Given the embarrassing appearance of a handful of NHL clubs seemingly “tanking the season” to improve their odds of winning the draft lottery, some observers suggest doing away with the draft. Here’s why that’s a bad idea.
First, there’s the blatantly obvious: abolishing the draft will never happen under NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s watch, nor that of his hand-picked eventual successor Bill Daly. Second, the NHL draft has been around for over 50 years, and in its current form (apart from a few tweaks over the decades) since the early 1970s. It’s now an indelible part of the league. Third, and most importantly, it’s a key pillar for building a roster and ensuring parity among NHL teams.
Landing the top available young prospects via the draft doesn’t guarantee franchise success, as current fans of the Edmonton Oilers can attest. But, in the hands of capable management (especially the scouting department), the draft can certainly help a struggling team acquire young talent upon which to build a potential championship roster. The Detroit Red Wings, Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings are recent examples of teams which became Stanley Cup champions in part because of their solid draft records.
That’s not to suggest the draft doesn’t have its flaws. There’s the perception the current format rewards failure and is too heavily favors the worst teams. Critics suggest the way the draft lottery is weighted doesn’t go far enough to discourage tanking. Indeed, some argue the draft only encourages rebuilding teams to tank. It’s been suggested top picks are wasted on poorly managed teams (sorry, Oilers fans, but your team has become Exhibit A in that argument). Some suggest the draft punishes successful teams by forcing them to pick lower in the draft order.
Some of the complaints are valid, and some are just whining (especially the “punishes the successful teams” argument). The fact is, the draft is a necessary way to ensure a measure of parity among NHL teams.
Before the implementation of the NHL draft, promising young players were signed to contracts which essentially bound those players to their NHL teams for life or until traded or released from their deals. It also resulted in a form of regionalism, whereby the best Quebec-born players belonged to the Montreal Canadiens and the top Ontario-born players to the Toronto Maple Leafs almost by divine right. Little wonder the Original Six era was dominated by those two teams from 1946 to 1967.
It’s been suggested the NHL do away with the draft and simply resort to free agency, allowing the young prospects to sign with whatever team they want. The salary cap, of course, ensures there won’t be any contract bidding wars for rookies, so such a system would essentially come down to prospects signing with their favorite NHL teams.
The problem with that, however, is it creates a significant imbalance among the 30 NHL clubs. It puts less-popular clubs at a distinct disadvantage, creating what would essentially be a two-tiered league of perennially-dominant franchises and those with slim hopes for success. Sure, it’s great if you’re a fan of one of those dominant franchises, but not so much if you’re a fan of a less-popular one.
Toronto Maple Leafs fans were excited when Eric Otters center Connor McDavid, considered by most observers the NHL’s next great young superstar, said it would be a dream come true if he got drafted by the Leafs. If you’re a Leafs fan, right now you’d probably prefer a system whereby a top prospect like McDavid could choose where he wanted to play.
But what if McDavid was a fan of the New York Rangers? Under a free-agent system, the currently-moribund Leafs could forget about any opportunity to land this kid because his heart would be set on joining the Rangers. The league’s worst teams wouldn’t stand a chance of landing a potential franchise player.
Just because a team lands one of the top young prospects via the draft doesn’t mean they’re automatically going to be Cup contenders as a result. The draft is just one option for building a successful roster. Trades and free agency are every bit as important.
Even with the draft in this current form weighted in favor of bad teams, it’s still largely a crapshoot, especially beyond the top-10 in the first round. NHL draft history is littered with first-round draft busts and superstars selected in the later rounds. Ultimately, it still comes down to the strength of a team’s scouting department, and even then they need some luck on their side.
Perhaps the best solution to prevent the notion of “tanking” is to allow every team which doesn’t make the playoffs an equal shot of winning the draft lottery. Maybe the lottery should be conducted among the 14 non-playoff club for each of the first fourteen picks in the first round, after which subsequent rounds will be determined by placement in the standings.
The league will undoubtedly continue tweaking the draft lottery system to avoid the embarrassing perception of teams throwing the season to improve their lottery odds. Don’t expect them to abolish a system which, despite its flaws, continues to contribute to league parity.