Dear NHL: Stop the madness (Updated)

Jonathan Willis
April 24 2013 10:06AM

If there’s one thing that anybody who regularly watches the Edmonton Oilers knows, it’s this: there is some incredibly unwatchable hockey played after a team is eliminated from playoff contention. And there’s absolutely no reason it has to be that way.

The Gold System

At the 2012 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, a guy named Adam Gold proposed a simple change to the way that the draft order is calculated for teams outside of the playoffs. Rather than a weighted lottery system, which still encourages teams to lose for better draft position, Gold suggested that once teams are eliminated from the playoffs a second race – one for the first overall pick – begins. Teams eliminated earlier would have more time to run up wins, giving them a better shot at the top draft pick; that means that the draft order would be similar but each team would always have an incentive to win, right down to Game 82. 

Gold’s presentation can be found here, and Rob Pettapiece did a detailed analysis for NHL Numbers last summer, but that’s the gist of it.

C'mon!

NHL teams get really funny once they have no incentive to win. It’s not a coincidence that Ales Hemsky, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Lennart Petrell suddenly decided that it didn’t make sense to keep playing through injury once the Oilers were eliminated from playoff contention. It’s also not a coincidence that Calgary’s line combinations have been getting pretty hilarious in recent games; here’s the forward lineup from their game yesterday against Nashville:

  • Baertschi - Reinhart - Cervenka
  • Hudler - Horak - Aliu
  • Bancks - Byron - McGrattan
  • Hanowski - Street – Jones

Eight of those guys have combined for 387 AHL games. This season. That’s not even the worst part: in those 387 games, they’ve combined for only 159 points. The other four forwards are enforcer Brian McGrattan, rookies Ben Hanowski (four games of professional hockey experience) and Roman Cervenka, and actual NHL player Jiri Hudler.

It’s embarrassing to see, and virtually every team in the situation does it (including the Oilers), because the NHL’s current system encourages it. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Stop the madness.

Update

There was a lot of concern in the comments section that truly bad teams wouldn't be able to improve under this system, so I went back and calculated a rough version of how this would have worked last year. I started counting points after a team could no longer overtake the eighth seed in their conference by winning all of their games; ideally we'd have goal differential and regulation/overtime wins as a tie-breaker but I didn't go into that much detail here - instead I used actual NHL standings and full-season goal differential as tie-breakers because that information was much more readily available. Here are the first overall pick standings from last year using that system: 

Team W L OT Points Gold Actual
Columbus 7 6 0 14 1 2
Minnesota 4 2 1 9 2 7
Edmonton 3 4 2 8 3 1
Montreal 2 1 3 7 4 3
Toronto 2 2 1 5 5 5
Anaheim 2 3 1 5 6 6
Tampa Bay 2 1 1 5 7 10
Carolina 2 2 0 4 8 8
Calgary 2 0 0 4 9 14
Winnipeg 1 1 1 3 10 9
N.Y. Islanders 1 3 0 2 11 4
Buffalo 0 0 1 1 12 12
Colorado 0 2 0 0 13 11
Dallas 0 1 0 0 14 13

In some ways, this is actually a fairer system, since the worst team in the league (Columbus) ended up picking first overall, rather than a significantly better Oilers team. The far right column shows where teams actually picked, while the column labeled "Gold" shows where they picked based on this system. Keep in mind, too: these teams had no incentive to win, and it's probably safe to assume that with the incentive to win some of the worst teams on this list could have been more competitive than they are.

Even as-is, though, this doesn't look that bad. The worst teams still make the earliest picks, and only the New York Islanders (dropping from fourth to 11th) saw their draft position fall more than two spots. This system serves the same purpose as the lottery (making bad teams better through draft picks) but does it without encouraging them to lose. 

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#51 Dulock
April 24 2013, 01:54PM
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@Jonathan Willis

Just because CBJ and MIN weren't colossally awful doesn't mean the next round won't be. There is also the possibility for any team to be historically bad as well.

The owners care about the fate of expansion teams because expansion fees are big money but revenue sharing takes some back. An expansion exemption likely wouldn't work because if an expansion teams ended up around 20th they wouldn't have a clear way to determine their spot in the draft.

