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Would an NHL team really tank the Play-In round?

Measuring the Pros and Cons

Colorado Avalacnhe of the NHL welcome number one overall draft pick Nathan MacKinnon at Pepsi Center
DENVER, CO - JULY 1: Colorado Avalanche rookie Nathan MacKinnon poses for a portrait following a press conference to welcome the number one overall pick in the 2013 NHL draft. MacKinnon, a native of Nova Scotia, addressed the media at the Pepsi Center.
Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post via Getty Images

On Friday, the NHL had it’s annual Draft Lottery to determine which team will get to draft the first overall pick in 2020. The consensus first overall pick, Alexis Lafreniere, was on the broadcast (via video call) and sat there for 30 minutes only to still not know which team is going to pick him!

The Ottawa Senators won the third overall pick (though it felt like a loss since they are picking third and fifth even though their pick odds were second- and third-best in the lottery).

The Los Angeles Kings moved up to take the second spot and the chance to draft sure-fire a franchise center in Quinton Byfield.

And then the first overall pick went to...

2020 NHL Draft Lottery
SECAUCUS, NEW JERSEY - JUNE 26: National Hockey League Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly announces draft positions during Phase 1 of the 2020 NHL Draft Lottery on June 26, 2020 at the NHL Network’s studio in Secaucus, New Jersey.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/NHLI via Getty Images

THE NHL?!?! No, almost, kinda. It went to one of the Return to Play teams that has yet to be determined. Once the Play-In round happens, the eight losers will be thrown into a second lottery where they’ll all have equal chances at landing the first overall pick.

The Colorado Avalanche are not among these teams eligible as they finished high enough in the Conference to earn a bye through the Play-In, one of eight teams in the league to do so.

So when the NHL starts playing games and the middle 16 teams in the league are fighting for their playoff lives and a chance to play the top eight teams in the league, they’ll have in their head, “if we lose, we get a pretty good shot at a top-tier left winger.”

That seems like quite a conundrum for teams and is a pretty bad look for the NHL. You don’t want incentive for teams to lose.

And yet here it is. So what should teams do?

The Odds

Dom L. of The Athletic has a statistical model of the NHL and has created odds for each Play-In team to win the first overall pick. It’s their odds of losing to their Play-In opponent multiplied by their odds for the lottery, 12.5%. As you can see, the Blue Jackets and Leafs are on opposite ends of the chart because Dom has the Leafs as major favorites in their series.

Dom also has odds for who’s most likely to win the Stanley Cup. In this one, Tampa Bay is the heavy favorite and Colorado is down in ninth. Roughly speaking, the Avalanche have poor odds against who they’re most likely to play in the second and fourth rounds. He doesn’t think they match up well against the East. Again, you can see who the Avalanche are likely to play against in this article here.

Pros to Tanking

So for a team like the Leafs, the odds of winning the Cup or getting Lafreniere is about equal. 5% vs. 4.5%. For the Columbus Blue Jackets, it’s almost 0% to 8%. And during a pandemic, does a team even want to go through a long, unlikely, and potentially harmful slog through the playoffs if they can sit at home and improve their team massively with a few lottery balls? Every single team on that first list could use a star left winger (or Quinton Byfield if they’re getting wild).

  • Better odds of the first overall pick then of the Cup
  • Reduces COVID-19 health risks
  • Just need to win one lottery vs. four rounds of playoffs

Cons to Tanking

I don’t know the specific rules behind how the Host City system is going to work, and I don’t think the NHL knows either. I’ve tried to find out if eliminated teams will be allowed to go home or if they’ll be stuck in the bubble until the Stanley Cup is awarded. There are some pros to this, for example at least they’ll have someone in attendance. The Eastern Conference eliminated teams cheering on the Western Conference champion (the Avalanche). For that, I don’t completely know if teams would be allowed to go home and would therefore be safer than in a hockey bubble where hundreds, or maybe over a thousand people are interacting with each other.

As for the “integrity of the game,” every single hockey player has been hardwired to win, to not tank or intentionally lose. In the rare cases this has been done, it’s been a major scandal. I doubt any coach or player would be on board, even if the GM is salivating at the first overall pick. It would be hard to coerce players into losing on purpose.

  • No player would ever do it
  • GM would get flamed for proposing it
  • It’s possible teams would have to remain in the bubble even after eliminated

I think we’re going to get a lot of finger-pointing and chaos after the Play-In round when we find out the winners and losers. The lack of talent discrepancy among most of the teams in the Play-In plus the classic hockey randomness factor, there’s going to be a lot of interesting teams in the mix for the first overall pick. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), none of them will be the Avalanche.


Which would you rather win this year if you were a Play-In team?

This poll is closed

  • 76%
    Stanley Cup
    (393 votes)
  • 23%
    First Overall Pick
    (121 votes)
514 votes total Vote Now


Would you try to tank if you were a GM/Coach/Player?

This poll is closed

  • 15%
    (66 votes)
  • 84%
    (360 votes)
426 votes total Vote Now


Which team do you think will pick first this year?

This poll is closed

  • 5%
    Columbus (aka Flavortown)
    (25 votes)
  • 24%
    (112 votes)
  • 14%
    (65 votes)
  • 4%
    (23 votes)
  • 7%
    NY Rangers
    (35 votes)
  • 2%
    (12 votes)
  • 11%
    (55 votes)
  • 2%
    (12 votes)
  • 1%
    (7 votes)
  • 8%
    (41 votes)
  • 1%
    NY Islanders
    (5 votes)
  • 1%
    (8 votes)
  • 1%
    (6 votes)
  • 1%
    (7 votes)
  • 6%
    (32 votes)
  • 4%
    (19 votes)
464 votes total Vote Now