The Best/Most Chaotic NHL Draft and Playoff Format

Since the abrupt pause of the NHL season, the two hockey related topics that have been widely discussed amongst fans and analysts: “How will this affect the playoffs?” and “How will this affect the draft?”. In all likelihood, when the league reopens, teams are going to be playing in empty arenas in a limited number of NHL cities. We are still months away from even being able to do that; leaving most to believe the league will either greatly shorten or completely scrap the rest of the regular season in favour of some kind of expanded playoffs. In light of this, a lot of very smart people have come up with plausible ideas for new playoff and draft formats. I’m not one of those very smart people and I haven’t had a plausible idea about anything in years but I do have some ridiculous ideas so let’s get weird! 

My main issue with all the current playoff proposals is that, no matter what, some teams are going to get screwed. But what if they didn’t have to? What if everybody gets exactly what they want? How do we do this? Simple:

We let teams choose whether they want to be in the playoffs or not.

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Here’s how this would work:

  • Teams get to submit their decision as to whether they wish to be in the playoffs to the league at a predetermined date. All decisions are due at the same time.
  • Any team that chooses playoffs will become a playoff team and be excluded from the draft lottery (seeding to be outlined later in this article).
  • Any team that chooses to end their season will be eliminated from the playoffs and entered into the lottery (draft position to be outlined later in the article).
  • Teams can discuss amongst themselves their planned decisions if they wish but nothing stops a team from lying and submitting something different than what they told a rival GM.

Typically, this type of shenanigan wouldn’t work because owners would pressure GMs to choose playoffs out of a desire for incremental gate revenue. But in this scenario, games are being played in neutral sites and empty arenas so there is no gate revenue. Teams also wouldn’t have to worry that throwing in the towel will affect attendance because attendance is already zero. This leaves GMs free to make a decision based on hockey, not money. Here’s a breakdown of what the draft format and playoff format would look like.

Draft Format:

  • Only teams who chose not to participate in the playoffs will have lottery eligible picks.
  • All teams who chose to participate in the lottery will be assigned odds based on their points percentage when the season ended. The team with the lowest point percentage will get the highest odds in the lottery. The team with the highest point percentage gets the lowest odds in the lottery.
  • Once a team wins the lottery, the odds are redistributed amongst the remaining teams based on the above criteria.
  • The same amount of draft positions will be lotteried off as there are lottery teams. In other words, if 10 teams choose to forgo the playoffs, the top 10 picks will be entered into the lottery; not just the top 3. 
  • For playoff teams, draft order will be determined based on when teams are eliminated. Ie. The first team eliminated picks after the last lottery team. Ties are broken by regular season points %.

By expanding the number of draft spots being lotteried off, it will give bubble teams greater incentive to skip the playoffs unless they truly think they have a shot at the cup because their odds of jumping up in the draft are increased dramatically. You may even see teams currently in a playoff spot opt to enter the draft lottery instead if they think their playoff hopes are slim; they’d get a chance at top talent without the pain of tanking for a season. You would also have GMs lying to each other constantly that their team was playoff bound; leaving rival GMs thinking the pool of lottery teams will be small and their chance at top talent will be high. I suspect far more teams would choose to end their season under this scenario than many would think.

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Under this draft format, we would also get to see teams make decisions based on what they’ve already done with their picks. For example, the Sharks (who traded their first rounder to the Sens) would surely opt for playoffs and play as hard as they could for one last chance at glory and to ruin Ottawa’s draft position. Any draft format that screws over Eugen Melnyk must be good!

Playoff Format:

  • All teams who opt to participate in the playoffs will play in at least one round. 
  • Should there be an uneven number of teams, the top team based on regular season points percentage will be awarded a bye. 
  • To determine the playoff seeding, the team with the highest points percentage (or second highest should the top team have a bye) will get to choose their opponent from the entire pool of playoff teams. They can choose any team in any division regardless of that team’s regular season standing. 
  • The next highest team based on points percentage (who has not yet been selected by another team) will then choose their opponent. This process will continue until every team has been either matched up or assigned a bye.
  • Should a lower seeded team upset their higher seed opponent in round one, this underdog team will steal the seed of the higher team. They will take on that team’s selection position when choosing second round opponents. 
  • This process will continue round after round until only two teams remain to play in the Stanley Cup Final. 
  • The last two teams standing will play in the finals, regardless of division/conference. For example, you could theoretically get a Tampa v. Toronto or Washington v. Pittsburgh final. 

I am far from the first person to propose that high seeded playoff teams should get to choose their opponents. However, I think this is one of the few times it could actually work. This is primarily due to the fact that neutral site games eliminate the travel issues associated with choosing an opponent from the entire league. Typically, you couldn’t have your Eastern most team face your Western most team face off in the first round because travel costs/time make it impractical. However, if you have all the teams playing in the same ~4 cities, you’ve eliminated that issue. Find a time for puck drop that works (though may not be ideal) for both time zones like they do for the cup finals and you’re off to the races. 

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Having teams choose their opponent would also do wonders for Bettman’s much beloved rivalries. Think of the drama of a team having to choose which opponent is easiest to beat and having their opponent fired up to prove them wrong. The storylines write themselves. You could also potentially have two teams in the same division face each other in the finals. Who needs Tampa v. Leafs in round one when you can have a Tampa v. Leafs Stanley Cup Final? As the kids say:  “inject this into my veins”. 

Added benefits:

There has been a lot of talk that the NHL wants to hold the draft before the end of the season. There are a few reasons for this but the main one is that they are desperate for TV content. The NHL saw the success of the NFL draft and they want in. If TV content is what they’re after, what more exciting event could there be than the opponent selection outlined above. Put all the GMs on a Zoom call and give them 10 mins on the clock to decide who their opponent will be. Have NHL analysts discussing the potential matchups and evaluating whether they agree with the selected opponents. You don’t even have to stop after the first round. You could have a televised event in advance of each round where the remaining teams choose their opponents. Instead of just once televised event, they get to air several throughout the summer. Then the NHL can hold the draft after the conclusion of the playoffs.

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If the expansion draft taught us anything, it’s that GMs will absolutely try to game this system and will absolutely do a terrible job of it, making for even more fun and content.

Ultimately, the strange circumstances of this season’s playoffs give us a once in a lifetime opportunity to get weird. So why not crank the crazy dial up to 11 and go for the draft and playoff formats that would create the most chaos and entertainment? If nothing else, it would be a hell of a ride.