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#52 G Money
April 24 2013, 01:58PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

So, if I'm understanding you correctly, your thesis is that bad teams with an incentive to tank will outperform bad teams with an incentive to win? Because that's the only way that I see your argument making sense.

Um, no, not sure how you got that from my post.

My thesis is that under the current system, all teams (whether decent teams just missing the playoff cutline, or the truly putrid) go in the tank.

The end result is that all teams are now truly putrid (and you see the feces fest like last nights Cgy-Nsh game).

But since the lousy teams have less talent and are likely already lower down in the standings, things don't change much standings wise for the rest of the season. So you end up with a high correlation between the lousiness of the team and the higher (i.e. better) draft picks. Just as it should be.

Under an "incentive to finish higher" system, teams just missing the playoff cutline - who have vastly more talent than the truly putrid - can make up a ton of ground simply by winning whatever is left. After all, if the lousy teams had the ability to win just by trying harder, they wouldn't be out of the playoffs early, would they?

So ... you reward the mediocre teams with better draft picks, and punish the truly bad teams (who need the draft picks to improve) with lousier draft picks.

Alternatively, if player apathy is the number one driver of lousy finishes, then this new system won't make a difference at all.

So, in summary ... the system you're proposing either punishes lousy teams with lousier draft picks and rewards mediocre teams with better ones, OR it has no effect on draft position.

All for the questionable benefit that the teams might play a bit better in meaningless games.

Like I said - better to fine teams that ice lousy lineups, if that is what you want to improve, rather than create a system with perverse incentives and negative long-term draft consequences.

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#53 Quicksilver ballet
April 24 2013, 02:02PM
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Jasmine wrote:

Calgary never said they're rebuilding. Feaster will never say rebuilding. He said re-tooling. Get your facts straight.

Retooling is rebuilding, no matter how you dress it up sister. Welcome to Oilersnation...Women power! Now go back and work on your needlecraft.

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#54 Mike Krushelnyski
April 24 2013, 02:23PM
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Too bad hockey can't go to the soccer promotion/relegation system. Bet the Oilers management would've tried a little harder if it meant avoiding playing in the AHL.

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#55 Romulus' Apotheosis
April 24 2013, 02:32PM
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Rocket wrote:

Barkov is listed as 2nd best draft prospect by central scouting so I doubt The Oilers get him.

Still, never underestimate this teams' ability to fall to 2nd overall pick.

As Jordan Eberle just said: "Three years of this sucks."

Unless I'm mistaken central scouting ranks in two lists: NA and EURO.

Barkov is 1st on the Euro list. But most lists have him behind Jones and the East Coast 2.

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#56 Romulus' Apotheosis
April 24 2013, 02:34PM
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RexLibris wrote:

Not to blow my own horn here, but that is why I wrote this: http://flamesnation.ca/2013/4/22/for-the-calgary-flames-a-tutorial-on-tanking

And I second your call for Barkov, with a compensatory option in Monahan. Either way, when it comes around to Jay Feaster's time to draft I hope he has a choice between Nichushkin and Nurse.

I'd like to watch him tell the hockey world how either of those players are going to be the best players in their draft years ten years from now.

Barkov, Monahan, Lindholm.

Where we are now, we'll get one for sure. That's good news!

The Flames are probably tanking at tanking because they know their off-the-grid pick will be available whenever they want him.

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#57 Rob...
April 24 2013, 02:42PM
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Problem Fixed: All teams eliminated from playoff contention with more than 8 games remaining in the season will qualify for the tank-off penalty. The qualifying team with the biggest statistical drop in points per game after elimination from playoff contention will be forced to sign Eric Belanger to a 1-year, 1-way deal.

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#58 jake
April 24 2013, 03:05PM
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Quicksilver ballet wrote:

With too many teams and not enough talent to go around, it was only a matter of time. Developmental teams in almost half of the NHL markets, at big league ticket prices. Milking each market for every possible dollar has become more important than the product on the ice. The league should start drafting 19-20 yr olds and contract by 4 teams.

The Coyote situation has gone silent. Could it be, the league is finally going to pull the plug on that market?

