Thanks, but no tanks: a look at the draft lottery odds

Around this time of year, it’s time to talk about harsh truths.

The 2015-16 Calgary Flames are not going to make the playoffs. In 8.5 losses (and/or Colorado Avalanche wins), the Flames will be mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. Around here, we’ve been shining a bright light on the end-of-season race to the bottom of the standings because it’s cheeky fun and it gives us all something to pay attention to.

Gang, we’ve looked into the draft lottery odds this season and have something to share: the Flames may have picked a really bad season to be this bad.

To illustrate how wonky this year’s draft lottery odds are, depending on where a team finishes, I built a handy table. Where a team finishes overall is on the left axis, while their odds of drafting at a particular position is across the top.

(Full credit to Enoch Root at the CalgaryPuck forums for doing all of the math!)

1st
2nd
3rd
4th
5th
6th
7th
8th
9th
10th
11th
12th
13th
14th
30th 20.0% 17.5% 15.0% 47.5%
29th 13.5% 13.1% 12.5% 35.2% 25.8%
28th 11.5% 11.4% 11.3% 14.2% 37.8% 13.8%
27th 9.5% 9.7% 9.8% 3.2% 27.3% 33.2% 7.4%
26th 8.5% 8.8% 9.0% 9.1% 35.5% 25.5% 3.7%
25th 7.5% 7.8% 8.2% 17.6% 39.3% 17.9% 1.7%
24th 6.5% 6.9% 7.2% 27.9% 39.1% 11.7% 0.7%
23rd 6.0% 6.4% 6.8% 39.2% 34.8% 6.6% 0.3%
22nd 5.0% 5.4% 5.8% 51.8% 28.6% 3.4% 0.1%
21st 3.5% 3.8% 4.2% 64.1% 22.8% 1.7% 0.0%
20th 3.0% 3.3% 3.6% 73.6% 15.9% 0.6% 0.0%
19th 2.5% 2.8% 3.0% 82.3% 9.3% 0.1%
18th 2.0% 2.2% 2.5% 90.1% 3.2%
17th 1.0% 1.1% 1.3% 96.6%

As you can see, there are diminishing returns to finishing lower in the standings after a certain point, and the bottom three teams really see their odds suffer in the re-draws.

Here’s the weighed likely pick for each finishing position:

  • 30th: 2.90 (1st in inverse standings), most likely to draft 4th
  • 29th: 3.46 (2nd in inverse standings), most likely to draft 4th
  • 28th: 3.97 (3rd in inverse standings), most likely to draft 5th
  • 27th: 4.58 (4th in inverse standings), most likely to draft 6th
  • 26th: 5.19 (5th in inverse standings), most likely to draft 6th
  • 25th: 5.87 (6th in inverse standings), most likely to draft 7th
  • 24th: 6.62 (7th in inverse standings), most likely to draft 8th
  • 23rd: 7.35 (8th in inverse standings), most likely to draft 8th
  • 22nd: 8.23 (9th in inverse standings), most likely to draft 9th
  • 21st: 9.35 (10th in inverse standings), most likely to draft 10th
  • 20th: 10.29 (11th in inverse standings), most likely to draft 11th
  • 19th: 11.27 (12th in inverse standings), most likely to draft 12th
  • 18th: 12.30 (13th in inverse standings),
    most likely to draft 13th
  • 17th: 13.60 (14th in inverse standings), most likely to draft 14th

As you can see, the difference between a team’s placement in the inverse standings and their weighed likely pick gets pretty nuts near the end. If you finish in the bottom five of the standings, you will be punished by between 1.9 spots (at 30th overall) to about a fifth of a spot (at 26th overall). From then on? You’re more likely to improve your draft position than anything else.

Looking at the spot-by-spot percentages, here’s how things break down:

  • Finish 17th to 23rd overall, most likely scenario is keeping “original” pick.
  • Finish 24th to 30th overall, most likely scenario is getting a lesser pick than the “original” pick.

The general idea of changing the draft lottery rules and odds was to take away the incentives for teams to tank. (Thanks, Edmonton!) And to be honest, the changing odds definitely have changed things in that respect. 

