The NHL should help those who help themselves

How do you prevent teams from tanking to get a better draft pick? Here’s an idea.

by Colby Cosh

Reporting from the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, the Edmonton Journal’s David Staples breaks intriguing news about a new idea for discouraging late-season “tanking” by pro sports teams who want to improve their draft position. Reading about Adam Gold’s scheme, I had the pretty firm reaction: “Yeah, this is right. We’ll see somebody adopt this soon.”

Right now, in the NBA and the NHL, teams eliminated from the playoffs are supposedly discouraged from sending out sub-par lineups by the use of a draft lottery. Lottery systems, which basically add some statistical random noise to the end-of-year standings before the draft order is set, have curbed the worst abuses (best exemplified, I think, by the bizarre ending of the 1983-84 NBA season). If a hypothetical NHL team, let’s call it the Deadmonton Boilers, finishes in last place, it is not guaranteed to get the number-one pick. The problem, however, is that the randomization, being random, doesn’t really reverse the powerful incentive to be horrible: finishing in last still gives the Boilers the best statistical chance of getting the number-one pick in the Entry Draft, and guarantees that they will pick no lower than second.

What’s needed is an incentive to continue winning every possible game—a reward for honest effort which still guarantees that the biggest talents entering the league will end up with the poorest clubs (or the clubs that have exchanged for their picks) in the name of competitive balance and fan interest. I have always felt as though this was like squaring the circle: an irresolvable contradiction. But Gold has figured out a way to do it. He proposes to rank the teams in the draft lottery by the raw total of wins or standings points earned after, and only after, their formal playoff elimination. The bad teams are eliminated early and have a longer time in which to amass those wins—but they still have to go out and get them, or risk being overtaken by less bad teams in the race for high picks.

I love the idea, even as I cheer for a 29th-place NHL team (in a year where two Russian forwards are bunched together pretty closely at the top of the scouting lists). I can live with cheering for a 29th-place team, but it would help some if the cheering actually conformed in some way to the interests of that team, and wasn’t just a stupid, innate sports-fan reflex. The Gold Rule would not only end outright “tanking”, and the temptations thereto; it would also minimize the distinction between trade-deadline “buyers” and “sellers”, which impairs within-season competitive balance. Teams that were just plain dead in the water as elimination loomed would have to make sure they were still ready to compete down the stretch. We wouldn’t even think of them anymore as being “dead”: effectively, as Gold says, they would be entering their own “playoff-type” phase of competition.

The very-long-term solution is still an NHL (and an NBA, and perhaps even an MLB) with tiered divisions, offering promotion and relegation. That will come about naturally when the North American leagues are ready to relent a bit from their cartel nature, perhaps under legal pressure, and to welcome a world in which a country like Canada has the 20 or 50 serious, competitive pro hockey teams it could readily support. But no one’s ready yet for an NHL2. Especially not Edmonton Oiler fans. Once you had an NHL Second Division, someone would naturally start pressing for a Third, and a Fourth, and who knows where the hell we’d hit bottom?

The NHL should help those who help themselves

  1. North American sports have been ruined for me since I started paying attention european football. I was typical Canadian male – I thought soccer was communist game for girls – and played hockey as a boy but then got a job at local pub in Angel, London after university and was introduced to Arsenal/Highbury. 

    I watch the occasional Leafs game but I know we reward failure here – why should I watch regular season when my team can’t even make to the playoffs. I raised in Toronto and have followed the Leafs since forever but they have really been trying my patience. Mediocrity is rewarded here, Leafs are mostly inept and nothing happens – only a half assed team employs ron wilson for years and then fire him shortly after giving him contact extension.

    And how perverse is it that there are incentives for teams to throw games at end of season? Sports are corrupted in North America. Winning – which should be one and only objective of a sports team – comes around third or fourth in consideration here.

    •  This post  is a fascinating insight into how highly ideological minds shape themselves and view the world.

  2. Is there a chance that slavish fan support plays a key role in all of this too?  If tanking teams were faced with the real prospect of losing customers, it seems to me the declining advertising, ticket and merchandise revenues would more than offset the potential upside of draft considerations.  Unless fan support is made sufficiently contingent on winning games, there’s little reason to expect a franchise to place the utmost premium on winning.  It’s like continuing to buy hamburgers from a franchise selling substandard food, instead of taking one’s business across the street where the quality and value are superior.  Until the latter happens, the former will continue to sell crappy food.  (or maybe this is all wrong and demonstrates why Andrew Coyne does not have a sports column).

