The NHL and the pursuit of mediocrity

Friday night was our first taste of National Hockey League activity in months, via the 2020 NHL Draft Lottery. In a lot of ways, it felt comforting to have something to talk about, but little did we all know that we were about to get more than we bargained for.

But yet, more than we bargained for was everything we expected, because it is what the league has conditioned us for moments like these over the past few years. The league would be nothing without chaos and nothing without overvaluing the middle.

That is to say, the end of the night brought us a chaotic lottery result. The Detroit Red Wings, the worst team in the league by a mile – one of the single worst in modern history by both results and total talent – lost out on all three lottery spots and will pick 4th overall. The Ottawa Senators, the second-worst team, also struck out and will pick fifth; but a second first-round pick acquired from a hiccuping San Jose keeps them in third. The Los Angeles Kings hopped up to second, and the first overall pick went to…

A place holder, forcing a second draft lottery.

Yes, just as I griped out under a slightly different proposal in early May, we now have a pathway where sixteen NHL teams now have a shot at winning the Stanley Cup or getting the First Overall Pick. The eight teams who lose the play-in series – a slapped together ploy to get more teams involved in the playoffs and more games on TV – will all be rewarded for their loss with a 12.5% chance at the first overall pick. That reward, for being a 7th to 24th place team who blows up on arrival in their hub city, comes with odds of winning in between what the 30th and 31st place team had going into last night.

Should the NHL not return to play, a distinct possibility due to COVID-19’s continued spread in the United States, the lottery won’t include all 16 teams currently in the pool, but just the bottom four teams in each conference that weren’t in pre-change playoff spots. Those teams, to my understanding, would be the Canadiens (24th), Blackhawks (23rd), Coyotes (22nd), Wild (21st), Canucks (20th) Panthers (18th), Rangers (16th), Islanders (14th), for an average position of 20th overall.

In other words – the lottery balls gave a cold shoulder to the league’s worst teams, gave the biggest prize to a team that doesn’t exist, and the teams most likely to take the held place are on the lower end of mediocre.

But that’s not surprising. After all, this is fitting for what has been described as the most luck-driven of the pro sports. A game where the scoring plays are few, and the best players spend more time off the playing surface than on, affords a lot of opportunities for crazy circumstances to happen, particularly in the short term.

That’s how you end up with a team expected to be not quite a contender, but still very good, hitting a wall of bad luck and finding themselves in last place at the 45% mark of the regular season – and then going on to win the Stanley Cup. That’s how you end up with a team of other teams’ middle-ground rejects going on to the Stanley Cup Final in their first year. That’s how you end up with a league where the best team over seven months only ends up as the best team of the following ten weeks about 20-25% of the time; and sometimes, they don’t even survive ten days. That’s how you end up with a league where, thanks to the point system and the fact that teams play so conservatively around it, you end up with two-thirds to three-quarters of the league being able to claim a 0.500 record every year.

But then, on top of that, you end up with a league where we’ve spent the last fifteen years arguing that the most outstanding player can’t be the most valuable player because his team wasn’t good enough, or because his team was too good. You end up with a league where the best players at their position don’t get the recognition because someone else was overdue for a pat on the back. You end up with a league where the best coach is decided by who has the most improved goaltender.

You end up with a league where every team’s payroll is bunched up close to each other to avoid one or two teams taking all the top talent and then see teams’ flexibility get decimated not by massing too many riches but making bad gambles on the middle of the lineup talent, who can often make nearly as much money as the stars carrying the respective cities on their backs.  You end up with a league where the stars, in essence, become the worst compensated, least important, and least allowed to express themselves of all the major sports; lest they hurt the feelings of a minor league call-up or the beer league hero watching on TV. You end up with a league where the team builders aren’t even necessarily picked on merit, but are often either re-treads who have previously failed, someone important’s kid, or an ex-player who has gotten bored post-retirement.

When you look at the big picture of the National Hockey League in its present state, it doesn’t really value talent or effort, or any semblance of being the best on the ice or off of it. That makes it unpredictable, and unpredictability can be fun, but it takes away the incentive to try. After all, being a great team gives you only a slightly better chance at a reward of greatness than it does for a slightly above average team. Sacrificing a year to attempt to get to the fastest pathway of acquiring star talent gives you less of a chance of doing so than it does for a field of teams that were at the cusp of making the playoffs, even in a non-expanded season. Being the best at your job as an individual comes with no guarantee that you’ll get acknowledged for it since the voters will judge you based on the success of your surroundings more than they will what you’ve done yourself.

Randomness is great, but when it supersedes performance, it makes the league feel more like a roulette wheel and less like a competition, and isn’t competition what we come here for? When the most lucrative place to be in a 31 team league is 10th to 20th, and when the most rewarding (relative to talent) place to be on a roster is the third line or the second pair, and when the best place to be unique is anywhere but here, what are we even doing? So long as everything is meaningless, being in the middle is the best place to be, as it gives you the chance to siphon fortune from both the rich and the poor at any given time, and that’s a big problem if this league is to be taken seriously as a competition.

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