But for a hockey club in the last 15-or-so games of their season, toiling down in the bottom chunk of the overall standings, rather than throw youngsters and also-rans onto the ice more often, the awful draft odds push coaches to play their big guns more often to avoid falling into the abyss.

I mean, if finishing dead-last has the most likely outcome of having a team draft 4th overall, why shouldn’t they just play well for the last month rather than phoning it in?

      • CofRed4Life

        As long as the Flames show up to play every night, I couldn’t care less about the outcome. They need to give consistent efforts to build a good work ethic for the future.

        If they win, it instills confidence in the team, especially the youngsters, which is great moving forward.

        If they lose, better odds at a lottery spot/better draft pick.

        And even though 30th overall is “most likely” to draft 4th overall based on percentages, they’re more likely to be in one of the lottery positions (1, 2, or 3) than 4th overall. So, there’s still merit to “tanking,” the lottery just makes it less appealing/rewarding/whatever you want to call it.

      • cunning_linguist

        It’s not just about the odds of winning the lottery, it’s about how far you can slide if teams above you in the standings end up winning. While the incentive to tank is reduced by the lower odds of winning, it still exists in large part due to the floor that exists for how far back you can drop in th draft. The ultimate solution was that one proposed by that grad student (it was mentioned on the fan 960 last year) where teams would enter a “mini-tournament” once they were eliminated from playoff contention, accumulating points from the day they were eliminated, with draft order being determined by number of points accumulated. Poorer teams are still helped as they can start to accumulate points sooner. A beautiful solution to be sure, where every game matters until game 82….just imagine a world where Edmonton would have had to earn Connor mcdavid last year, rather than just suck and luck…

        • Greg

          I’m intrigued by that idea, but I also think it would make trade deadline even more boring than it was this year. Teams won’t be quick to trade their expiring UFAs if they need the help to accumulate points for the draft, so the league would have to weigh it against the entertainment value that trades create. I’ll bet they already did, and decided this format was the most optimal.

        • SmellOfVictory

          Like many things suggested by grad students, it’s full of pitfalls. 1) strength of schedule: it punishes teams that happen to have a tougher end-of-season schedule; 2) injuries: it punishes teams with late season injuries (and you could argue it rewards poor teams with early season injuries); 3) even with teams that are eliminated earlier having a head start, if a team is truly awful, it’s going to lose a lot of games regardless, and the head start may not be enough for it to maintain its place in the “mini-tournament”.

          Tanking is extremely rare as it is (there are less than half a dozen egregious examples of it in the past two decades), and the players are never involved; it’s strictly management (and maaybe sometimes coaching).

        • MillHoodsHockey4Life

          This idea had been proposed years and years ago by Bill Simmons (formerly of ESPN/Grantland) in a basketball context the identical application for hockey. It would certainly a new wrinkle into the trade deadline as teams would still need to field a good team and not the Marlies like TO is currently doing. Trades would be made much earlier in the year for teams knowing they would struggle to make playoffs.

      • Greg

        Last year might have been “better to be bad”, but you’re still better off being as low in the standings as possible. 30th’s most likely scenario isn’t drafting 4th, it’s still drafting somewhere in the top 3 (52.5% odds). And worst case scenario is 4th, whereas 29th can drop to 5th, and so on down the line.

        I like the new format, and think it does discourage tanking for the most part, but I still have little reason to cheer for the flames to catch the ‘nucks, and a non-trivial percentage reason to cheer for them to fall below the oil. (The team, not the commodity… no one wants anything to fall that low!).

      • Greg

        1 other thought… Better to be bad this year than next. You might have an expansion team coming in and bumping everyone down a draft spot by then.

        I’m really hoping the flames come away with a top 3 pick, fix their goaltending, add a winger, and are back in the playoff hunt next year. Tank hard now, but let’s make it a 1 year thingy only.

        • piscera.infada

          I don’t disagree with you in principle, but:

          Tank hard now, but let’s make it a 1 year thingy only.

          How do you ensure that? Like, I mean, how do you guarantee this team tanks as hard as they possibly can? How do you make sure Gaudreau doesn’t just go full-on Gaudreau and carry the team to wins? How do you ensure that teams coming into the ‘Dome don’t have crap effort (like both San Jose and Nashville)?

          • Greg

            I wouldn’t ensure it. Last thing you’d want is for anyone in the org to give any indication that losing is what we want – keep that culture up north thanks.

