For years, the NHL draft hasn’t made much sense.
It’s something that got made up, or was copied from other professional leagues, when NHL owners wanted an artificial means of controlling prospects and costs. Over the years, people have come to believe in the fairy tale that the draft is about fairness of competition, about allowing the weaker teams to compete with the stronger teams.
Well, it’s fair to say last week’s laughable NHL draft lottery destroyed any such belief forever.
If rewarding the lousy so they can eventually not be so lousy is the purpose of the draft, the NHL thoroughly undermined that concept in a lottery process that awarded the first overall pick to a yet-to-be-named team that we know isn’t close to being one of the worst clubs in the league.
“Team Placeholder” will go down as one of the sillier episodes in the history of the Bettman administration. As the NHL tries to deal with the coronavirus crisis and concerns over racism and diversity in the sport, invent some sort of legitimate process with which to conclude the 2019-20 season, negotiate a return-to-play deal with the players and an extension to the old collective bargaining agreement, prepare for the new Seattle expansion team, and find two North American cities unconcerned enough with their local populations that they are willing to be “hub” cities/municipal guinea pigs this summer, it is probably understandable that somebody didn’t thoroughly think through all the possible results of the flawed, hastily concocted draft lottery scheme.
The only thing funnier than Team Placeholder winning the top pick is that if the NHL can’t get its act together in the coming weeks with its strange summer hockey experiment, the draft lottery won’t count and we’ll go back to some other result. Seriously.
The good news about the botched lottery is that, with the league fully invested in the business of making up the rules as it goes along, there’s a new opportunity to get rid of the draft altogether and institute a more modern process.
The fact that, in 2020, a talented young player like Alexis Lafrenière doesn’t get to sell his services to the company of his choice like the best young lawyer in Toronto or the best dancing prospect on Broadway shows you just how stuck in the past the NHL is, not to mention the NHL Players’ Association.
Sure, the NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball use similar draft systems. But that doesn’t mean it’s smart. It’s just a North American superiority thing. Like calling Super Bowl champions “world” champions.
The draft concept is fundamentally both anti-individual liberty and anti-competitive. The worst-run teams are given a prize, namely access to the best prospects. Why? The Detroit Red Wings just finished one of the worst seasons in team history, delivering a strikingly subpar product to their customers. So the Wings are rewarded for such incompetence? The Maple Leafs “deserved” Auston Matthews?
Eric Lindros, meanwhile, had it right 30 years ago when he refused to be drafted into the NHL by a team (Quebec) not of his choosing. The NHL squeezed out of that predicament after Lindros sat out a season by allowing the Nordiques to trade him, which to huckster Marcel Aubut meant trading Lindros to two teams at once.
That provided the league, and the union, with a chance to revisit the entire draft concept. But they chose not to do so, and instead we’ve had years and years of bad teams getting preferential access to talented young hockey players. Two No. 1 picks in three years did so much for the Atlanta Thrashers they moved to Winnipeg.
There’s just little evidence the draft process strengthens the weak. In most cases, they’re weak because they are badly run.
Since Lindros, another 28 players have been selected with the first pick, and just five have won a Stanley Cup with the team that drafted them. For every Pittsburgh Penguins organization that used the draft to acquire players like Marc-André Fleury (No. 1 in 2003), Evgeni Malkin (No. 2 in 2004) and Sidney Crosby (No. 1 in 2005), there are teams like Florida, the New York Islanders, Ottawa, Columbus and Edmonton that dined out on the draft for years while winning nothing.
What you need is a system in which teams are motivated to improve their operations as a means of wooing the best young talent. Won’t the better prospects flood to the best teams and biggest cities if all prospects are free agents when they reach their 18th birthday? The salary cap system would limit that. Remember, the top U.S. collegiate free agents every spring sign with the worst teams because they are looking for opportunity. If allowed a choice, Lafrenière might well choose to join lousy Los Angeles rather than the defending Cup champion St. Louis Blues because he likes the California sun and would immediately get lots of playing time on a weaker team.
Yes, top players might avoid Buffalo like the plague. But that might prompt meaningful change there.
Drafts are usually not the critical determinant of a team’s fate. The Toronto Raptors proved that beyond the shadow of a doubt last spring when they won an NBA title without a top 10 pick on the roster.
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By awarding the top selection in the next NHL draft to Team Placeholder, the NHL has demonstrated it doesn’t really believe the notion that the draft is an idealistic exercise in competitive fairness.
So in these times of chaos, when basically any idea gets a hearing, now would be the perfect time to establish a sensible system for admitting new talent to the league.