For the past couple of seasons a standard narrative has cropped up around this time of year, and it has to do with teams allegedly tanking in order to secure the first pick in the June NHL Entry Draft.
Last year it was the epically bad Buffalo Sabres and almost-as-bad Arizona Coyotes. This year it’s supposedly the Toronto Maple Leafs.
A week before the trade deadline, The Hockey News’s Ken Campbell wrote a blog piece on the subject. Campbell even found an authority—a nameless GM whose complaints about the Leafs were expressed thus: “It’s bullsh— … It drives me nuts.”
The GM then went on to imagine an alternate scenario that would most assuredly eliminate tanking: Teams that didn’t make the playoffs would be awarded picks based on how many points they could accumulate after being eliminated from playoff contention.
Campbell decided to one-up the GM by imagining a scenario in which draft position was based on a team’s winning percentage after elimination.
Since last July the Leafs have shipped out veterans Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, Shawn Matthias, Nick Spaling, Roman Polak, James Reimer and Daniel Winnik. That fire sale arguably has made them a worse team in the short run and might improve their position for this year’s draft, but what’s at work is more complicated than simply tanking in the hopes of picking first.
Let’s start with one obvious observation: The Leafs have been consistently bad all season. So while it’s fair to expect that their current four-game losing streak will continue, it’s also possible their current roster, which includes some promising prospects getting their first taste of NHL play, just might find its footing and actually put together a winning streak.
Nevertheless, let’s concede a point to Campbell and our nameless GM and assume the Leafs are in fact a worse team than they were a few weeks ago and do finish dead last.
There’s still a massive impediment to the realization of their allegedly diabolical scheme, and that’s the draft lottery.
Because of the new lottery format, finishing last only gives a team a 20% chance of landing the first pick. Last year the Sabres were absolutely terrible, had slightly better odds (25%), and still lost it to the Edmonton Oilers (11.5%).
To create a further disincentive for bad teams to mail things in down the stretch, the league decided to put the top three picks into the lottery format. Whereas up until now the last place team was guaranteed the first or second pick, now it could wind up picking fourth.
The table below gives the full odds of each non-playoff team picking first.
Regular Season Finish
If you don’t do the math (which is admittedly a little complicated because of the potential combinations that can arise at each stage of the lottery) you might just assume that a last place finish ought to still give the Leafs a really solid chance at one of the top two picks, but thanks to some generous and patient people who have gone to the trouble of crunching the numbers you don’t have to do it.
As the table below shows, the odds favor the last place team dropping to third or fourth by almost a 2:1 margin, and it’s roughly a coin toss between them landing one of the top three picks and picking fourth.
Draft Position of Last Place Team
The Leafs have consistently been out of the playoff picture since the beginning of this season, so while we can debate how bad they were before their most recent fire sale, their record over the five previous seasons (which included their lone playoff appearance since 2004) is as good a guess as any.
As it turns out the Leafs were the fifth-worst team in the league during that stretch, meaning a similar finish this year would give them an 8.5% chance of getting the first pick.
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The Department of Hockey Analytics employs advanced statistical methods and innovative approaches to better understand the game of hockey. Its three founders are Ian Cooper (@ian_doha), a lawyer, former player agent and Wharton Business School graduate; Dr. Phil Curry (@phil_doha), a professor of economics at the University of Waterloo; and IJay Palansky (@ijay_doha), a litigator at the law firm of Armstrong Teasdale, former high-stakes professional poker player, and Harvard Law School graduate. Visit us on line at www.depthockeyanalytics.com