Monday, March 03, 2008

How the lottery draft works

Andy Grabia from The Battle of Alberta dropped me a note last night wondering if I knew exactly how the NHL's ping-pong ball lottery system works, and after digging around a little bit, I came up with some information on the subject.

In short, it can get a little complicated:
The first 14 picks of the 2008 Entry Draft are determined by the NHL’s annual Draft Drawing, a weighted lottery system that is used to determine the order of selection. The 14 teams that do not qualify for the 2008 Stanley Cup Playoffs, or clubs that acquired those clubs’ 2008 first-round draft picks, participate in the drawing. The Club selected in the drawing may not move up more than four positions in the draft order, thus only the five Clubs with the fewest regular-season points have the opportunity to select first overall. No Club can move down more than one position as a result of the Draft Drawing.
Okay, that's easy enough. And, for reference sake, here's a look at the 14 teams, sorted by the point pace they're on after Sunday's games, that are on their way to missing the postseason this year:
  1. Los Angeles 70 points
  2. Tampa Bay 74
  3. Florida 80**
  4. Atlanta 80
  5. St. Louis 83
  6. Toronto 83
  7. Edmonton 83**
  8. N.Y. Islanders 84
  9. Washington 84
  10. Columbus 86
  11. Chicago 86
  12. Buffalo 88
  13. Phoenix 88
  14. Nashville 92
Carolina, on pace for 88 points, would make the postseason, as would Philadelphia and Colorado, both on pace for 92.

** Of those 14 teams above, two have punted away their first-round picks in 2008: Edmonton's pick is Anaheim's because of the Dustin Penner offer sheet signing, and Florida's No. 1 pick is Nashville's because of the deal for Tomas Vokoun.

(The Predators don't look so dumb for dealing their starting goaltender now, do they?)

Other teams that have dealt their first rounders for the 2008 draft include San Jose (to Buffalo for Brian Campbell), Pittsburgh (to Atlanta for Hossa), Anaheim (to Edmonton for Pronger) and Dallas (to Los Angeles for Mattias Norstrom).

As of today, the five teams with a shot at the No. 1 overall pick are Los Angeles, Tampa Bay, Nashville via Florida, Atlanta and St. Louis — although it's very, very close on the bottom end of that group there.

But what exactly are the chances teams can win the lottery? And how does the thing work?

Let's use the 2006 draft as an example, where the Blues finished dead last and won the lottery, earning the right to pick Erik Johnson first overall.

To the NHL draft documents from that season:
Fourteen balls, numbered 1 to 14, were placed in a lottery machine. The machine expelled four balls, forming a series of numbers. The four-digit series resulting from the expulsion of the balls was matched against a probability chart that divided the possible combinations among the 14 participating clubs. The chart showed that the Blues had been assigned the numbers (11-14-13-1) that were expelled.
By finishing dead last, St. Louis received 25 per cent of the 1,001 combinations possible in this system, while the second-last team, Pittsburgh, received 18.8 per cent of them.

The third-last team (Chicago) had a 14.2% chance and fourth-worst Washington had a 10.7% chance to "win" the lottery.
The remaining teams had the following chances: 8.1%, 6.2%, 4.7%, 3.6%, 2.7%, 2.1%, 1.5%, 1.1%, 0.8% and 0.5%.
So, for instance, Nashville in our projected 14th spot has just a 0.5-per-cent chance to win the silly thing, and even if they do, they can only move up a max of four spots, to 10th.

The draft lottery's been going since 1995, and it's only happened twice that teams outside of the top five have "won" the right to jump up: The Kings went from seventh to third in that first year (Aki Berg), and Chicago jumped from eighth to fourth in 1999 (Pavel Brendl).

The Kings, in top spot, can only be dropped at most one position, so would be guaranteed the first- or second-overall pick.

It still pays to tank, however. As The Hockey News' Brian Costello points out, the last-place team has a 48.2-per-cent shot of getting No. 1 instead of No. 2. has a terrific chart that details the various percentages for every single team and where they can end up. Other than the first team (Los Angeles in our example) and the 14th (Nashville), every team has three positions it can claim: move up four, stay the same, or move back one.

The 14th team is almost guaranteed to stay in 14th, while teams from ninth to 14th have a better than 90-per-cent chance of staying put.

UPDATE A quick hello to the many, many folks coming to this post from



At 5:38 a.m., March 03, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you can only move down one spot, then the optimal strategy - once you're eliminated from the playoffs - would be to tank every single game and try to finish with the fewest possible points.
Didn't the Leafs get the memo?

At 6:05 a.m., March 03, 2008, Blogger Joe Sander said...

Tanking is harder than you'd think. Teams with nothing to play for will often audition young players for jobs next season. The combination of hungry prospects giving their all and the increased probability of facing backup goaltenders as the season draws to a close can often lead to a late point surge when tanking would be preferable.

Then again maybe the Leafs and Kings could be auditioning Cloutier and Raycroft for jobs next year ...

At 11:08 a.m., March 03, 2008, Blogger Marie said...

It still pays to tank, however

Well no wonder the Kings are using Dallman, Willsie, and Klemm, when we have young stars like Purcell, Boyle, and Moulson in the AHL.

At 12:46 p.m., March 03, 2008, Blogger Adam C said...

Looked at this way, the draw is surprisingly ineffective at it's central purpose, which is to discourage the tanking that has happened several times in NHL history? The idea is that I shouldn't be able to lose on purpose to guarantee myself an Ovechkin, but if I still get a 48% chance, with a guaranteed Malkin if I miss, I don't see the disincentive.

It's a whole complicated fuss about very little.

At 1:35 p.m., March 03, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I see someone voted for the Oilers

Did you know Brian Burke reads your site?

At 7:12 p.m., March 03, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Who was the drunk mathmatician who came up with this crazy scheme?

At 4:08 p.m., April 03, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How does expansion factor into this. For example in 2000 when Minnesota and Columbus joined the league?

At 1:33 p.m., April 06, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

LOL at Mr DeBakey

"I see someone voted for the Oilers

Did you know Brian Burke reads your site?"

Thanks for the info on how the lottery actually works. Besides LetsGoKings, I've also posted a link to this info on my site's draft lottery thread.


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