NHL’s draft lottery seems to help fight tanking

The season is approaching the three quarter mark, and two races are in full flight: the race to secure a playoff seed, and the race to secure a high draft pick. For fans of those teams clearly out of the former, losses are cheered perhaps more than wins as tanking is seen as the best route for the future.

Tanking, or intentionally trying to lose games, is something the league is naturally very concerned about. As such, the NHL followed the NBA’s lead and implemented a draft lottery starting in 1995. The idea behind a draft lottery is that teams will have less incentive to tank if they are not guaranteed the first overall pick by being the worst team in the league that year. The question is, has it worked?

Given that tanking entails trying to amass as few points as possible, there should be a relationship between the incentive to tank and how many points that last place team accumulates in a given season. Specifically, if the lottery has reduced the incentive to tank, last place teams should be accumulating more points, on average, since the introduction of the lottery.

Unfortunately, there are several other factors that also affect how many points the last team has. First, and perhaps most obvious, teams haven’t played the same number of games every season. This discrepancy is easily adjusted for by considering the number of points per game the last place team collects. So, for example, based on the current 82-game season, the Florida Panthers’ 36 points in 48 games during the 2012-13 season would be equivalent to 61.5 points.

Related, but not so easy to account for, is the fact that the average number of points handed out in a game is no longer constant thanks to the extra point handed out for overtime and shootout losses. In order to deal with this, we considered the last place team’s points per game divided by the average number of points awarded per game that season. Prior to the so-called “Bettman point”, this was one (2 points per game for 2 teams). Since the Bettman point was introduced in 1999-2000, this has bounced around a bit but after the introduction of the salary cap in 2005, it has generally been close to 1.1.

Finally, there are a couple of factors that can influence how good (or bad) the last place team is in a given season. As we discussed a couple of months ago, the salary cap (and accompanying salary floor) has promoted parity, which means that we should expect last place teams to be better (all else being equal) since the cap’s introduction. Moreover, during the league’s gradual expansion to 30 teams, franchises in the early years of their existence didn’t have much time to accumulate talent and so should naturally be expected to be worse.

The salary cap has existed only after the lottery was put in place, and most expansion took place before the lottery was implemented, so these are both factors that could make the lottery look like it’s having a bigger effect than it actually is.

So after taking all these factors into consideration, what effect has the lottery system had? What we found is that today’s teams are 5 to 6 points better over an 82 game season, on average, than they would have been without the lottery system in place. That is, if we were to consider a hypothetical world in which the NHL operated as it currently does with a salary cap, the Bettman point, no recent expansion teams, but without a lottery system for the draft, we would generally expect the team that came in last place to average 55 to 56 points instead of the 61 points that they currently get. Thus the lottery has increased the last place team’s points by about 10%.

As of writing, the Buffalo Sabres are on pace for just over 52 points. Whether the Sabres are intentionally tanking or just epically bad is anyone’s guess. But what can be said for sure is that even though much in the game of hockey is changing, tanking can still be done the old fashioned way.

Pre-Lottery Era
Year Last Place Team Games Played Points
1979/80 Winnipeg 80 51
1980/81 Winnipeg 80 32
1981/82 Colorado 80 49
1982/83 Pittsburgh 80 45
1983/84 Pittsburgh 80 38
1984/85 Toronto 80 48
1985/86 Detroit 80 40
1986/87 Buffalo 80 64
1987/88 Minnesota 80 51
1988/89 Quebec 80 61
1989/90 Quebec 80 31
1990/91 Quebec 80 46
1991/92 San Jose 80 39
1992/93 Ottawa 84 24
1993/94 Ottawa 84 37
Pre-Salary Cap Lottery Era
Year Last Place Team Games Played Points
1994/95 Ottawa 48 23
1995/96 Ottawa 82 41
1996/97 Boston 82 61
1997/98 Tampa Bay 82 44
1998/99 Tampa Bay 82 47
1999/00 Atlanta 82 39
2000/01 NY Islanders 82 52
2001/02 Atlanta 82 54
2002/03 Carolina 82 61
2003/04 Pittsburgh 82 58
Salary Cap and Lottery Era
Year Last Place Team Games Played Points
2005/06 St. Louis 82 57
2006/07 Philadelphia 82 56
2007/08 Tampa Bay 82 71
2008/09 NY Islanders 82 61
2009/10 Edmonton 82 62
2010/11 Edmonton 82 62
2011/12 Columbus 82 65
2012/13 Florida 48 36
2013/14 Buffalo 82 52


