Despite potential lottery rewards, the Stanley Cup should remain the Ultimate Goal

As any hockey fan paying attention knows, the best-case scenario for chaos happened on Friday night when Placeholder Team E won the 2020 NHL Draft Lottery, meaning that the 1st overall pick in this draft, likely to be spent on phenom winger prospect Alexis Lafreniere, will go to a team that plays post-season hockey this year.

More specifically, it’ll go to a team that plays in a fake round that wouldn’t exist in any other circumstance, and loses that round. More specifically, the eight teams that this applies to will get a 12.5% chance in the second lottery to win that pick.

In other words, a lot of weird hoops to maintain the illusion of control in this playoff of pandemic, while further opening up the field in a way that benefits the most mediocre of teams, rather than the best or the worst.

But this has a lot of people wondering – why should their team bother to win the Stanley Cup at all? Why not just go for the pick? After all, it’s a fake cup in a fake format, and…

Okay, I can’t do this with a straight face.

Tanking vs. Giving Up

Firstly, it would be unfair for me to acknowledge this conversation from an “anti-tank” standpoint without acknowledging that I have repeatedly defended the idea of cheering for a tanking team. I’ve also done said cheering many times in my hockey fandom, and will likely do so again. If I ever end up crossing over fully into a higher level of hockey operations, I will probably earnestly suggest something along the lines of tanking a team in my lifetime.

But there is a distinct difference between going into a season with this philosophy and pulling the wind out of sails that are already headed in the right direction. This is because a proper tank isn’t carried out by the players and the coaching staff, but by upper management. A tank is not accomplished by players throwing games, but by parlaying your best present assets into future assets and tasking an underwhelming roster with trying to win every night.

You still send your coaches out to win the games, even if you generally encourage giving minutes to the younger players. You still want your players playing at 110%, honing their craft and keeping the environment optimistic. Your goal is never directly to lose but to put yourself in a position of harvest that happens to come with low odds of success. The second you have a group that is okay with losing is the second that those parts become expendable to the long-term vision.

In this case, though, we’re not talking about a vision at the start of the season, though – we’re talking about already having an X beside your name and seeing how far that takes you the rest of the way. To lose this round isn’t accomplished by traditional tanking – the playoff matchups are set and success comes largely from fortune from this point forward – meaning the only way to “tank” from this point on would be to insist the team itself give up. That should never be accepted from any organization.

You Play To Win The Game

“Okay, so maybe tanking is the right term”, you might say. “But what if I really just don’t mind if the team loses?”

That’s a little more fair – more so as you go further down the ladder of teams in the dance. After all, it’s important to be realistic about how good your team is before you go making bold, rash, decisions about their future.

But this isn’t really a one or the other sort of situation; it’s a low percentage at one end, or a higher but still low chance at the other. There is no cost to trying to win besides likely forgoing a 1-in-8 shot at upping your draft pick.

Just as importantly, how good you do does matter in the postseason, but it still doesn’t guarantee order. Since the President’s Trophy was first awarded in 1985/86, the regular-season leader in points has won the Stanley Cup (8) just one more time than they’ve been eliminated in Round 1 (7). The best team in the regular-season wins about 25% of the time. Significantly better odds than being the worst team in the postseason, but it’s still decidedly a league and a sport where there are no guarantees for anyone. The hottest goalie and key shooters for a few weeks stretch usually take on the prizes, and while the teams with the best talent have the best chance of reflecting that, it’s still a slightly weighted coin toss.

Which means that a playoff elimination typically comes from either getting out-lucked by a team that was worse than you, or out-played by a team that was better than you – maybe even out-lucked by a team that was better than you too. None of these are preferable outcomes! You don’t want your players to be demoralized by misfortune, or to be proven to be lesser talents than you hoped they were. The idea of a loss as a preferable outcome is inherently flawed, in this respect.

What Does It Get You?

An important question here as well comes within the reward.

For one, it cannot be stressed enough that there is an 87.5% chance that the reward for blowing “Round 0” is negligible: Not winning the placeholder lottery, and instead falling into the middle of the round, which for all intents and purposes is only slightly more valuable than picking later in the first round.

But say that all goes well, and you win. You’ve secured Alexis Lafreniere, who we expect to be a superstar. Short of the low percentage chance that he ends up not panning out, that’s a big boost to your roster for several years moving forward – there is zero denying that. This is a cost-controlled player who should be close to a high-end player as a rookie and one of the best wingers in the world by the end of his ELC, and you’ll still have control of him beyond that. He’s a player you build a franchise around.