  3. I hate losing, yet I am seeing the Raptors punt this season in the most egregious manner. I absolutely love this idea.

  4. As to your last paragraph, bravo. Canada could easily support fifty professional hockey teams – in fact, it already does: we have 62 professional hockey teams in Canada, only 51 of them don’t pay their players. Junior teams are run on a professional basis, but the players are nominally amateurs. Of course, if they were professionals, we’d see a far higher standard…

  5. How would trades factor into this? Sometimes teams are losing late in the season because they traded players who are about to become free agents at the trade deadline in exchange for prospects and/or draft picks.

    • You’d still see some of that, but the trades would have to be predicated on competing all the time; GMs couldn’t decide that some future games were more equal than others. Which is a good thing, I think.

  6. Interesting plan, but too math based for the average fan to follow, I’d think.  I’d prefer the Bill Simmons idea of having a 8 team playoff for the last playoff spot.

    •  Average fans don’t need to follow it.  I’d rather imagine the average fan couldn’t tell you the tiebreak order for determining playoff seeding/eligibility.  The media would use their numbers geeks that would break down when each team got to start counting their ‘race for a draft choice’ and that would cover the average fan’s needs.

      That said, I’m not sure deliberate tanking is currently a problem in the NHL.  Apart from the suggestion that teams SHOULD do so, there’s not a lot of evidence it’s actually happening.

      •  Touché.

         

  7. The “math” is pretty much just counting. Is it really your experience that sports fans, who buy Bill James’ books by the hundreds of thousands, break down football records against the spread 50 different ways, and have invented fantasy versions of all the major sports, are all that math-averse?

    •  Reading the plan again, I misunderstood it:  I thought it would be percentage of games won after elimination.  So, less math than I realized.

      I’m just a sucker for the clarity of NBA/NFL standings rather than the mess NHL ones are, think this would just make things worse.

  8. The part that gets “mathy” is establishing when a team has left playoff mode and entered draft-spot mode.

    This might encourage the worst teams to tank shortly before they are formally eliminated from playoff contention but after playoff contention would require divine intervention.  This would presumably be a shorter-lived problem than the current end-of-the-season problem.

  9. There are alway unintended consequences of new laws or rules designed to fixed this horrible problem.

    People will game the rules.  The proposed solution is too complicated and would likely lead to unintended consequences.

    The best method is to make the rules simpler.  With a hard salary cap, there is no need for a draft whatsoever. Eliminate the draft altogether. Let everyone be an unrestricted free agent from day 1.   Weak teams will tend to have more salary cap room and more opportunity for the best young players.  Contending teams will tend to have very little cap room, and much less opportunity for young players.

  10. This is a stupid idea, Canadian Teams could end up being relegated by richer American markets and we might see the number of Div 1 teams drop to 2 or 3 in Canada.  Sure you could implement a loans system, similar to Europe to keep stars, but we would loose too many players to the US, as we already do, thanks to living in a less-pressure filled market.  Some teams have legitimate money problems and issues building teams, just to block one thing that is a great risk on the team culture already.  You think players like loosing, they are aggressive and competitive, a losing mentality devastates a team, case in point Edmonton for the short term, and Toronto for the long term.  Ideas that come about while drinking a few pints, belong there, not in the mainstream.

    • Richer American markets? You mean like Atlanta, Phoenix, Dallas, Denver, New Jersey, Nashville, Miami, and Tampa Bay?

      • No need to be snippy. I mean being able to watch the Oilers in Edmonton, if I lived in Toronto and Vancouver I might look at this differently.  Places like Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal would probably be better equipped to keep teams by being better able to stay financially afloat in a relegation system and the rest of Canada would suffer.  You need to choose the corruption that you can put up with, I’d put up with the one that see more teams in Canada, and not at a loss, similar to other sport, MLB or NBA for example.

