Category: Around the NHL

Jeff Veillette
Jeff Veillette@jeff

June 29, 2020

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.

June 29, 2020 57 views 0

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Jeff Veillette
Jeff Veillette@jeff

June 27, 2020

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.

June 27, 2020 117 views 0
Jeff Veillette
Jeff Veillette@jeff

June 19, 2020

Why the NHL should skip the COVID risk and cancel the season 

Today brought a flood of news from throughout the sports world; possibly a coincidence in timing, but just as possibly an attempt to squeak already confirmed stories into the Friday afternoon sea of noise.

Outside of the NHL, we have the MLB’s Philadelphia Phillies who have at least eight different cases amongst them as they train in Clearwater, Florida. We have at least one member of the Toronto Blue Jays who is feeling symptoms. At least one player on the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers has tested positive in Nashville, and at least three of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ staff have either tested positive or quarantined.  A member of MLS’ Atlanta United tested positive yesterday, as did a member of the NWSL.

Now, back to our game, we’ve seen two big stories come out in the past several hours; with a particularly topical one just leaking out while I was shelling out this piece. Elliotte Friedman and Bob McKenzie tag-teamed to break this afternoon that multiple players and staff from the Tampa Bay Lightning have tested positive, and according to Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun (who doesn’t have the greatest of reputations for his opinions, but is still plugged), Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs has tested positive as well.

While I don’t particularly like the idea of a specific person being named by anyone besides themselves (privacy and all that), the reveal of both the Lightning as the mass-impacted team and Matthews as a specifically impacted player will no doubt send shockwaves through the hockey world, given that we’re talking about a Stanley Cup contender and a megastar player in a huge market.

Now, that shouldn’t be what sparks the discussion; that any team is having health issues is problem, and that any players are getting sick is a problem. The underlying issue isn’t who is getting sick, but that even under these planned out guidelines, at both the sporting level and at the societal level, these top athletes are finding a way to get infected.

That likely won’t stop either. The problem here is so much bigger than sport; it’s a societal one, where many have declared that trying to combat a pandemic is a political statement that they must defy, or where many who would like to try to protect themselves and others simply don’t have the resources or support to do so, in the interest of political and financial gain by people further up the ladder than them. Then you have people who selfishly think they can run around free because they’re less likely to die if they get sick than others, or people who are simply burned out from thinking about this pandemic and are going to try to ignore it away now that summer is here and they’re bored.

Cases across the United States are rising once again, particularly in areas that are allowing people to go protection-less in mutual indoor spaces. An example of this is Las Vegas, which is seeing a huge spike after opening up casinos, restaurants, gyms and the like in a fashion that resembles a hastened rush to normalcy. This comes just days after a report that the city would be picked as one of the NHL’s two hub cities. The second hub city, which will reportedly be announced alongside Vegas on Monday, is likely to be a Canadian one – Toronto, Edmonton, or Vancouver – based on the fact that the NHL is very insistent on the mandatory 14-day quarantine for people coming into Canada being lifted, which the federal government approved today.

Canada hasn’t seen the same spikes as the United States just yet, but if any of the same trends (rushed re-openings, anti-protection protesting, or pandemic fatigue) carry-over, the cities remain at risk. There is also the paradox of the most prepared city of the three from an infrastructural standpoint (Toronto) also being the most at risk, though improvement has been seen.

This all goes to say – I don’t know how much confidence one can have in any particular city, in either country, to continue to decline towards zero, and keep players safe. There is the “bubble” option; one where staff straight up cannot leave their exclusive zone, and no one else can enter, but holding a group in total isolation like that for what could be several months for the teams that go on runs seems both highly improbable and incredibly mentally taxing – and it still might not guarantee everyone’s health.

Yes, top athletes in their 20’s and 30’s are less likely to have a case of COVID-19 turn fatal for them, but not every staff member fits that description, with many being much more at risk. Not to mention, there are still a lot of questions about the long-term impact of this virus on the body. That’s especially true for the respiratory system, which is an important asset to every athlete.

There is undoubtedly a big demand for pro sports to return. They’re a focal part of so many of our lives, there are a lot of us who depend on them for income, or even just entertainment and morale. Those who would be in this rinks are probably feeling it just as much; maybe not the income part, but the itch to do the one thing they’ve practically programmed themselves to do is likely taking its toll at this point as well.

But as we can see, the risk still remains high, and even with precautions taken, we’re still going to have cases, and unless things go full bubble, they’re not going to stop at any point. Given that we’re already going through so many hoops to re-organize and reformat all of these leagues to finish the 2019/20 seasons, or start the next ones – how much of this is worth it right now? I don’t think the answer has changed enough from when these same leagues hit pause in March. At the end of the day, as much as we miss our games, they’re not as essential as our health, and perhaps its time to go back to the drawing board, call the paused seasons a wash, and work on fixing the pandemic’s impact on society before we take risks to create a distraction we want, but don’t need.