There is no denying that level of talent injection. Adding him without moving a key player makes 31 teams instantly better. The big question, however, is at what point is that improvement worth willingly throwing away a year?

I think back to this piece that Dom Luszczyszyn wrote on The Athletic after the 2018 trade deadline, where he outlines the impact that acquisitions make to a team’s playoff and Stanley Cup odds. He found that adding a player worth a win above replacement typically adds about 2.5-3% to a favourite’s Stanley Cup odds, with a percentage of as low as 1% per win being added to a team on the cusp. Looking at Evolving-Hockey’s WAR tables, you figure that a top 25-50 player in the league is worth about 2.5-3 wins, and a Top 10 player about 4-5. There is potential for Lafrienere to seriously boost an elite team in the play-in bubble if he lives 100% up to the hype right away, but it is it enough of a boost to the following few years to throw away one season of going for it?

In a league of five-year rebuilds and fluid contention windows, a year tossed to the side is a long time. Even for the greatest dynasties in history, that’s 20-25% of their story that would’ve been cancelled out to get that extra piece to ensure the rest worked out. For most of the teams “in the middle”, gaining Lafreniere is still a huge coup, but has the byproduct of securing you in that same very good, but not contender status. The most leverage he brings are to the teams who really expected to not be here (see: The Rangers or the Blackhawks) or are more talented up top than their wildcard positions (Pittsburgh, Toronto, Edmonton types), and those latter teams are already designed to be wasting any round they’re not winning as it is.

When the argument is “would you rather have this year’s cup, or 1st overall”, it’s not even close; a cup is far from a guaranteed cup, so you take any cup you can get. If it’s 12.5% chance at either, though, I think you still push towards the end goal, rather than pushing towards the means to help for the end goal. Think of the difference between tanks/aggressive rebuilds and losing the play-in for a lottery chance with a football analogy: no one likes to punt, but there are plenty of situations where it’s the only logical play for a coach to call for. But no coach is going to call for a punt in scoring position, and any team in the playoffs is in scoring position.

Legitimacy

The last point here to be made is on the legitimacy of this year’s Stanley Cup, and it’s an argument I can’t believe we’re having.

If it were up to me, there wouldn’t be a Stanley Cup at all, and we’d just cancel this season and wait until it’s safe to be a society again before we worry about playing sports for television ratings. But that’s not because the trophy would be fraudulent to win this year – rather just because it’s the safe and logical thing to do.

The play-in teams are a ridiculous add to the mix, but if we’re talking about the validity of the journey, five rounds won, no matter how they’re won, is more difficult than four. If it’s a non-play-in team that wins, well, they’re still winning the four rounds they would have anyway. Every team played nearly, exactly, or in excess of 70 games; all playing at least 20 more than the winners of the 1995 and 2013 Stanley Cups.

Those cups were won by the New Jersey Devils, who won again in 2000 and 2003, and the Chicago Blackhawks, who also won in 2010 and 2015. They’re just one piece of a trilogy, and they come with an abnormal path to victory. But before you ask yourself whether the 2020 Stanley Cup champion is a fake, meaningless winner, ask those fans how meaningless those two wins were. The answer is almost always going to be “not at all” – they were still the last team standing under the agreed-upon format.

The Stanley Cup isn’t an exact science. Winning it often relies on luck and fortune, the bracketing and seeding has changed over the years, the regular season format that leads into it has changed over the years, the amount of teams vying for it has changed over the years, and even the leagues involved have changed. Its purpose is to give glory to the team we feel is the best in that given year, however we may feel to define best. That we’ve changed the definition under extenuating circumstances doesn’t change that. The banner won’t have an asterisk, the ring won’t have an asterisk, the engravements won’t have asterisks. It won’t feel like an asterisk when that 35-pound piece of metal is hoisted above the players’ shoulders, it won’t feel like an asterisk when you’re counting down the seconds to the final buzzer.

It feels like an asterisk now because most of us know that this is deep down a bad idea, and we’ve had some time away from hockey to realize that we aren’t reliant on the Stanley Cup. But when the puck drops, emotion will set in, we’ll remember that the object of the game is to win, and that every one of these teams now has a real shot, and that real shot is what you play the post-season for, not for a 12.5% chance at a new teammate. Alexis Lafreniere is going to be a hell of a player, and a huge haul for the team who’s misfortune turns into a great fortune in a few weeks, but he’s not the trophy one should be chasing once they’ve gotten this far.

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