The NHL should help those who help themselves

How do you prevent teams from tanking to get a better draft pick? Here’s an idea.

Reporting from the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, the Edmonton Journal’s David Staples breaks intriguing news about a new idea for discouraging late-season “tanking” by pro sports teams who want to improve their draft position. Reading about Adam Gold’s scheme, I had the pretty firm reaction: “Yeah, this is right. We’ll see somebody adopt this soon.”

Right now, in the NBA and the NHL, teams eliminated from the playoffs are supposedly discouraged from sending out sub-par lineups by the use of a draft lottery. Lottery systems, which basically add some statistical random noise to the end-of-year standings before the draft order is set, have curbed the worst abuses (best exemplified, I think, by the bizarre ending of the 1983-84 NBA season). If a hypothetical NHL team, let’s call it the Deadmonton Boilers, finishes in last place, it is not guaranteed to get the number-one pick. The problem, however, is that the randomization, being random, doesn’t really reverse the powerful incentive to be horrible: finishing in last still gives the Boilers the best statistical chance of getting the number-one pick in the Entry Draft, and guarantees that they will pick no lower than second.

What’s needed is an incentive to continue winning every possible game—a reward for honest effort which still guarantees that the biggest talents entering the league will end up with the poorest clubs (or the clubs that have exchanged for their picks) in the name of competitive balance and fan interest. I have always felt as though this was like squaring the circle: an irresolvable contradiction. But Gold has figured out a way to do it. He proposes to rank the teams in the draft lottery by the raw total of wins or standings points earned after, and only after, their formal playoff elimination. The bad teams are eliminated early and have a longer time in which to amass those wins—but they still have to go out and get them, or risk being overtaken by less bad teams in the race for high picks.

I love the idea, even as I cheer for a 29th-place NHL team (in a year where two Russian forwards are bunched together pretty closely at the top of the scouting lists). I can live with cheering for a 29th-place team, but it would help some if the cheering actually conformed in some way to the interests of that team, and wasn’t just a stupid, innate sports-fan reflex. The Gold Rule would not only end outright “tanking”, and the temptations thereto; it would also minimize the distinction between trade-deadline “buyers” and “sellers”, which impairs within-season competitive balance. Teams that were just plain dead in the water as elimination loomed would have to make sure they were still ready to compete down the stretch. We wouldn’t even think of them anymore as being “dead”: effectively, as Gold says, they would be entering their own “playoff-type” phase of competition.

The very-long-term solution is still an NHL (and an NBA, and perhaps even an MLB) with tiered divisions, offering promotion and relegation. That will come about naturally when the North American leagues are ready to relent a bit from their cartel nature, perhaps under legal pressure, and to welcome a world in which a country like Canada has the 20 or 50 serious, competitive pro hockey teams it could readily support. But no one’s ready yet for an NHL2. Especially not Edmonton Oiler fans. Once you had an NHL Second Division, someone would naturally start pressing for a Third, and a Fourth, and who knows where the hell we’d hit bottom?

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