  1. February 19, 2015    

    get so disgusted with broadcasters labeling Sid as the best player on the planet (not content with saying "in the NHL") that I decided to come up with a new statistic called "Net Worth". This is the amount of Goals doubled (at least double the worth of an assist in my opinion), plus the number of Assists, plus a players Plus/Minus. Then I have a new ranking that I think is better than Points Leader. If I deducted Penalty Minutes, my LFP (Least Favorite Penguin) would be off the board since he pretty much doubles or triples every other good player. If you factored in turnovers, he would be in the AHL. Of course this is just for this season.

    Rich Nash - 113
    V Tarasenko - 110
    A Ovechkin - 107
    T Johnson - 106
    M Pacioretty - 105
    N Kucherov - 103
    P Kane - 100
    S Stamkos - 95
    J Pavelski - 93
    F Forsberg - 91 (rookie?)
    J Tavares - 89
    T Seguin - 88
    SIDNEY CROSBY - 84 perhaps the 13th best player in the NHL?
    10 more players
    E Malkin - 74
    *Phil Kessel, although 26th on the points leader chart has a Plus/Minus of -20, 17 points worse than any other top player, so Wayne you may be disillusioned with Toroto's star (and possibly why the Leafs struggle so much).

    Just sayin'

  2. tom's Gravatar tom
    March 8, 2015    


  3. IH's Gravatar IH
    March 15, 2015    

    You should add a column to the table showing who drafted first (and maybe second) each year and who they got.

    • Phil Curry's Gravatar Phil Curry
      March 18, 2015    

      That's a good idea. I'll see about adding it soon. Thanks!

  4. Neil's Gravatar Neil
    March 25, 2015    

    Thanks, really enjoyed the article!

    I would love to understand better how you accounted for the salary cap's effect on parity.

    I'd also be interested to hear your thoughts on next year's revised draft format (lottery for the first 3 spots). I applaud the NHL for continuing to find new ways of producing parity. However, I have a theory that the more randomized the draft order will have an inverse effect on parity.

    My theory is based on the notion that the salary cap (though creating a more equal playing field for small market teams) has also significantly reduced the effectiveness of free agency as a means for a bad team to get better. If we assume that free agency has little to offer bad teams, than the draft becomes the only means of improvement. If bad teams become less efficient at improving through the draft (because the most valuable picks are more difficult to intentionally acquire) than perhaps rebuilds take even longer?

    • Phil Curry's Gravatar Phil Curry
      March 25, 2015    

      Thanks, Neil for the kind words and your question.

      Did you see the previous article specifically examining parity? I had a separate piece here on the blog that discussed the measure of parity that I used. There, I simply looked at a measure for parity for each season, and then divided the years into eras - pre-expansion, expansion, salary cap, etc. There was some arbitrariness, but the difference in the measures of parity was quite striking, I thought. At one point I did actually run a regression where the measure of parity was the dependent variable and I included dummies for the presence of the salary cap, expansion, etc. I didn't end up writing up those results (which had the salary cap having a statistically significant effect, although I forget the magnitude) because I didn't think it offered much that couldn't be seen looking at the numbers themselves.

      As for your theory, I think you exactly right. The reason (or at least one of the reasons) we have a reverse order draft is to help bad teams get better. This is a different notion of parity. I previously looked at within-season parity, but the idea of bad teams improving from one year to the next is across-season parity. So while the new lottery will undoubtedly have some effect on tanking (and therefore within-season parity), it will also surely have some impact on across-season parity. It's hard to say exactly what that trade-off is, but it's certainly not negligible.

      So, while I think that using the lottery for the first 3 spots might help (but maybe not - I guess we'll see), I would think that a lottery for all the spots would be a bad idea - for exactly the reasons you state.


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