The NHL’s annual draft lottery is now upon us and for a club record fifth straight year, the Ottawa Senators will be a part of it. The invitation is a mixed blessing, a consolation prize for finishing out of the playoffs. So, GM Pierre Dorion will jump on Zoom tonight with executives from the other 15 non-playoff teams, all excitedly clutching their lottery tickets, and hoping against all odds to improve their current draft ranking.
One thing is certain. They’ll pick earlier than they did last year when they opted for Tyler Boucher at 10th overall. This year, there’s almost an 81% possibility they’ll pick 7th or 8th overall and no lower than 9th. But they also have an outside chance at the golden ticket and that’s why Sens fans tune in to watch.
So You’re Telling Me There’s a Chance
There’s a 6.9% possibility the Senators could move up to number two in the draft and a 6.5% chance they get number one. Not great odds, of course, but this is a team definitely due for some good luck. The Senators have never improved their ranking in any draft lottery. Like, ever. The Sens have maintained their draft ranking seven times and dropped down in their ranking four times. That’s 11 lotteries, and no movin’ on up to a deluxe apartment in the sky.
Mind you, 11 has been a good number for the Sens (praise Alfie). So, who knows? Of course, some fans take numerical superstition a little too seriously.
Sounds like the Sens can’t go wrong.
Speaking of numbers, the draft lottery rules remain a hot, convoluted mess. Always have been. Plucked from NHL.com, these were the rules back in the 90s and they’re just as complicated today.
Fourteen balls, numbered one to 14, are placed in a lottery machine and four are randomly drawn, with the resulting four digit series matched against a look-up table. There are exaclty 1,001 possible combinations and each of the teams involved in the drawing are assigned a certain number of those combinations. The combinations were assigned by a computer on a random basis.
Congrats on getting through that paragraph awake.
What has changed is the focus on getting more viewers and fan engagement. Over the years, the league has opened up the lottery to more non-playoff teams. This allowed the 16th place New York Rangers to win the number one pick in 2020, which everyone outside of New York thought was stupid. But more teams mean more interest which means more money. Fairness and tank prevention became secondary, although they have altered the rules this year so that no team came move up more than 10 spots.
The actual need for a draft lottery is debatable. The NFL seems to scrape by without one. Any NFL team that wants to intentionally lose games to get first pick does so at their own peril. Seriously, it’s not easy to retain fans, viewership and merch sales when you completely crater your season and allow your team to become a joke.
There might not even be an NHL draft lottery without the expansion Ottawa Senators. They had a major hand in its creation. The concept was borrowed from the NBA by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, who’d just come from the Association a few months earlier. The lottery was designed (at first) to prevent teams from intentionally losing to improve their draft ranking. Back then, like the NFL, they simply gave the first overall pick to the team that finished last overall.
But in 1993, the Victoriaville Tigres had a young rocket named Alexandre Daigle who was busily trampling the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He was ranked number one by every NHL team and the Senators were tracking to finish last place overall and win his rights. But San Jose was pretty awful too that year and Sens owner Bruce Firestone made the mistake of wondering out loud, in front of reporters, if his team should lose the final game of the season to secure the rights to draft Daigle.
It was nothing more than a comment. The Sens did finish last that year, but there was no plan in place to throw games. The Sens expansion roster told you everything you need to know. They didn’t need a scheme to be bad. Still, Firestone’s comments appeared in the papers and that touched off an NHL investigation. It resulted in a club fine of $100,000, and the creation of the draft lottery we’ll see tonight.
If the Senators do move up to number one or two for the July 7th draft in Montreal, they’ll certainly be eyeballing Kingston centre Shane Wright, who’s ranked number one among North American skaters. Or Juraj Slafkovsky, a winger playing in Finland’s top professional men’s league. He’s number one among international skaters.
If they stay in the 7-9 range, there’s not even any point of projecting who the Sens might select. While every draft publication tried to figure out what Ottawa would do with the number 10 pick last year, the Sens chose Boucher long before anyone thought he’d be selected. Some even had him going in round two.
Ottawa likes what Ottawa likes.
What they’d like tonight is the number one pick and there is a chance it could happen. Not a great chance, mind you. But a chance.
And on draft lottery day, hope springs eternal.
By Steve Warne