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The anti-tank: a way to fix the NHL Draft Lottery

How do you prevent teams from tanking?

Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

The Buffalo Sabres are historically bad.

They went 0-14-0 in January. They have only 16 wins on the season, and 35 points overall. They traded away Drew Stafford and Tyler Myers, two of their best players, to Winnipeg for a stay-at-home defenseman and a player out for the rest of the season. They flipped Jhonas Enroth, a goaltender with a .903 save percentage, for Anders Lindback, a goaltender with an .875 save percentage. They are quite possibly the worst team in the analytics era.

Yet everyone seems okay with this. There is virtually no discussion about why Ted Nolan has not been fired as head coach. Nobody is haranguing General Manager Tim Murray for his team's dreadful on-ice performance, and Terry Pegula is not being begged to make changes. Buffalo's historically bad season is being met with collective indifference by the entire hockey world, for one reason: The Buffalo Sabres are tanking, and everybody knows it.

The merits of deliberately losing for a high draft pick are certainly controversial. To some, it's a fast and effective way to hit the "reset" button on a franchise. For others, it's an insult to the integrity of the game and the fans who pay exorbitant prices to watch a terrible team. Yet nobody seems to be able to figure out a way to prevent teams from being deliberately constructed poorly.

But there may be a solution. It is not particularly elegant, and it is not perfect. Ultimately though, it would be considerably more effective than the NHL's current strategy of tweaking draft odds so that the worst team only has a 20% chance of selecting 1st overall instead of 25%.

Establish a Draft Floor

A team like Buffalo can tank its season with relatively no consequence, because even if it loses the Draft Lottery, it still gets to choose 2nd overall. In a draft year featuring two great prospects (Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel), Buffalo is all but certain to land a franchise player this year. So the incentive to tank is strong.

An easy way to prevent this from happening would be to establish a minimum points threshold for a team to be eligible for the Draft Lottery. Any team that ends up with fewer points is ineligible, and must draft after wherever the lottery picks stop (more on this momentarily).

There are a variety of ways the league could accomplish this; they could set a static point total that doesn't change every year, or they could make the floor a percentage of last year's President's Trophy winner. If the league were to take the latter approach, than something like 60% of the 117 points Boston obtained by winning the President's Trophy would end up being 70.2 points, making 71 the minimum point total required to be in the Draft Lottery.

A system like this would all but eliminate the concept of tanking for a high draft pick, because GMs would not be able to anticipate how good (or bad) their team would need to be in order to reach that points threshold. They would have to construct the best roster possible to have a shot at the Draft Lottery. And the NHL could set the threshold low enough that teams with otherwise decent rosters blindsided by injury (like Columbus) would not be horribly affected (though, having a team like that draft higher in the order might end up being more representative of the team's true talent level). So setting a draft floor, much like the salary floor, could end up increasing competitive parity in the NHL.

Increase the Number of Lottery Picks

The NHL is planning on adopting this system in 2016, when picks 1-3 will be lottery picks. This is a good start, but could be expanded. Increasing the number of lottery selections would further discourage tanking by making the consequences of losing more severe; if a team missed the Draft Floor and the NHL chose the top five picks in the draft by lottery, then the tanking team would be guaranteed no better than the 6th overall selection. While that player is likely to be a talented prospect, it is nowhere near franchise defining like a #1 or #2 could be.

Final Thoughts

There are consequences to more aggressive measures to avoid tanking though. Any system like this would inevitably cool trade deadline activity, as more teams would be incentivized to try and win down the stretch, especially if their point totals were too low to reach the Draft Lottery. It would also likely slow the rebuild time of teams that truly were poorly constructed or managed, which could end up being more alienating to fans than tanking for a season or two to restock the team would be.

Ultimately, how serious you believe anti-tank measures need to be depends on how serious of a problem you think tanking is. If you think that the advantages of tanking outweigh the disadvantages, then there is little need to make seismic changes to how the Draft Lottery system works (especially since this season is relatively rare in the sheer amount of talent at the top of the draft pool). But if you think the league needs to take tanking more seriously, than these measures would probably be more effective at stopping the practice for good.