            But for me as a fan who has zero influence in the actual outcomes or consequences of them, I’m gonna cheer like heck for another 7 game losing streak 🙂

      • ChinookArchYYC

        This is an inherently broken solution, that does not address the issue the lottery creates. Perpetual Tankers will not go away, until they are not included in the lottery in back to back years.

        When there is no point to tanking because the best you can do is 4th overall, that’s when TankNation ends.

        Lottery winners:

        1st overall – ineligible for next 3 lotteries

        2nd Overall – ineligible for next 2 lotteries

        3rd Overall – ineligible for the next lottery

        The current lottery system still provides a very big incentive to tank and not improve.

        “Why get a job, when welfare pays for a guy to stay home”

          • beloch

            Honestly, I’m amazed rules like this aren’t already in place. Look at it this way: The Oilers have picked 1st overall in 4 of the last 6 drafts, and are currently 29th overall. Under the new rules they’re less likely to pick 1st for a fifth time this summer, but they still very well could. I think it’s safe to say the majority of NHL fans will be a little upset if that actually happens.

            Edit: I just wanted to add, if 1st overall picks were distributed entirely equally, each NHL team should expect to pick 1st once every 30 years. The Oilers have just racked up 120 years of 1st overall picks in 6 years. That’s messed up.

            • Captain Ron

              Exactly. It is completely ridiculous that this can happen in a pro sports league like the NHL.

              If it actually happens that the Oilers get first pick again there could be an epic amount of backlash over it. It is almost incomprehensible but it could very well take place because the possibility certainly exists.

              Out of their 12 remaining games I can see maybe 5 or 6 where they have a realistic chance of winning and out of those 5 or 6 games 3 are against the Canucks and one is against the Flames. So they probably don’t win all 3 of those Vancouver games either. In other words another bloody bottom 3 disgrace for them.

              If by the same stroke of luck they had in last years lottery they win again, I hope the hockey gods punish them by continuing to have the Oil make up their defence from the AHL junk drawer for years to come.

              I can’t imagine how frustrating it is for GM’s and owners of the other teams and their respective fan bases who desperately want an opportunity to draft a bonafide star player with first pick.

      • OKG

        Before the trade deadline I was thinking tank.

        Then we starting playing more of a possession game, along with Ortio providing timely saves without standing on his head. Add that Hathaway, Nakladal, and Jokipakka have fit right in, and Sam Bennett is quickly becoming our Bergeron, now I’m starting to think that we have the horses to compete. They’ve really played well against Pittsburgh, Boston, San Jose, Nashville, and the first two periods against Ottawa – and if those games are indicative of what we should expect the rest of the year then I am happy with a less-bad finish, and the changed lottery odds make it easier to swallow. We could even offer Radim Vrbata a PTO, would solve the right-handed shot issue a smidge.

        However if those handful of games are just a fluke sample and they revert back to the team that we’ve seen most of the year, can’t get a save, never holds on to the puck, turnovers galore, then naturally they’ll lose and get a higher chance at a better pick. And the top end of this draft, not just 1st overall but probably 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th are all looking like impact players. And that’s all you can ask for from the draft as a respectable team; since not everyone gets Connor McDavid handed to them on a Silver ****ing Platter for being horrible in every imaginable way.

      • Parallex

        I’ve thought long and hard about this and I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no good answer.

        The purpose of the draft is to allow the bad teams to get better via preferential access to top amateur talent and there is no way to do that fairly outside of the current system. Unfortunately that means that there will always be a draft slot floor which means they’ll always be an incentive to tank.

        So, here is my non-perfect solution. Expand the lotto draws to the top five (5) picks, keep the odds the same, add a “competitive balance” draft round immediately after the 1st round consisting exclusively of the non-playoff teams with pick slotting in the actual order of standings (so the best team to not make the playoffs get’s pick #31 and so on).

      • Backburner

        There is a fairly big drop off after Auston Matthews.. If Calgary doesn’t win the draft lottery, I really don’t care who or where Calgary picks. I’m sure they’ll get a good player in the top 5.

        • BurningSensation

          I disagree, while there is separation between Mathews and everyone else, the 2nd tier (Laine, Puljujarvi), were close enough that acouts considered it at least a possibility (especially after the WJC) that one of them might catch Mathews.

