rely on no-brainer top-three picks to save them.
Former NHL general manager and one-time league disciplinarian Brian Burke, now an analyst for Sportsnet, didn’t have a horse in the race Friday, but he was publicly more outraged than any of the GMs that might’ve felt they got a raw deal.
“This result is nothing short of a disgrace,” he said shortly after the lottery results were announced. “This makes no sense. It should’ve been just the seven teams that weren’t in the play-in round in the lottery. Give the teams who need the most help the best players.”
With all due respect to Burke, he spoke like a man who hasn’t paid for a NHL ticket in decades and someone who if he took another GM job would subscribe to the notion of tanking for years in pursuit of the slim odds of turning top picks into quick fix.
The lottery wasn’t created to satisfy Burke, Yzerman, Ottawa GM Pierre Dorion or anyone affiliated with a specific team or player. It was established to discourage teams from failing to provide a product the public could pay for in good faith. If the NHL gets some added publicity when a lottery goes a little out of whack like it did Friday, that’s a bonus. But few people want to go to a game they know their team has already lost before they walk through the turnstile.
The 2020 NHL Draft Lottery worked as intended, and if you were a NHL GM expecting the lottery to do your work for you, you had already lost before a single ball was pulled.
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