This. God help us if they expand to 32.

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#59 G bear
April 24 2013, 03:37PM
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I think g money's argument against the gold system is a solid one. One example is the oilers, even if they want to they can not compete and under the gold system I doubt they would have got the draft picks they did. Other sports leagues around the world demote the worse team, just like the IIHF does with its tier system.

I can understand this is not possible in the NHL given the AHL is a development league more than anything else. But maybe a more fair solution to avoiding stinky games down stretch could be to impose some sort of handicap on the worst team for the following season or determine the draft order based on the average of two seasons or average two halves of a season. If a team is doing relatively well in the first 42 games but misses the playoffs and decides to tank at the end, might not do them very good because a team that has been bad all season long will have that fact acknowledge in the first half.

If tanking at the end won't improve your draft chances much, teams might want to at least close the season strong. Truly bad teams would not be affected.

A possible handicap could be that the worse team in the previous season is not awarded the Bettman point the following season. That alone should improve the level of compete. If the team loses in to or shutout, they don't get the extra point. That team would play every to like game seven of the Stanley cup final and the other teams would be terrified to be in that position the following season. Applicable only one season, if they repeat then second to last gets the handicap, but on the 3rd season of stinkin you get the handicap again.

Just my thoughts.

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#60 Rambelaya
April 24 2013, 04:10PM
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@G Money

@ GMoney

I think the presumption of the Gold model is that the truly bad teams will be out of the playoffs significantly earlier than the mediocre bad teams, and have more change to accumulate wins.

This isn't a "count wins from some arbitrary day equally for everyone", it's about the lousy teams being eliminated earlier, and getting a head start on getting a few wins.

Let's look at 2 cases:

1) - 2 closely matched teams are in 9th/10th, battling for 8th. Theoretically they should get similar draft picks. Assuming neither makes it into 8th, then the 10th place team would be mathematically eliminated maybe a day or a couple days before the 9th place team. That doesn't give either team much chance for wins, but should theoretically allow them to get at least 1 more win in the remaining games than the 9th place team. Either way, because they were both eliminated closely together, their wins would be reflective of their ranking.

2) a 9th and 15th place team. The 15th place team is horribly worse, and struggles for every win (see Colorado this year). But Colorado has been mathematically eliminated since when? - beginning of April? Maybe earlier? So every win after that counts towards their draft ranking. The 9th place team is still playing for "playoffs" until maybe the last game of the season, and may not even have a chance to get 1 more win after being mathematically eliminated. This means that Colorado will have a significantly better draft ranking since they've been able to accumulate at least a handful of wins between when they were eliminated and when the 9th place team was eliminated.

I'm not saying whether it would work out better or worse in the long run for any given position, but I can see why lousier teams aren't necessarily at an immediate disadvantage. They simply have so much more time to collect wins.

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#61 Oilcan
April 24 2013, 05:45PM
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If the bottom 6 teams had a lottery to see who picked 1-6, and the remaining 8 teams played in a Frozen Four type tournament whoever wins gets that 7th pick and so on after that.

The bottom 6 protection on their picks and the remaining 8 battle for the high pick. It could be a good revenue generator and add some excitement to the process.

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#62 G Money
April 24 2013, 06:05PM
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@Rambelaya

@ Rambelaya,

I get the concept of the early start for lousy teams helping to offset the inherent unfairness of the exercise.

The point is - if the bias doesn't work, it means that a lousy team lost its draft position, which defeats the point of the draft positioning system (which is to let lousy teams improve).

If the bias does work, then you get a system that doesn't have any meaningful effect. If teams know that they can't change the draft position, will that change their behaviour ("shut it down") from what is happening now? Doubt it.

Which leads to a secondary question ... what nasty unintended consequences will you inject?

One person already pointed a possibility out, which is that teams who recognize they have no chance will tank as early as possible in the season to maximize their chances. So far from improving the quality of play, you will make it *worse*. Tanking from the beginning of the season sounds a lot worse than tanking once you're eliminated, yes?

Secondly, what about teams that shut players down for injury? Players play through injury because the pain and risk are worth the possibility of making the playoffs. Once that's gone, they shut it down - as you or I guarantee would in the same sort of situation.

