Why the NHL’s proposed comeback plans miss the mark

While the National Hockey League hasn’t confirmed anything yet, a series of reports have come to light over the past few days, courtesy of Sportsnet. Chris Johnston broke down a potential 24-team playoff format back in March, and it’s currently believed to be the front runner, according to a follow up by Mark Spector last week. The NHL also plans on moving the draft to June 5th, meaning a draft before the conclusion of the season – with an old-is-new lottery system attached to it.

In a way, it’s an in-between concession between just running the NHL the way it was before and dealing with a pushed-back timeline, and going all-in with a 31-team, winner take all, somewhat weighted coin toss that admits that everything we care about in post-season hockey is kind of a sham anyway – which is what I threw out there as a spitball a month and a half ago.

It’s throwing a bone to teams that are just out of the playoff picture right now, and letting them into the party too, so long as none of the really bad teams come along. Except, in this format that involves 24 teams and a play-in round, divisional quirks put the 25th and 27th overall teams – the Buffalo Sabres and Anaheim Ducks – into the post-season picture. Hey, if that happens, wouldn’t it be embarrassing if one of them were to win it all? What if they go on to win the lottery too, having their cake and eating it too? We can’t possibly have that!

No, seriously – at least that’s what Pierre Lebrun says is going on behind the scenes.There were people on both the [Board of Governors] call and the [General Managers} call two weeks ago, who worried about a team winning the lottery, picking top five, and then making the playoffs when [the] season resumed [and] winning the cup, etc. There were [executives] who feared the optics of that“.

The NHL terrified of the fact that they might give the wrong 80 point team the chance to try their short-term puck luck against a 90 point team, is simply looking to include anyone who had a shot. To do that, they’re willing to bring in a 68 and 67 point team, but now have to appease a 62 and a… wow, okay, the Red Wings are bad. Anyway, it’s because they want to include Tier 1 longshots, but they don’t want two consecutive layers of embarrassment if a Tier 2 longshot gets both glory and riches?

I don’t know about you, but the idea of a team having a poor season, the world literally going on pause, coming back, getting their next “chosen one” player in the draft, and then rallying together to become the best team in the world (TM) sounds like the makings of a great movie, and about 600 years of marketing material. It would blow even the Blues and Golden Knights runs of the last two seasons seem conventional.

Why’s that? Because the odds of it happening are slim to none.

Using MoneyPuck’s current playoff odds and Tankathon’s current lottery odds, which both use the previously agreed-upon rules, the odds of one of these teams winning both the current Stanley Cup Playoffs and the current Draft Lottery are about a combined 1 in 125. The odds of the two biggest offenders of double-dipping winning are about 1 in 38000 using this formula. That’s probably unfair since the MoneyPuck model is factoring in odds of qualification, but even if you gave all 24 teams an even share an even 1 in 24 chance at winning the cup the odds of any team currently looking on the outside double-dipping are about 1 in 25, or 1 in 50 for the Buffalo/Anaheim duo.

In other words, the odds of this turning into a “Cinderella times two” story, which should be considered a fantastic outcome rather than an embarrassing one, range from highly unlikely to microscopic, but the NHL is still buying insurance on it by guaranteeing a 1st or 2nd overall pick to Detroit and at least two of the Top 4 picks to Ottawa, the two teams that would likely be the most frustrated if a team hit their miracle shot.

It feels like a situation where the league is trying its best to set up a controlled outcome based on paused standings – which isn’t a bad response to take – in tandem with not having the confidence to put its foot down on it, spinning back around to an extremely weighted lottery system that does its best to keep the standings still.

That similar theme – supporting the least team outrage-inducing pathway with a disguise of both laying down the law and giving somewhat of an opportunity to the teams to break past it. It allows the teams that missed their shot to squeak in, yet it keeps the ones who avoided their moment of decline. It says the bottom feeders don’t get a free pass, yet two of them, for no reason besides their rivals being worse, get to stay in.  It’s punting potential gripes forward, claiming that 70 or so games aren’t enough to know which of these teams were truly ready for the playoffs.

Well, if 70 isn’t, how do we know 82 is? If 70 isn’t, why was 48 okay in 1995 and 2013? Why was 70 the standard for decades, and even less prior to that? Why is the NHL’s International Best-on-Best tournament okay with having playoffs after 3 games?

That’s all to say, it’s all kind of arbitrary when we cut these teams off, how many we cut off, how we slice them. It’s borderline random what happens when you start the bracket, and in the end, you never truly know what’s going to happen until its done, because the odds are always too close to have certainty. That is what we love about playoff hockey. It doesn’t have to be the same 16-team, 4×7 format – any of them will give us the same thrill of the unpredictable and rarely steerable.

But in this scenario, the league:

  • Incorrectly assumes that it at some point had total control of the flow and merit of playoff hockey
  • Makes up a story to pretend that it lost control to protect some of its friends
  • Ends up losing some control because a few unwelcome guests snuck in, and
  • Punishes the friends for the presence of the guests

It’s a terrible sequence of tradeoffs caused by an unforced error, and then further damaged when the league realized that the unforced error could actually turn out really cool. For me, if you’re altering the process, this needs to be a situation where you admit that the process is dumb but fun and just go all-in on it with your craziest dreams and ideas. Altering slightly to give the illusion of normalcy but accomplishing little to negative benefit is a backwards move.

Speaking of backwards moves, I’m mixed on the Date Change – and honestly, mixed is probably the best way I can describe any of these alternations, so good for them there. Something I outlined in my debate about when we’ll actually see hockey again is that a cancelled season would probably be the best outcome for the natural umbrella, as a delayed draft would be very challenging for deciding players’ Draft+1 plans and having them involved in training camps, as most of the rest of the hockey world will likely outright cancel.

I hadn’t considered the idea of running the draft at the scheduled time regardless of incomplete results, if the season were to resume. That part I like about this plan, while there are some weird logistics involved and this removes a big part of the trade market for playoff teams on Draft Day, is that it keeps the younger players on schedule, especially since they’re the ones who need clear paths the most.

Moving it a few weeks up, on the other hand, seems a little unnecessary and unhelpful for anything besides fast-tracking the first audience ratings injection since the pandemic. Scouts could use the extra time to prepare their rankings, especially now that more weight will be put on the viewings they got in before the pause button was hit. Teams will have to organize new plans for what assets they can and can’t give due to post-Deadline playoff eligibility. Obviously, they won’t be able to be in the same rooms as each other while breaking everything down either.

In a lot of ways, the postponement of the sport has been both a blessing and a curse to teams, in a way that I don’t think we can really put a date to. Moving the draft up is, once again, a move to feign control of the circumstances where control isn’t present, that minimizes outrage due to the dangling carrot of return viewership.

This all goes to say: I think what the NHL is doing here, from the 24-Team Playoff Proposal to the Lottery Format to the Draft Rescheduling, is trying to re-imagine new ways to feel like we’ve solved some unsolvable riddles – who the best team is and who is the most deserving of good fortune. These methods don’t seem to attempt to actually solve anything, though – they just project an effort while subtlety travelling on the path of least resistance. They don’t push any boundaries, and the best possible outcome within the new formats is a double worst-case-scenario gambit that the league, for some reason, is keen on avoiding.

None of it makes sense to me. Give me a chaos playoffs and a make the draft lottery a mascot Royal Rumble. Chop off the points percentages and give me the usual formats. Either outcome sounds great to me. An in-between outcome that’s a Jack of both the Chaos and Structure trades and a master of neither, on the other hand, doesn’t cut it.

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