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Photo Credit: Scott Maxwell

Scott’s Thoughts: How to fix the draft lottery

Now, I know what you’re thinking: Scott, this topic is almost two weeks old now, it’s not relevant anymore. Well, let me be the first to say that I know, I’m just an idiot and forgot to do this one last week.

Regardless, this year’s lottery was a controversial one to say the least, as a lot of fans of really bad teams were mad that the first overall pick went to a playoff team, and that an elite team already loaded with offensive talent, like the Penguins or Leafs, could end up adding Alexis Lafreniere to their team.

And it’s deserved criticism. As Leafs fans, we can consider ourselves lucky that we were one of two last place teams to keep the first overall pick in this new lottery system. In fact, since this new system was put in place, only three teams that finished bottom three (2016 Leafs, 2018 Sabres, 2020 Sharks/Sens) actually retained their original pick, and only four (those three and the 2019 Devils) actually won any of the lottery picks. More often than not, it punishes bad teams for being too bad. It does encourage more parity in a sense, but it doesn’t create it, as doing so would involve giving the best players in the draft to the worst teams.

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Now, I’m actually a fan of the system, to some extent. I do like the fact that any non-playoff team has a chance of winning the lottery, adding a bit of parity and creating opportunities for really skilled, young players to join teams who are close to being competitive. But, I do think the odds of that are a bit too high. For example, the eight spots that were held by play-in teams combined for a 24.5% odds of winning the first overall pick, which was only .5% less than Ottawa’s combined odds with two top three picks, and 6% more than Detroit’s odds as the last place team.

So, I’ve decided to try something. I’m going to attempt to create a draft lottery system that does a better job of weighting each teams odds based on how good of a team they are.

The Goal

One thing I’m going to make clear off the top is that is that this new lottery will still have the top three picks up for grabs, and that all of the non-playoff teams still have a chance to get them… to some extent.

What I will be doing is adjusting the odds for each team based on their points performance that season. This should hopefully do two things:

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  1. Benefit terrible hockey teams (like this year’s Red Wings) and punish teams who were just a few points out of playoff contention.
  2. Benefit teams who were on the wrong side of tiebreakers (for example, the 2015-16 Jets and Coyotes both had identical records, but Arizona had only two more ROWs, leading to Winnipeg having better odds, and ending up with Patrik Laine).

This will also create different odds every year. The aforementioned Red Wings should end up with significantly high odds, considering that they were 23 points worse than the second worst team, while a team like the 2015-16 Leafs will end up with lower odds because of how well they did for a last place team.

Basically, these odds will be more reflective of the actual performance of the team, instead of being assigned a pre-determined percentage solely based on their position in the standings.

The Math

In this section, I’ll specifically be looking at the 2018-19 season, because it’s the last full season up to this point. I will include the data and results for all five lotteries, including 2019-20, in the next section.

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So, in order to truly judge how bad a team’s performance was in a season, we need to set a neutral point for which all the teams are compared to. The easiest point to use is the point totals of the worst playoff team, as that is what technically separates them from being a playoff team. In this example’s case, it’s the Colorado Avalanche, who had 90 points.

From there, I calculate each non-playoff team’s Playoff Point Separation (I needed a fancy name for the spreadsheet). It is what the title says, it’s the point differential for each team from the Colorado Avalanche. This is the end result.

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Now, you may notice one problem, that being that Montreal finished with more points than Colorado, but didn’t make the playoffs. To solve that problem, I had to make the tough decision to give Montreal no odds in this lottery. It sucks for Habs fans, but essentially I decided that it made more sense to assume that a non-playoff team that did better than a playoff team would be too competitive to have a shot at a top prospect than to make up a random number just to give them odds.

The same applies for teams tied with the worst playoff team. If someone else had 90 points in 2018-19, they would have a 0 PPS because they would have a 0 point difference from Colorado, eventually resulting in them having no odds in the lottery (I’m about to get to that point).