Should the Oilers be in a position to ask Hemsky and RNH to play out the season to improve the Oilers draft position (a situation utterly meaningless to Hemsky given he's probably quite aware that he's at high risk of being traded)? Is that a fair position to put teams OR players in?

The whole purpose of the regular season (for players) is to determine who gets in the playoffs, and secondarily positioning. That's why once you're eliminated, the games automatically become meaningless for the players. Anything you inject that benefits or hurts the team based on results after the games become inherently meaningless seems questionable to me in terms of its motivation value.

So bottom line ... if you do this, what you've done is implemented a complicated system with either *no* effects, or *bad* effects, and likely all kinds of negative unintended consequences, all in exchange for the hope that a few more meaningless games will be a little less meaningless.

Not worth it.

By the way, this discussion in some ways is a repeat of what has happened repeatedly in the past. Teams would tank to get first overall. So they introduced the lottery to 'fix' it. Teams still tank, this time to get a lottery pick. This year they introduced the new lottery that allows all non-playoff teams to participate (though that might be an Oiler-specific rule). Teams still tank. It's the nature of the beast.

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#63 M22
April 24 2013, 06:47PM
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I need to hear from NewAgeSys.

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#64 gcw_rocks
April 24 2013, 07:12PM
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I am a HUGE fan of this system. I hope bloggers and media types keep bringing it up until someone in the NHL head office takes notice.

This is a much better system for fans and players.

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#65 Rocket
April 24 2013, 07:19PM
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Romulus' Apotheosis wrote:

Unless I'm mistaken central scouting ranks in two lists: NA and EURO.

Barkov is 1st on the Euro list. But most lists have him behind Jones and the East Coast 2.

Yeah your right. I posted before I found this out. Still, The Oilers will have to lose every game to get Barkov I think. Could happen with this lot.

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#66 voom04
April 24 2013, 07:37PM
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it would be easier to allot draft picks with (25) or whatever games left, wherever your at in the standings at that time is where you draft, could also have the team with 1st pick overall lose there second round pick,would take some incentive of picking 1st away.

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#67 RexLibris
April 24 2013, 07:52PM
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Hi Jonathan,

While I understand the sentiment, and agree to some extent, I think a distinction needs to be made between the organizations that deliberately ice hollowed-out rosters and teams where the players quit.

The Flames are dressing an inferior roster, deliberately sitting many starters like Michael Cammalleri, under the guise of "evaluation", when it is fairly apparent that they are attempting to improve draft standing.

I think the Oilers are suffering from some players "checking out" so to speak. In the case of Nugent-Hopkins I would argue that his being shut-down is in his best interest. Sitting Petrell might say more about the new management's view of him as a player. Hemsky sitting? Perhaps that is to save his health from long-term issues in favour of keeping him as an asset at the draft.

I do agree absolutely when you say you are sick and tired of terrible hockey. But then I think some of that is also a general fatigue and cynicism left over from the lockout.

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#68 j
April 25 2013, 08:11AM
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How about the eliminated teams have a small playoff of their own? Huge revenues for the owners, all players get to have a post-season, fans actually get to cheer for something. The only problem is that the truly bad teams will likely get steamrolled by the teams that just missed the playoffs and worsen their draft position. It would have to be a seeded tournament to ensure the worst teams still had a shot at a good pick. (By the way, this idea is simply an "I'm really sick of talking about the Oilers draft/trade options already" idea). Cheers.

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#69 maudite
April 26 2013, 07:12AM
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I would like to see all teams out of the playoffs in a full lottery. All positions drawn with say a cap of 4 spaces max you can drop.

So if a ball from the more heavy loaded odds 30th place team isn't picked by 4th overall they automatically get 5th sort of deal. I don't mind some deference to trying to augment the bottom, but I do like the idea of not as much incentive to nose dive as well. It's a tricky balance but the current system really does hurt the integrity of the game a ton. If a team's schedule rolls the right way in the late season they are playing teams that are icing bs lineups and sitting whomever they can justify. Playoff seating and such can be greatly affected by this effect (especially considering how tight the final spots always go). It is too wrong.

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