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.
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.
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:
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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