          For me it looks like this;

          Tier 1
          Mathews

          Tier2
          Laine
          Puljujarvi
          Chychrun

          Tier3
          Tkachuk
          Nylander
          Juolevi

          Any of whom would like mighty fine in Flames silks

          • Backburner

            That does seem to be the consensus..

            But I don’t really have a preference of any of those Tier 2 or 3 players… not enough of a distinction there to get excited about.

            I haven’t really read any of the scouting reports, but a couple of players that I would throw in there are Jake Bean and PierreLuc Dubois.

      • KACaribou

        Oilers have had 4 #1 picks in the past 6 years. Odds are that shouldn’t happen in a century or picks. But it did.

        At last check, Oilers were last in the Western Conference this year and 2nd last in the entire NHL.

        Picking first is no guarantee of success.

        Didn’t we get Johnny Hockey in the fourth round? I think it is more about the quality of management than it is about tanking.

        Here’s hoping ours is better than most.

        • supra steve

          And it’s as much about luck as it is “quality of management” or probably more so, scouting.

          In 2011 FLA used a second round pick to take a small, skilled American forward–Rocco Grimaldi.

          71 picks later the Flames used a fourth round pick to grab another–Gaudreau. You can’t tell me that Florida or the Flames KNEW what they were getting. The Flames did value Johnny more highly than any other club, but he has paid out beyond their wildest dreams. That was a very good, and very lucky pick.

          And that “quality management”…that was Feaster, same guy they fired for incompetence.

          • KACaribou

            You’re implying that Feaster made no good decisions, and that you know that he was “fired for incompetence.”

            You have no real knowledge of either. In fact you made that up to attempt to validate your opinion. It’s okay to have an opinion though. I just don’t agree with it.

            • supra steve

              So he was fired despite being competent?

              Perhaps he was habitually late for meetings?

              Never bought donuts, but always ate the donuts other execs. brought in?

              • KACaribou

                Yes. There are many reasons people are let go.

                Often when new management comes in (like Burke), he wants his own people. People he enjoys, who think alike, etc.

                It doesn’t mean someone is incompetent.

                That was a wild and unfair assumption in my opinion.

                I never once heard Burke say Feaster was incompetent and in fact I have heard him speak highly of some of Feaster’s signings and draft picks.

                You can respect someone, but not necessarily work well with them.

              • Kevin R

                Feaster did some real good things in his tenure. He sorted out a completely neglected farm team, scouting system & brought structure to the drafting. Huge from a standpoint where the Flames were. But don’t kid yourself. If you know Murray Edwards, mistakes that were made with that Oreilly offer sheet (which not only could have lost the Flames valuable draft picks but also the $5Mill up front signing bonus), the Iggy trade & a few other trades, things like that tend to be career enders. It makes people overlook any good he did. I didn’t mind Feaster, I thought he was a very good hearted genuine man. He depended on the advise of others he trusted to do their jobs & they didn’t, but ultimately he paid the price. I think many of us have had to take the hit that wasn’t totally our doing. I think Burke knew Feaster, knew he depended on the likes of Weisbrod & he had no comment & nothing nice to say about Weisbrod, Feaster was tougher for Burke to let go.

      • FireScorpion

        Heeeeeeres Jooooooni!!

        Kids killing it! Been a very long time since a goalie had come thru the system and played this well! Amazing last 6 starts or so.

        Mc Backup stunk so did Irving. Go Joni Go!! Seize the day

      • Derzie

        Laffs & Coilers will be picks 1, 2 or 2, 1 so why worry about it. I want wins and ice time. Our scouts will take care of the rest. We get too caught up in the ‘Bob McKenzie sure things’. Our best players were not on Bob’s radar.

      • Robs

        I’ve always thought the teams that don’t make the playoffs should have a playoff of their own to determine draft order. It gives added revenue to teams that don’t make it, some fairness to the selection process, and anything can happen in a short tournament.

      • ssamze

        30 to 23 should have same percenrage winning the lottery. Stop giving preferential treatment for the worst team of the league.

        In European soccer leagues you get demoted if you are the worst team, which gives you plenty motivation to be competitive till the last game.