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Gans: Evaluating the flawed NHL draft lottery system (April 13)

Sam Gans | Friday, April 13, 2012

“With the first overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, the Washington Redskins select Andrew Luck, quarterback, Stanford…”

Relax, readers, the Colts and Redskins have not swapped positions, and Roger Goodell will announce April 26 that Luck is indeed heading to Indianapolis.

The opening sentence is just a hypothetical if the NFL had a lottery to determine its top pick and Washington, assuming its trade with St. Louis still occurred, leapfrogged the Colts. A similar situation happened in the NHL this Tuesday.

While “Suck for Luck” enthralled fans of NFL cellar-dwellers this season, the NHL had a witty rhyme of its own for lower-tier teams: “Fail for Nail”. Russian winger Nail Yakupov is ranked as the consensus top prospect in June’s entry draft, a consolation for fans of a team that had to endure a season which resulted in 30th place out of 30 teams.

Except it didn’t work out that way. Unlike the NFL, where the worst team is automatically awarded the first overall pick, the NHL has a lottery system in which ping-pong balls decide.

The league-worst Blue Jackets had a 48.2 percent chance at landing the top pick, with the Edmonton Oilers – the second-worst team – having the next best odds at 18.8 percent. Odds decreased down the line. While each non-playoff team can win the NHL lottery, the maximum spots a team can move up is four. Should a team outside the bottom five win the lottery, the first pick stays with the worst team.

Things bounced Edmonton’s way and 2012 will mark the third year in a row the Oilers will pick first.

As a Blue Jackets fan, I felt pure disgust. But after some yelling and tears nearly shed (no shame), I took a deep breath and tried to look at it from an objective perspective. The lottery has been a debate in sports circles often. What’s the best way to go about deciding who gets the first overall pick?

I explained the NHL’s system above. The NBA also employs a lottery, but it can alter the draft order much more significantly than the NHL. In the NBA, the top three selections are chosen by the lottery and every non-playoff team has a chance at the No. 1 pick. The NFL and MLB both award the top pick to the worst team the previous season.

The main argument in favor of the lottery system is it discourages “tanking”, or losing on purpose to get the top draft pick.

However, while fans (and perhaps secretly the front office) of a struggling team may be rooting for failure, the ones in control – the players and coaches – are still trying. They are playing and coaching for contracts and pride. And if the team is truly terrible, many of the players and coaches won’t even be with the organization years down the road when that draft pick makes its biggest impact. Therefore, the team that finishes last almost certainly wasn’t there from a lack of effort, but instead because they were just that bad.

Even if you were to say the players and coaches would tank on purpose, how does a lottery stop that from happening? While the first pick may not be guaranteed for the worst team, it still has the best odds. So anything short of equal odds for all non-playoff teams wouldn’t stop tanking if a team wanted.

There are numerous problems in the lottery system. One is that it opens up conspiracy theories. Though I do not believe the lottery is rigged in the NBA or NHL, having a team win the lottery to pick first overall three years in a row (see the Oilers) or a team with a 1.7 percent chance to have the No. 1 pick and a hometown franchise player win the lottery (2008 Chicago Bulls and Derrick Rose) brings about criticism and scrutiny that can be avoided.

And of course, the lottery can prevent the worst team – the one who needs help the most – from getting the top selection. Though some would argue a team shouldn’t be rewarded for awful play with a high pick anyway, professional sports leagues are at their best when there is lots of parity.

The NHL and NBA should abandon the lottery and follow the NFL and MLB.

Contact Sam Gans at sgans@nd.edu

The views expressed in this Sports Authority column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.