Now, we’re going to have some fun with fractions in order to create the actual percentages. With the PPS, we have a numerator, a way to create an individual value for each team, but now we need the common denominator that is impacted by each individual team on a year by year basis, but remains constant for each team in that individual season.

To get a lot less technical, I’m going to add up everybody’s PPS to create a number that I can then divide the PPS by to create evenly weighted odds.

So, in the case of the 14 teams involved in the 2018-19 lottery (remember, we’re excluding Montreal), that number is 164. If you don’t believe me, you can add them up yourself to see.

Now that we have the denominator, we can now create each team’s lottery odds by dividing their PPS by 164, and then multiplying it by 100 to get the actual percentage and not a decimal less than one. So, for Ottawa it’s (26/164)x100=15.85%, for Los Angeles it’s (19/164)x100=11.59%, for New Jersey it’s (18/164)x100=10.98%, so on, so forth.

For anyone who wants to see the actual equation, it would look something like this:

(Point total of worst playoff team – point total of non-playoff team) x 100 = New adjusted draft lottery odds

Sum of every non-playoff team’s PPS

 

Now, for the results.

The Results

After applying to this to the last five seasons, I end up with these results. (Note: the number by itself below all of the teams is the sum of every team’s PPS, or the denominator).

2015-16

 

2016-17

One thing to note with 2016-17, since this was the year Vegas entered the league, the NHL gave them the third best lottery odds, tied with Arizona, so I gave them the same odds as Arizona in the new system.

 

2017-18

 

2018-19

 

2019-20

A couple things to note with 2019-20, all the point totals are based on their 82 game pace, while the PPS for the play-in teams are based on the teams that would have been in each spot (which are the teams in the brackets).

One thing I thought was interesting was the difference in all the denominators from year to year, as the small denominators usually indicate a group of lottery teams that aren’t that far off from playoff contention (like 2015-16), while the large denominators usually indicate a group of lottery teams that are really bad, which is partially why Colorado’s odds don’t increase that drastically in 2016-17 (although Vancouver took a hit as a result).

One other thing I thought was interesting was how evenly spread out 2018-19 was, but that was mostly because of how evenly spread out the teams results were (no team between between 18th and 30th was more than two points away from the next worst team).

Also, Red Wings fans rejoice, as this system benefits your team the most: the 9.31% increase for their odds in 2019-20 is the largest increase in all five seasons, and gives them a 27.81% chance at the first overall pick. Still lots of room to not get the first overall pick, but still a lot better than any team, even the combined odds of the Sens picks or all eight play-in teams.

While the numbers overall are pretty inconsistent, that’s partially the point. It’s flexible and changes based on both the success (or lack thereof) of specific teams and the overall talent pool of the teams involved.

The one thing that is (almost) consistent is that it does impact the playoff contenders in the lottery (my definition of playoff contender are the non-playoff teams that finished within five points of the worst playoff team). For starters, nine of the 19 playoff contenders in these five years lost their lottery odds outright. And if you look at the difference between each year’s combined odds in both the old and adjusted system, there is a consistent ~3% drop in the first three seasons.

The 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons see different results for different results. 2018-19 sees a slight increase mostly due to the aforementioned pool of talent for teams that year and how close everyone was. 2019-20 sees an almost 9.5% drop because even though it’s based on an 82 game pace, most teams still had 12-15 games left, so a lot of the contenders were still really close in the playoff hunt.


All in all, this new system does achieve my goals to some extent. While it doesn’t always punish playoff contenders, it’s usually because it’s in a year where a lot of the non-playoff teams are still kind of good, and while it doesn’t always benefit really bad teams, it is usually because it’s in a year where a lot of the non-playoff teams are also pretty bad.

It does help with the tiebreaker thing though, as this new system allows for multiple teams to have the same odds.

Ok, this was a long and complicated article. I tried to explain it the best I could, but there still might be areas that end up being confusing, so I strongly encourage questions if there was something you didn’t understand. I’ll try to keep my eyes on the comment section for this one.