Jun 27, 2014; Philadelphia, PA, USA; A general view of the complete draft board after the completion of the first round of the 2014 NHL Draft at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Why the NHL Draft Lottery Changes Won't Affect the Sabres (much)

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Reports have surfaced that the Board of Governors has approved changes to the NHL draft lottery system in an attempt to ‘smooth the odds’. Per Damien Cox of Sportsnet:

“Greedily, I’m upset because I think we have more of a chance of next season being one of the lower teams, which I don’t like, but I think that’s just reality and I look at it that way,” said Murray per WIVB.com

Those changes would reportedly reduce the last-placed team in the league’s odds of nabbing the first pick from ‘25% to about 19 or 20%’. However, the first pick would still be the only pick available in the lottery, at least in 2015. Once a team wins that pick, the records slot in order from there. So if the Buffalo Sabres are as bad in 2014-15 as they were last year — which is to say 30th in a league of 30 — they would be guaranteed a top two pick.

That’s not going to be the case for long though. Per the report, the 2016 draft lottery could see as many as three picks available in the lottery. That doesn’t affect the Sabres nearly as much as does the 2015 draft, in which at least two dynamic prospects will be available in Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel.

It appears Murray would agree with the idea at least of pushing these rules changes back at least a year or two so as not to punish teams that currently dwell in the NHL’s basement. He told WIVB, “If [lottery changes are] three years out… I don’t care, I don’t plan on being involved in the top pick.”

The changes are still pending approval from the NHLPA, but it’s hard to believe the players wouldn’t want this as well. Players don’t want to be a part of a team building to lose in the present. Anything to dissuade their GMs from intentionally building a loser for a year or two would be in a player’s favor.

There’s another mitigating factor here that could work to Buffalo’s advantage. They hold three first round picks in the 2015 draft. Now St. Louis will likely be a playoff team so their pick won’t affect much in the McDavid/Eichel sweepstakes, but the Islanders may not have to finish as low as the Sabres expected for their pick to have a nice shot at the top pick.

Below is a graph made by Tyler Dellow to visualize the ‘smoothing’ alluded to in the report.

Let’s say the Sabres finish last in the league and have a 20% chance to win the lotto. They start the process behind about 5% from where they were a year ago. Let’s say New York improves from their fifth-worst finish to about tenth-worst — a modest expectation for a team that still hasn’t answered anyone when they ask who’s playing defense on that team. A look at the graph for the 20th place team reveals about a 2% bump. So really the Sabres only lose 3% of the ping pong balls in their favor.

If the Islanders were to even finish about 24-25th, they would see about a 3% bump in their odds from the 2014 lottery. Ultimately the changes would reflect a muted bump in Buffalo’s overall odds at cracking the top two of the 2015 draft, and that’s if they finish last in the league. It takes an especially awful squad to finish dead last in the league. Buffalo could very well match that, but it’s equally likely that another team has a transitional bad year the way the Sabres did in 2013-14.

Let’s face it: no one likes tanking. Last season was miserable and while it was nice to see the Sabres land a top forward in the draft, this really isn’t a year anyone wants to do more than once again. The rule is a fair one meant to divert managerial practices that undermine the most innate spirit of sports in general: Play to win.

The Sabres likely won’t be winning much next year and they’ll still land another promising young player or three in the first round of the 2015 draft. If they don’t land in the top two, they’ll just be like 28 other teams that still have plenty of other players who can chip in for a playoff effort. That’s really the way these teams should be built in the first place.

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