June 19, 2020 78 views 0
Jeff Veillette
Jeff Veillette@jeff

May 21, 2020

The Final 50 – A Proposal to ‘Finish’ the NHL season and preserve the playoff format 

The National Hockey League doesn’t exist anymore. Hockey is a social construct, and our only reason for our continued survival is to map out proposals for playoff formats when the doctors give us the thumbs up for sports to resume again. Or something like that.

Look, it’s been a long few months, where the actual game has been the least of our concerns. So forgive me for being a little stir-crazy about it. But over the past few weeks, we’ve started to get a pretty good read for what the NHL wants to do to get back on the ice. Chaining together reports – particularly from Sportsnet Insiders Elliotte Friedman and Chris Johnston, who have been great on this beat, it’s safe to assume that we’re going to see something along these lines:

  • Two or four, likely two, host cities, where players will congregate on an area that’s been closed off as much as possible to the public.
  • A 24-team playoff format to allow for teams that are just out of the playoff picture (and also Montreal and Chicago) to get a chance at post-season glory
  • A first “play-in” round where seeds 5-12 in the conference play a Best-of-5 series for the rights to play in the first round
  • The 1-4 seeds in each conference will get some sort of exhibition-like, but also seedings-tied (?) action in so they don’t come in cold
  • The playoffs push forward as a 16-team format from there

I’m not going to go into too much detail here, because I’ve given this rant a thousand times over the past few weeks, but my general opinion remains that the proposal is too open-ended and further dilutes the value of being the “better team” in the postseason. Hockey is already one of the most luck-driven sports out there, and a playoff series is already typically decided by which combination of a starting goalie and handful of shooters go hot for two weeks. We’re a year removed from one of the best regular-season teams of all time getting swept in the first round, and three years removed from a team being an overtime goal away from winning the Eastern Conference with negative goal differentials in both the regular season and playoffs.

In other words: The sport is already a slightly weighted coin toss on the best day, and now we’re opening up the luck spectrum even further, equally throwing months of success and failure by certain teams out the window to give all but the seven worst teams in the league a chance to win the Stanley Cup. The 5v12 play-in in the Eastern Conference has the Pittsburgh Penguins, who are 4 points out of the Metropolitan Division lead and 6 points out of 3rd overall, against the Montreal Canadians – who have played the most games in the NHL and are still 10 points back of the final playoff spot.

All the same, the league is in the business of making money, and as such, they see the value in having another 12-20 play-in games per conference, plus a handful more for the warmups of the top teams. This means somewhere in between 36-60 extra games will be created with a 24-team playoff, fulfilling whatever TV deal obligations need to be made while pulling in some side revenue and getting teams back into game shape.

That’s well and good, but what if we could do something that’s very similar on the surface, without punishing teams that had five better months, without stretching a fortune-driven sport even further into randomness, and without creating a format worthy of an asterisk?

In my proposal, 23 teams play out a few more games in their regular season before we get the playoffs going, to get to a total of 74 apiece – which can be marketed as a nod to the schedule used for the first post-Original 6 season in 1967/68. The schedule for this would have to be re-generated by the league to be in-conference and weighted as evenly as possible. I don’t have the modelling chops to generate one for them, but glancing at the total games remaining for each conference, it appears to be doable; there are 26 surplus games remaining in the East, and 24 in the West, for a total of exactly 50 remaining games to be played in the regular season. Assuming each conference host city can take in three games per day, the regular season can be finished in about 9 days at the fastest – though something closer to two weeks would likely be ideal so that the teams with 5 and 6 games aren’t alternating between back-to-backs and single days off.

We use 23 teams, in this case, to only bring teams that are still within reach of the minimum points required to finish 8th in their conference (currently 81 in the East, 80 in the West). This pulls Montreal out of the equation (sorry!) but includes everyone else as they try to make one last push to earn their playoff spots.

This gives the teams that are hanging by a thread a chance, but closer to the teens and 20’s in terms of percentages rather than the 40% that you have to spot any NHL team in any given playoff series. It gives teams like Pittsburgh some additional security that they’ve earned by being a better team throughout the course of the season. It gives us definitive seeds to use when everyone gets to their magic number, and it creates a nice, round, marketable number of pre-Round 1 games to play that’s right in the middle of the variable number that the play-in creates.

In other words: It gives most of the teams the opportunity that they’ve earned thus far. It includes a near-identical amount of teams and games with a lot less confusion and a much lower risk of freak upsets and asterisks. It makes all the sense in the world – which is why it probably won’t happen. But a blogger can dream, right?

May 21, 2020 51 views 0
Jeff Veillette
Jeff Veillette@jeff

May 5, 2020

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.

May 5, 2020 70 views 0
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