For weeks after the halt of the NHL due to COVID-19, nothing came out about what the plan would be going forward beyond reporter tweets indicating that meetings were held and more meetings would happen. Numerous idea were peddled but largely only in a speculative manner.
One idea appears to be finally gaining traction, even if the league may be brute-forcing it past the protests of a not insignificant number of teams. Though no official announcement has been made as of publishing this, the league appears poised to conduct its draft in early June, which would mean holding it well prior to the (theoretical) end of the season.
This opens up a Pandora's box of problems. How do you run a draft lottery when you don’t know which teams will and won’t be in the playoffs? What do you do about trades involving players? What happens with conditional picks?
The NHL has seemingly decided that the clunky event that this creates is worth it for the sake of garnering attention and revenue. And you know what? While one doesn’t have to agree with the decision, there’s sense to it. The world has been halted in its tracks, and particularly in sports, where the most exciting things going on are Korean professional baseball and a documentary about a 22-year-old basketball team. Without getting into a greater discussion about politics and capitalism, even someone who disagrees with this decision can understand and appreciate why the NHL would take this opportunity to put itself in the spotlight and try to recoup some of the revenue it has lost from cancelled games.
Which makes it all the more bizarre that they’ve gone above and beyond in watering down the entire procedure.
Gone is the normal format for the draft lottery where the top-three picks are up for grabs and anyone can earn them and back is the pre-2012 format where only one team earns the lottery and can only move up four picks. For the Rangers, that means minuscule odds where the payoff would be moving up from 13th-overall to 9th. A team like Detroit no loner has to bite its nails in fear of dropping from 1st- to 4th-overall, as Colorado did in 2019. Rather than a chaotic free-for-all where every team has a chance and could end up all over the draft board, the NHL is aiming for a moderate shuffling for a few teams.
The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun reports that the change is inspired by paranoia that a team could win a lottery pick and then make a deep playoff run in what will likely be a very inclusive playoff format if and when the 2019-20 season can resume. They believe the “optics” would be bad.
The NHL is sabotaging all intrigue for the draft lottery in fear of a “what-if?” with incredibly low odds of happening. Would it be fair if that happened? No. But fairness went out the window the second the pandemic disrupted any chance at salvaging a normal NHL season. It’s not fair that the Red Wings bungled their way into accidentally guaranteeing a top-two pick in a draft with the best one-two punch since McDavid/Eichel in 2015. It’s not fair that a team like Columbus has fought tooth-and-nail to get into the playoff race only to see the Buffalo Sabres defaulted into an expanded format. It’s not fair that a teams will be fighting for their playoff lives immediately following multiple months of a hiatus. It will not be fair if the league has to eventually call off the 2019-20 season and contending teams basically threw away assets for rentals.
There’s no way to continue the 2020 hockey calendar in a way that achieves anything remotely resembling fairness and there’s no sense in trying. And that’s devastating. But it’s also freeing. If the NHL is trying to push up the draft for the sake of captivating an audience desperate to be entertained, then they should lean into that as much as possible.
So revert back to the normal lottery conditions and let fanbases for over a dozen teams tune in, gripped by the suspense of dreams and horrors that anything could happen. And if the Minnesota Wild get the first-overall pick and then go on a Cup run then embrace the absurdity of that storyline.
Player trades offer some of the best talking points at the draft. Die-hard fans like me would watch 100 rounds of the draft if it went that deep, but the average sports fan has little reason to care beyond the first few picks. This is not the NFL, where a linebacker taken in round four could play most snaps right away. The average sports fan is not going to be overly invested in seeing which center the St. Louis Blues took in the second-round has an 18-percent chance of playing on the third line in four years. Player trades, however, offer name recognition and instant gratification.
So no, do not “effectively eliminate the possibility of moving players on active rosters.” Let chaos ensue. Create a pseudo-second trading deadline. Give the Colorado Avalanche and Pittsburgh Penguins another opportunity to stack their lineups even further for a Cup run. Let the Rangers trade a draft pick or two for an NHLer who can play for them right away.
Or, alternatively, allow players to be traded on the condition that they remain with their original teams for the remainder of the 2019-20 season. A temporary loan, as often exists in soccer. Create a new narrative around the Tampa Bay Lightning where it’s the last hurrah for players such as Tyler Johnson and Alex Killorn, who know they were traded at the draft and will be playing elsewhere in 2020-21. Give fans in New Jersey a chance to look at the defenseman they just acquired from Calgary as he plays meaningful playoff games.
Many of these propositions would not only be radical, but also unbelievably messy and awkward. In no way am I pretending otherwise. But if the league is going to stop the season in March, hold the draft in early June, and resume the season months later, then you’re getting total dysfunction regardless.
This pandemic has obliterated any sense of normalcy, which is of course horrible, but it creates a once-in-a-lifetime situation for the NHL where they can invoke creative license and do whatever they want. There’s no sense in taking a half-measure like inelegantly pushing up the draft and then stripping it of its most compelling parts. The chance for any semblance of order or fairness went away the second the league was forced into a hiatus.
The NHL has long struggled for relevancy and now sees its chance to put itself uncontested at the center of the entire sports world. If the league is going to make the impractical decision to hold the draft in June in hopes of capturing attention and generating interest, then they should maximize this opportunity and enamor sports fans with the most compelling shitstorm they can conjure.