        • Look at it this way, Dude: as things stand now, a team like the Oilers or Senators have to compete with 29 equal organizations. If team’s riches counted, only 4 or so teams can actually pull in more revenue than the Oil or Sens: Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, the Rangers and probably Chicago. (If you’ve ever compared ticket prices in American cities to those here, you know that Canadian teams are doing just fine.) It would be a less equal field, but (a) with less of the corruption, yes, that comes with equalization and (b) all, and I mean all, the Canadian teams would be better off.

        • I think I needed to be snippier: you maybe didn’t notice (or didn’t know) that at some point during the 2011-2012 season each of those rich American markets has been revealed to be in financial difficulty. EVERY ONE of those teams I listed are in fact worse off than any Canadian city. That (at least) one NHL team has floated a move to Saskatoon (the largest city in a province smaller than the greater Edmonton metro area) sort of belies this. The Oilers could move out of Edmonton tomorrow, and some 22 other teams (the Oilers are apparently 8th in the league in total revenue) would be begging for the chance to move in.

  11. I can still see games being tanked.  Teams with little chance of making the playoffs would tank games in order to be eliminated mathematically ASAP. There are about seven NHL teams right now that have almost no chance of getting into the playoffs. None of them are mathematically eliminated. So all these teams would all have a very strong incentive to lose lots of games quickly.

    Another problem is that the worst teams are not necessarily eliminated from playoffs first.  It all depends on who else is in your division. For instance, the playoff cutoff in the Western conference of the NHL is a little higher right now. So the western teams will be eliminated sooner than Eastern teams (further strengthening the western conference).

    • They’re eliminated sooner because it’s tougher for them to get standings points. So you’re simply pointing out a problem that already exists with the current system: the bad western teams finish higher in the draft order than they ought to because of their conference opponents. (If you adjust for strength of opposition the Oilers aren’t the 2nd worst team in the league.)

      Moreover, while teams on the elimination bubble have a minor incentive to tank, they are at least forestalled from doing so in a way that leaves them unprepared for the “elimination tournament” some of them will be entering almost immediately.

  12. As others have noted, Gold’s proposal seems to just move the incentive
    to tank into the middle of the season from the end — once you know in
    January (or in the Boilers’ case, in November) that you’re going to miss
    the playoffs, tank for the middle of the season so you’ll be able to
    start counting draft-pick-points sooner.

    But wouldn’t this be solved by setting a fixed number of games at the
    end of the season that will count toward draft pick ranking? E.g., whoever has the best
    record in the last 20 games gets the first pick.

    • But it goes against the original premise – worse teams should get higher draft picks to get a better chance to climb in the standings, to help level the playing field and keep the game enjoyable.  The way you’ve worded it there’s a good chance the 1st overall team also gets first draft pick (although I think you meant the best of 20 games among teams who didn’t make the playoffs, which makes it very likely the 9th team gets the pick).

      • Yeah, my bad — I mean the best among those who miss the playoffs. And I take your point, although I’d be surprised, given ups and downs through the season, if 9th-place (in conference) finishers would be more than marginally better performers than 15th-place finishers in the last 10-20 games *if* the incentive to tank were removed. Maybe they would, I don’t know, but the question is how much emphasis does the league want to place on rewarding success vs rewarding failure (read tanking). I don’t see much harm in moving the slider a little away from where it is now, which overwhelmingly rewards failure.

  13. Although results might be skewed because of the very tendency this system seeks to eliminate, I wonder what place team would have been awarded the 1st pick in previous years had this system been used.  Would we have seen the pick go to considerably higher ranked teams?

    • Staples talks about outcomes a bit in the original piece. (Oilers would still have gotten Taylor Hall but would have drafted 2nd last year instead of 1st.) I expect that at some point we’ll see a paper, as opposed to just a PowerPoint presentation, from Mr. Gold.

  14. I think this system would be nice, but better if it were to only active once every 3-4 years. When and how? Let the higher ups running the leages decide that, but preferrably if they see any suspicious behavior. This way those who play hard are rewarded, but the unfortonate are not punished.

  15. Similarly, the best junior players are banished to the worst teams. 

    How ironic that Canada, the mother of hockey, does not have its own national league. But with two changes, the CHL could provide a remedy – eliminate the age restriction and allow a free market system to operate as in other sports around the world.

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