Sunday, December 19, 2010

Reversing the Draft Lottery

I saw that my arch-nemesis posted an entry that wandered off into his existential angst about the clouds of concrete grey that perpetually hover over the Oilers franchise. In mc79's mind those seem to be building-sized cumulonimbus clouds; huge, murky towers of vapour blotting out the sun, driving fans to commit hari-kiri with rusty skate blades - tears mixing with belly blood, their own death an unworthy penance for another season without the post.

OK, yes, I may be poking some fun with the overwrought passage back there, but sometimes that seems to be the mood over there. Eventually (after a detour into his unending galaxy of sorrow) mc79 came to his point:
I started to think about the NHL draft a little bit. It strikes me that it might be a much more interesting league if, instead of the best draft pick going to the worst team in the league, it went to the best team that didn’t make the playoffs. Imagine a system where the team with the best record to miss the playoffs picked first, followed by the team with the next best record to miss the playoffs, the 30th place team picked 14th and then the playoff teams picked in the traditional manner. It strikes me that this might not be such a terrible thing, because the incentive to win would always be there. You might tweak it a bit - maybe an equally weighted lottery for draft position amongst the teams finishing 17th to 21st to ensure that there’s no perception that it’s better to miss the playoffs than to make the playoffs.
Well I'm going to have to take a different position (after the hop).

I see a couple of flaws in his argument. According to Dellow, this scheme would encourage teams to "do what it takes to win, even if there wasn’t a playoff berth on the line". Well I have played organized sports through most of my life and I think it has given me some insight into the qualities that the better athletes had. They were nearly universally filled with a competitive fire.

Now I'm not trying to say that Daigle was necessarily filled with a blazing need to crush every opponent in his path - history has shown us plenty of examples of athletes that had all of the tools but nary a bicep to drive a nail nor a furrowed brow to sweat from. Sometimes they don't have the heart even though they were blessed with the genes and programming.

But if you try to convince me that the vast majority of those players are not fierce competitors, well I'm going to strongly disagree. The hardship on the path to being in that elite 30*23 is so great that time and time again it has been shown that skill is not enough. You need to have heart, you need to have a passion for the game that pushes you through bag-skates, allows you to overcome breaks of bones and tears of ligament, that gives it right back to that cross-checking asshole just as good as he gave it.

So in my estimation a player will never need, and has never needed, extra incentive to go and play the game he loves and give it his best effort. You think they like losing, even in game 82 of a lost season? You think that the gut-fire will suddenly be inflamed by the teams promise of a higher draft pick? I say no, and I say no. They have been driven to win their whole lives, and it in fact defines much of their character or else how did they become professional athletes? In the end I have a hard time believing that the quality of late season play for any team would alter if the draft order was reversed.

So, if you agree that players would play hard in either drafting system, what do we have left? Dellow continues by saying it provides additional benefits:

There are other benefits as well. The problem of asking fans to fund five years while your team plans to suck would be avoided, as that would no longer be a viable strategy for long term success. Instead, every team would have an incentive to be as good as it could possibly make itself. If you took over a team that had finished 30th, you would know that future prosperity, in the form of an elite prospect, depended on your finding a way to get that team an additional 20 points in the standings and a star player in the draft. Bad managers couldn’t hide behind the “We’re running a five year plan here” to excuse terrible seasons - they could reasonably be expected to always be working to make their teams better.
Unfortunately he forgets one critical thing: teams that suck would almost certainly have to build from the UFA market or via trades. It makes climbing out of the pit a very difficult prospect. How many 13 or 14 OA picks pan out to be difference makers? Those picks are rife with players who had basically crap careers or worse. If these terrible franchises stay terrible and don't have financial clout to buy a team, what would they do? Resort to the most boring trap team in history?

Furthermore, I'd like to see one example where they purposely tanked once it was clear it would not be a good season. It's not like the GM goes to the coach and says 'make sure all of the players lose their competitive drive'. Might as well tell a horse to gallop backwards. The GM can do things like sit on his hands (to promote losing), but in a hard-cap league it's clear that making deals is a difficult proposition at the best of times. The GM builds the team to win as best as it could at the start of the season (playoff profits for the owner) and by the time the playoffs is an impossible math problem there just isn't that much more a GM can do to change the course for the rest of the season and I mean negatively as well (i.e. the group that believes that GM's say 'hey tanking sounds like a good idea now').

In the end the NHL is a business for team owners. That profit they turn is gate driven, and ticket sales are suspiciously correlated with a teams ability to win. GM's are an extension of the owners ability to turn profit, and I imagine these billionaire businessmen have no choice to replace that party if its clear it is reducing the owners ability to turn profit with the club. In other words GM's need to win even on a season to season basis to maintain job security.

In conclusion, I do not think it is a better idea, and it's possible it is a worse one. And hey, brighten up, sports club stats still has Oilers with a 2.7% chance to make the playoffs :)


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