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You Can't Draw a Championship

June 30, 2020, 9:17 AM ET [10 Comments]
Jay Greenberg
Blogger •NHL Hall of Fame writer • RSSArchiveCONTACT
Boo, hoo hoo for the Red Wings, whose just-elected Hall of Fame builder obviously made some bad decisions over his last five seasons for the franchise to reach the state that it is in.

Not to argue against Ken Holland’s election. In successfully using the later rounds to build a core of winning European players, he was greater than just one of the more successful GMs in the game’s history, but an innovator. He did not do well in Detroit in the end before moving on to Edmonton however, so we just want to note the irony of the timing-Hall of Fame election and a legacy of ping pong balls all in the same week-before moving on to our larger point: His parting gift of a head start towards the next cycle of Detroit contention didn’t turn out to be the jackpot prize. The Red Wings dropped to fourth.

Rationally, it shouldn’t be. Why must the bottom team be entitled to the greatest chance at the best pick?

They could do away with the lottery or re-weight it to include all 32 teams tomorrow and it wouldn’t make much difference towards competitive balance. Or, for that matter, to the integrity of the results.

Removing the guarantee that the worst record will automatically get you the best kid hasn’t eliminated tanking. What do you call the trade deadline dumping of players whose contracts are up at the end of the season? Winning another game or two while playing out the string takes a lower priority to obtaining a future asset, which is just smart business. And rewarding teams for the bad business that has put them in the dumpster has only ever been charitable, never logical.

What did the Red Wings do to earn a better chance at Alexis Lafreniere than the Kings, or the lucky winner-to-be of stage two? Or even the Bruins, who were first overall when the virus hit?

Why should incompetence be rewarded, especially year after year by the franchises taking too long to get it right? For every Chicago, or Pittsburgh- particularly Pittsburgh, fortunate to have the first pick twice in its history when a generational player was available–there have been more Edmontons and Buffalos getting high choices year after year and still not making reasonable headway.

We understand the broad principle behind a league prioritizing competitive balance. Never have we believed in penalizing success, however, nor had any respect for losers whining that the Yankees have been bad for baseball, when that franchise has set a high standard in the game and come up short of a championship plenty of years besides. Likewise, never has any NHL team dominated to the point that it drained interest in the sport, in fact quite the opposite The teams with sustained success build both admiration and enmity, both good for business.

In 2004 the small markets were willing to blow off an entire season to ensure competitive balance. Actually, the owners locked the players out to ensure profits under the excuse of competitive balance because the truth is, balance they already had. The last three seasons before the lockout there was not one repeat semifinalist and in the final year before the shutdown, only one of the final four, the Flyers, were in the top five in payroll.

The only franchises that have put together strings of championships in the expansion era have been Montreal (despite a severe disadvantage in currency exchange and a mid-sized market), tiny Edmonton, and the Islanders (who were either in or near bankruptcy during their entire run.)

Today’s soon-to-be 32-team league and a corresponding 32-team draft practically guarantees balance without having to pump up the competition from the bottom.
The cap, which almost immediately is guaranteed to rob a championship team of support players and depth, is a ruthless agent towards a level ground and, of course we will continue to argue a cap is not needed either, not that at this stage, anyone will listen. But certainly the draft is not required on top of a cap to ensure everyone having a good chance, provided that’s what you really want at the cost of 32 teams worth of relative sameness.

No denying that when Pittsburgh can soon add an Evgeni Malkin to a Sidney Crosby or Washington a Nicklas Backstrom to an Alex Ovechkin it is a helluva start to a championship or three. But it had never been necessary to first bottom out to reach the top. Championships are built on a quantity of quality draft selections, good trades and signings, not by necessarily having to get worse in order to get better.

The Bruins never sank so low to get where they have been for a decade. Don’t know if you can call the Blues, whose highest pick to build the reigning champion was Alex Pietrangelo at No. 4, as a manifestation of lottery good fortune. The Flyers, seven years without a playoff series win, at least got into the post-season three times in the interim and still appear to have recycled a contender.

Don’t need to list here all the bad picks that have made a fifth or fourth overall choice or even sometimes a 15th better than a second or third. Sure, there was a dropoff from Patrick Kane to James van Riemsdyk, but not so much from Ovechkin to Evgeni Malkin or between nos. one through five in the majority of drafts. Smart teams who don’t miss on their first-round pick in any slot and then consistently find players in the rounds thereafter win the draft, not mathematical probabilities.

The NHL was attention desperate to do this year’s lottery in two stages rather than waiting for the completion of this unique play-in round. That is going to create some theoretical injustices, but nobody will get screwed any more than any other year until they screw themselves by picking the wrong kid.

In the meantime Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl have been showcased in one playoff since coming into the league five and four years ago and Jack Eichel has yet to appear. It’s hard to see how guaranteeing talents like those go to bad teams is really good for the overall business.
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