Death, taxes, and the NHL shooting itself in the foot: these are three of life’s certainties. When the league announced its draft lottery format at the end of May, they were opening themselves up to the possibility that an unknown team (or as it’s been dubbed in French “une équipe fantôme”) would win the first overall selection. The embarrassing image of Bill Daly holding up the NHL logo as he revealed the first pick could have been avoided altogether if the league wasn’t so thirsty for attention that they felt compelled to hold the draft lottery before all of the relevant teams had their final seeding. This was a low-probability event to be sure, and no one would have complained if the mystery team had simply jumped up into the top 3, but low-probability is not no probability. There was a 24.5% chance a team outside the top 7 would win first overall; I’m not sure these odds were fully understood. The league wanted to generate some buzz during this nightmarish off-season and woo boy did they pull that off. I am not convinced the hit to their credibility will be worth the hour of TV ratings, however.
Besides the embarrassing problem of not knowing where the generational talent that this whole show was designed to market is going, the NHL has set up some pretty perverse incentives for the teams that will be participating in the play-in series. Remember that the league amended its draft lottery rules ahead of the 2015 draft where Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel were available. When it was determined that those rules had failed to sufficiently deter the worst behaviour, they changed the rules again for the 2016: this time putting all three top picks up for grabs for lottery teams. Now those rules changes, combined with the league’s aforementioned desire to conduct the draft lottery before the season concluded, have created a perfect storm whereby there is an incentive for teams to simply roll over in their play-in game. It would be one thing if your team believed itself to have a chance to win the Stanley Cup, but look at the choices for a team like the New York Rangers: go for broke on a nearly certainly doomed play-off run while exposing your players to what will likely be less than the optimal working conditions, OR, go down quietly, take a few months off to let your best players get healthy and give yourself a 1 in 8 chance of netting Alexis Lafreniere.
Many of the teams will not pursue this option - the Pittsburgh Penguins have legitimate Cup aspirations for instance - but why even allow this to be an option? The mere notion is damaging to the credibility of the league. It will be impossible to avoid this discussion, no matter how hard the NHL would wish it away. In part by blindly chasing their desire to end regular season tanking, the league has introduced a much bigger problem: the appearance of play-off tanking.
And this all could have been avoided. It was entirely foreseeable. Alas, when it comes to the NHL none of the embarrassment was unexpected.