Changes or not, NHL Draft Lottery will always leave someone unhappy

NHL executive Bill Daly confirmed to TSN’s Pierre LeBrun that GMs have discussed possible changes to the Draft Lottery.

Now, Daly didn’t elaborate about specific NHL Draft Lottery changes to LeBrun, who also expanded upon the subject at The Athletic (sub required).

Let’s get into some of the possible NHL Draft Lottery changes LeBrun’s heard about. While sorting through those rumblings, a point might become clearer. There’s really no way to make everyone happy.

(Frankly, we’ll probably always see granular tweaks kicked around, possibly until the league decides to do away with it entirely. And then people will gripe about the new thing. Complaining is sort of what us humans do.)

Potential changes to NHL Draft Lottery

Again, LeBrun could only confirm so much from Daly. Instead, he canvassed the league to make some educated guesses.

  • To start, teams weren’t happy that the terrible 2019-20 Detroit Red Wings fell to the fourth pick in the 2020 NHL Draft. Why? Because the Red Wings are … um, going through a “real rebuild.”

(By that, LeBrun means that the Red Wings aren’t shamelessly tanking. It seems that, much like beauty, tanking is in the eye of the beholder.)

One idea batted around would be that the team lowest in the standings can only drop as low as the third overall pick, rather than fourth. If that seems really granular … well, some would argue it is.

(I would argue it is.)

  • Meanwhile, there were gripes about decent-to-good teams making big gains. Some noteworthy examples include the Blackhawks (12th to third in 2019) and Hurricanes (11th to second in 2018). With that in mind, some wanted limits on how far you can leap.
  • While some GMs grumbled at the Red Wings’ fall, others would like to see safeguards put in place to keep teams from landing on top picks over and over again. Here’s where you can fondly recall the NHL Draft Lottery luck for the Oilers, Penguins, and Blackhawks, moments that brought the loudest calls for changes.

Now, sure, it can be frustrating to see teams fail upward. It’s the sort of thing Brian Burke hilariously mocked about the Penguins before he got the chance to help run the Penguins.

But how do you truly make that a fair system? If you go really far in limiting how often teams can, say, draft in the top three, then you’re potentially cursing teams for being bad at the wrong time.

One year, you win the lottery and land a Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid. Another, you might settle for Nail Yakupov, or even a very, very good player but not transcendent one like Nico Hischier.

For what it’s worth, LeBrun reports that the NHL might not have much of an “appetite” for Draft Lottery changes that would go too far in limiting how often a team could land top picks.

Again, someone’s always going to be unhappy

In many cases, calls for changes to the NHL Draft Lottery boil down to the essence of this situation.

Deep down, there’s no 100-percent perfect way to disperse talent. Some call for the end of the NHL Draft altogether; some arguments are better than others.

But don’t think for a second that a draft-less scenario would leave people totally happy.

Allowing the McDavids of the world to choose their team right off the bat would certainly be fairer to McDavid and other prospects. In that way, the idea gets a thumbs up.

Just imagine the teeth-gnashing when top picks almost constantly pick teams in New York, Chicago, Boston, Toronto, and other bigger cities. Teams in less attractive markets might end up fighting for the scraps, especially if entry-level contracts were still deflated by team-friendly maximum numbers.

Frankly, that scenario would probably leave more fans feeling unhappy, and more GMs claiming that they’re hopeless.

So, how do you make changes so the NHL Draft Lottery:

  • Helps out the worst teams.
  • … But doesn’t help the worst teams too frequently in a short period of time?
  • Doesn’t give decent-to-good teams too great of a chance to land top picks.
  • … But doesn’t entice tanking too much?

Frankly, there aren’t a ton of scenarios where everyone’s absolutely happy. Much like actual lotteries, it’s probably wise to accept that there’s a fair amount of luck involved.

So, good luck to the NHL to make the sort of Draft Lottery changes that won’t leave people grumbling a year later. Besides, think of the meme economy. Lottery results could be gold for whatever The Weeknd is up to next.

Oh, and as far as the actual 2021 NHL Draft goes? That’s also a work in progress.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Scroll Down For: