Dear NHL: Stop the madness (Updated)

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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  • Rocket

    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.

  • RexLibris

    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.

  • RexLibris

    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.

  • RexLibris

    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.